Lucius Apuleius: The Golden Ass

Book VIII

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2013 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. 

Contents


Book VIII:1-3 The tale of Thrasyllus and Charite – mad desire

At cockcrow, a young man, apparently a servant of Lady Charite, she who had shared my suffering among the robbers, arrived from the nearby town. Sitting beside the fire amongst a crowd of his fellow-servants, he had a strange and terrible tale to tell, of her death and the ruin of her whole house:

‘Grooms, shepherds and herdsmen too, our Charite is no more: my poor mistress, and not alone, has joined the shades, in a dreadful disaster. I want you to know all, so I’ll relate what happened, in order: events that deserve to be recorded by some historian, more gifted than I, whom Fortune has blessed with a more stylish pen.

In the town nearby lived a young man of noble birth, whose wealth was equal to his status. But he was a devotee of the taverns, spending his time each day whoring and drinking, consorting with gangs of thieves and even staining his hands with human blood. Thrasyllus was his name. Such were the facts as Rumour relates.

When Charite first reached marrying age, he was among her principal suitors, and eager to win her. Though he was the most eligible of them all, and tried to win her parents’ favour with lavish gifts, yet because they disapproved of his character he nevertheless felt the pangs of rejection. Despite our young mistress’s union to the worthy Tlepolemus, Thrasyllus still nursed his thwarted desire, fuelled also by resentment at being denied the marriage bed. He sought the opportunity for an act of violence and, when such a chance presented itself, prepared to execute a plan he’d long meditated. On the very day the girl was freed from the robber’s threatening weapons, by Tlepolemus’ cleverness and courage, Thrasyllus, with overt expressions of joy, joined the host of well-wishers. He congratulated the newly weds on their fond re-union, and expressed the wish that their marriage might be blessed with children, and out of respect for his noble lineage, he was received in their home as a welcome guest. Hiding his guilty intentions, he passed as the truest of friends. Soon, by his frequent attendance, at dinner parties and in assiduous conversation, he became a closer and closer intimate, until gradually, unwittingly, he slipped deeper and deeper into the abyss of longing. Inevitably so, since while with its slight warmth the first flames of cruel love bring delight, with familiarity’s fuel they blaze higher and consumes us totally with their incandescent heat.

Thrasyllus meditated for a long time on how to proceed. He could find no opportune way of speaking to her in private. The path to adultery was barred by a host of watchers, and even if the strong ties of her new and growing affection for her husband could be dissolved and the girl were willing, which seemed inconceivable, her inexperience in the deceits of marriage would thwart him. Yet he was impelled, by his ruinous obsession, towards the impossible, as though it were a possibility still. When love gains intensity with the passage of time, what once seemed difficult seems easily won. Watch then, and pay close attention to my tale of the ruinous violence of mad desire.

Book VIII:4-6 The tale of Thrasyllus and Charite – the murder

One day Tlepolemus rode out to the chase with Thrasyllus, intending to hunt wild beasts, if hinds can be classed as such, Charite being unable to endure the thought of her husband seeking creatures armed with tusks or horns. They came to a slope with a dense covering of trees, where the foliage hid the hinds from the hunters’ view. Hounds bred for tracking and pursuit were ordered in to flush the deer from their haunts, and the well-trained pack split to surround all the approaches. At first they held their noise and worked silently then, at a signal, they created a fine uproar with their harsh and frenzied barking. But no gentle female deer, no roe, no hind, gentlest of all the creatures appeared, rather a huge wild boar, the largest ever seen, bulging with muscle under its coarse hide, coated with shaggy matted hair, with a ridge of bristles flaring along its spine, and eyes alight with a menacing glare. Out it shot like a lightning bolt, flailing its tusks, foaming at the mouth, and snorting savagely. At first it lunged, this way and that, at the boldest hounds which ran in close, slashing them to pieces with its tusks. Then it trampled the hunting net, that had halted its first charge, and broke right through. We servants, used to innocuous hunting parties, were seized with terror, lacking weapons too or means of defence, so we fled and hid behind tree-trunks and bushes. Thrasyllus however having hit on the perfect opportunity for his treacherous designs, cunningly tempted Tlepolemus: “Why are we standing here in dumb confusion, as stupidly afraid as those useless slaves of ours, trembling like frightened women? Why let so rich a prize slip from our grasp? Let’s mount and overtake him. You take your hunting-spear and I’ll fetch a lance.”

Without hesitation, in a trice, they leapt to their saddles and eagerly pursued the beast, which halted and wheeled about, confident of its natural defences. Burning with savage fire, it glared and whetted its tusks, hesitating whom to attack first. Tlepolemus began the action, hurling his spear from above into the creature’s back, but Thrasyllus ignored the prey and instead hamstrung the hind legs of Tlepolemus’ mount with his lance. Blood spurted and the horse sprawled sideways, hurling its master to the earth. In a moment the maddened boar attacked him where he lay, slashing his clothes as he tried to rise and then his flesh. Not only did his fine friend show no regret for his evil action but, as the stricken Tlepolemus tried to defend his lacerated legs and pitifully begged for help, Thrasyllus, not satisfied with merely waiting for the outcome of this cruel threat to his victim, drove his weapon through the right thigh, all the more resolutely, confident that the wound from his lance would be taken for a gash from the wild boar’s tusks. Only then did he run the creature through, with a simple blow.

When his young friend’s life had been ended in this way, Thrasyllus summoned us all from our several hiding places. Rushing to the spot, we grieved to find our master dead. Thrasyllus meanwhile, though overjoyed at his enemy’s demise, and the fulfilment of his plan, masked his delight, furrowing his brow, and pretending to mourn. Passionately embracing the dead man, that victim of his own devising, he cunningly imitated all the mannerisms of one bereaved, all except the tears which refused to flow. So by aping the emotions of we who were truly bereft, he laid the blame for his own actions on a wild beast.

