Magic in Apuleius


Apuleius is the author of three works that have come down to us: Apologia, Florida and The Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass . We do not know much about this author, but biographical data can be obtained from two works, Apologia and Florida . In them we are told that he is African. He is born in Madaura (a city in Numidia) and his father was from Italy. The father had arrived in Africa with an expedition of veterans who would repopulate the colony and obtained the highest magistracy that could be granted to someone, the duumvirate. Apuleius' date of birth is uncertain, but is believed to be between 114 and 125.

We also know that he received a careful education, which corresponded to the children of distinguished families and of a prominent position. We know the fact that he studied in Cartago with great affection and gratitude for this city. After the death of his father and with a comfortable economic position after receiving the inheritance, he decides to travel to the East, Greece and Italy.

As for his talent as a writer, we know that he wrote works in Greek and Latin, in verse and in prose, he is a philosopher, rhetorician and novelist, with great fertility in all genres. In The Golden Ass or The Metamorphoses we find building, satirical work, erotic novel and religious symbol. Talking about this work implies talking about magic.

The plot of the play is well known, where its protagonist Lucius turns into a donkey due to a magical error and recovers his form thanks to the goddess Isis. The Golden Ass' author collects in this work several magical practices, including one of submission (similar to the ones seen in these articles). The story takes place in Thessaly, a region of the Greek Balkans in which many previous authors, presenting it as a gloomy area, spoke of the presence of witches. Perhaps the most remembered is Ericto, the Lucan Pharsalia's witch.

We are going to review some characters and narratives that take place to identify what practices are shown to us.

The first magician that we find in the Apuleius' work is called Meroe. He describes her as a sorceress, a fortune teller who is capable of lowering the vault of heaven, of suspending the earth in the air, of petrifying the waters, of dissolving the mountains. He also tellsthat one of his lovers had had the audacity to leave with another and with a single word she turned him into a beaver. (The Golden Ass, Book I)

Another sorceress is Panphila, the wife of the protagonist's host.

«Birrena orders everyone to leave and tells me: «I want to warn you, oh dear Lucius, be alert, but very alert, so as not to be a victim of the dangerous tricks and attractive criminals of Panphila, Milon's wife, of whom, according to what you say , you are a guest. She is regarded as a sorceress of the first order and a master of all manner of sepulchral enchantments." 

(The Golden Ass, Book II, V)

Panphila's slave talks with Lucius about the practices carried out by the sorceress and through her, we learn about some practices such as: She picks up the hair of the boy on whom she wants to cast the spell, but is prevented from doing so, and she describes how she haS on a platform some utensils to perform the enchantments:

«There are aromas of all kinds around the place, sheets covered with indecipherable writing, remains of ships lost at sea, innumerable fragments of recently mourned and buried corpses; to give a better description we find remains of noses and fingers, nails with pieces of meat hanging, she keeps in jars the blood of people with their throats cut and skulls mutilated by the jaws of beasts». 

(The Golden Ass, Book III, XVII)

All this is followed by the magic words about the still throbbing entrails and the preparation of the sacrifice by pouring out various liquids:

"First water from the spring, then cow's milk, then wild honey, and finally mead." (The Golden Ass, Book III, XVIII)

Another task that defines magical practice is the following:

«He braids the pretended hair, knots them together and, with abundant essences, throws them on embers to burn. At that precise moment, by an irresistible virtue of magical science and by the blind submission of the divine wills placed at their service, the skins, whose hair crackles in clouds of smoke, recover a human soul, have sensitivity, hear and begin to walk". 

(Book III, XVII, page 99.)

We also find a practice of licnomancy (divination by means of lamps) of this sorceress:

«She looking at the lamp, she says: What a rainy day we will have tomorrow! And when her husband asked her how she knew, she replied that the lamp was telling her. It is not strange that this flame, although insignificant and ignited by human hands, keeps the memory of another fire of greater magnitude, the celestial fire that in a certain way has engendered it. 
(The Golden Ass, Book II, XI-XII)

Milo, the husband, also speaks of certain oracles:

«In my homeland, in Corinth, there is an individual, of Chaldean nationality, who has the whole city in an uproar with his amazing oracles and earns his living divulging the secrets of destiny: he points out the date that guarantees an indissoluble marriage. To myself, when I asked him what would happen to me on this trip, he announced a series of highly marvelous and very diverse things."

(The Golden Ass, Book II, XII)

Here we see announced a type of astrologers, who were recognized in antiquity.

After having documented ourselves with some examples of the magical practices that we find in the work of Apuleius, we are going to focus on the speech that he recited after being accused of performing black or goetic magic practices. This is used to conjure the spirits of magic, elementals and demons; The purpose of this type of magic depends on the spirit that has been summoned, since these can vary from the cure of diseases, to the destruction of a person. All this is possible since the entities have a range of temperament, which can go from obedience to defiance. It was a practice persecuted and punished at an official level, which appears in the different works of Apuleius in a determined and different way, in an open way. In the text of the "Apology", its author, when referring explicitly to black or goetic magic, publicly attacks it, when accused by Emilianus.

This type of goetic magic is related to what is expressed in the first three books of "The Metamorphoses" through apologists and fables, where the results of the application of this art are observed. These descriptions earned him the accusation of "knowing too much." Later we find the conception that Apuleius has of the magicians, who are those who have a deep knowledge of science, practice the rules and provisions of religious law and the rites of worship.

Mystery religions are known to perform theurgy, which is the vehicle of knowledge and participation of the Isiac cult. Another aspect that is denoted in the works of Apuleius, the night is the one that presides over the actions of goetic magic carried out by the witches in the first three books.

But we also find that lights, represented by lanterns or torches, are an essential element in goetic magic practices. Thus, for example, the witch Meroe, among the objects she used for her enchantments, had a lamp. Apuleius was accused of making magical nocturnal sacrifices in the light of torches. It is known that the author was accused of magical practices for possessing a Lucerne, an element moreover commonly used in most homes, especially during imperial times. However, this was one of the instruments most used by witchcraft, so despite its other more daily use, it could be taken as suspicious.

But probably the accusation of witchcraft was actually in the background, in relation to a more private and economic accusation. We know that when he was studying in Athens, he was introduced to Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy, making the latter his profession. We know from his works that on a trip to Alexandria, he falls ill in Oea (Tripolitania). There he is visited by a friend named Poncianus who invites him to stay at his mother's house on the pretext that he would be well cared for there, and he would recover better. Apuleius accepts this, spends a long time with Pudentila, the mother.

Apuleius and Pudentila ends in a wedding, despite the notable difference in age: she was nearly twenty years older than him. Poncianus, who had had much part in the marriage arrangement, dies and his little brother, Pudnes, raises a lawsuit against Apuleius, whom he accuses of having tricked his mother by magic. Apuleius issues his own defense, "the Apology", pointing out that common objects and attitudes are often identified with a second use, including matters of science, also speaking of the use of magic "in self-defense", and succeeds entirely.

To end this article, we will present the conclusions we have reached. We know that the Roman religion is not only centered around the praise of the Roman pantheon, but that for many years, the religion is mixed with the ritual practices of so many mysteries that it is impossible to know the exact number. But what we do know is that, thanks to the works of authors that we preserve, such as Apuleius, or Lucanus, or Ovid, we can learn through the stories about the different practices that were carried out. Although we do not have details about all of them, we know the name of some mysteries such as those of Eleusis, or the magical city of antiquity, Thessaly. There were other cities that were considered magical and that we would like to discuss in another article.

Ignacio Povedano Selfa -

-Fernández, L. R., El Asno de Oro, Ed. Gredos, Madrid, 1978.
-Hidalgo, Mª. J., La magia y la religión en las obras de Apuleyo.
-Luck, G. Arcana mundi: magia y ciencias ocultas en la antigüedad. Gredos, 1995.

Related Posts:

> The punishment for magic in Ancient Rome 

> Greek magical Papyri (I)

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