The crime was scarcely committed before Rumour slipped away and in her winding course, reaching Tlepolemus’ home, first came to the ears of his unfortunate bride. When she heard the news, the worst imaginable, she lost her mind, and spurred on by madness, she ran delirious, raving, through the public streets then the open fields, wailing her husband’s fate in a crazed voice. Sorrowing citizens flocked to the scene: those she met followed her, sharing her grief; the whole city turned out at the spectacle. Behold, she sought her husband’s corpse, and with failing breath collapsed over the body, almost, at that moment, choosing to yield the life she had pledged to him. Yet, her relatives succeeded in dragging her away, and thus she remained, unwillingly, alive. Meanwhile the whole city followed after the funeral procession as his corpse was borne to the tomb.

Book VIII:7-10 The tale of Thrasyllus and Charite – the vision in sleep

Thrasyllus wailed louder and louder, beat his breast, and shed those tears absent from his former show of grief, no doubt through suppressed joy. He feigned Truth itself in his many terms of endearment, invoking the dead man as friend, old playmate, comrade and brother, and invoked his ill-starred name. Every now and then he caught Charite’s hands to stop her from beating her bruised breast, tried to restrain her mourning, quell her cries, and dull the sting of grief with sympathetic words, spinning tales of solace from past examples of the vagaries of fate. But all these false acts of devotion merely indulged his desire to touch her body, fuelling his odious desire with a perverse pleasure.

Once the funeral rites were duly complete, the girl was in haste to join her lost husband in the grave, considering all possible manners of dying but choosing the slow non-violent path, of pitiful starvation and self-neglect akin to encroaching sleep, hiding her self in the deepest shadows, already done with the light. But Thrasyllus, continued to urge her, partly alone, partly through family and friends, and then lastly through her parents, to care of her dull neglected flesh, to bathe and to eat. Out of respect for her parents, she reluctantly yielded from a sense of moral duty, exercising the daily acts of living, as they now pressed her, without a smile, but calmly and quietly. In her heart though, or rather deep in her marrow, she tormented her self with sorrow and grief. She spent every moment, night and day, in sad longing. She had statues made of the dead man in the guise of Dionysus, and slavishly worshipped them in sacred rites, tormenting her self in acts of devotion that gave her solace.

But Thrasyllus, as rash and headstrong as his name which signifies boldness, refused to wait till mourning had stilled her tears, the pain in her troubled mind had eased, and grief had ceased, spent by its own excess. Though she still wept for her husband, tore her clothing, ripped at her hair, he offered marriage, and imprudently betrayed the silent secrets of his heart, and his own unutterable guile. Charite shuddered in horror at his wicked words; her body trembling, her mind clouded, as though she’d been struck by the power of the sun, or the thunderous effect of Jove’s own lightning bolt. After a while she regained her breath and began to moan like some wild creature. Perceiving at last Thrasyllus’ vile plan, she asked her suitor to grant her a breathing space in order to form a scheme of her own. And in those hours of delay, her chaste sleep conjured the ghost of the murdered Tlepolemus, his flesh pale and lacerated, but stained with blood and gore.

“Wife,” he began, “though no one else should ever call you by that name, if the memory of me is locked in your heart but the bonds of our love are severed by my bitter fate and you choose to wed again and be happy, do not accept Thrasyllus’ impious hand and sleep with him, or share his table, or even speak with him. Spurn the blood-stained hand of my killer. Don’t enter into a union stained by murder. Those wounds whose blood your tears laved were not all made by the wild boar’s tusks. Thrasyllus’ wicked spear it was that parted us.” And the spirit added all the details of that scene in which the crime was committed.

Charite still lay with her face pressed against the bed, just as she had lain on falling asleep, exhausted from weeping. Now her cheeks were drenched again with a flood of tears, as she woke from her troubled dream as if in torment. She mourned once more with heart-felt cries, ripped her gown, and beat her sweet arms with cruel hands. Yet she kept that night-vision from everyone, concealing utterly its revelation of crime, while privately she fixed on punishing that foul assassin, and ending her life of suffering.

Behold, that detestable seeker of mindless pleasure was there again, his talk of marriage beating at her closed ears, but she rejected his offers mildly, playing a part with wondrous skill, as she fended off his endless harangues and his humble prayers. “The lovely face of your brother, my husband, still lingers in my eyes,” she said, “the cinnamon odour of his ambrosial body still haunts my nostrils; handsome Tlepolemus still lives within my heart. It would be in your own best interest to grant a wretched and unfortunate woman the true period of mourning, until the rest of a full year has passed. It is not a question simply of my own honour, but of your security and advantage, for a premature union might cause my husband’s wrathful spirit to rise up in righteous indignation, and put an end to your life.”

But Thrasyllus was neither chastened by her words, nor satisfied with the promise of winning her in time. He importuned her time and again with perverse whispers from his foul tongue, until at last she feigned to give way. “You must grant me this one thing, Thrasyllus, though, I beg” she cried, “we must keep our union secret, no one in my family must know of our clandestine relationship, until a full year has run.”

 Thrasyllus yielded, subdued by the girl’s false promise. Suppressing his eagerness to possess her, he agreed to their meeting covertly.

“And be sure” she said, “to come to me alone, without a single servant, and shrouded in your cloak. Come silently to my door at midnight, then give a low whistle, my old nurse will be waiting behind the locked door, for your arrival. As soon as she lets you in, she’ll lead you to me in the dark, so no lamp can give us away.”

Book VIII:11-14 The tale of Thrasyllus and Charite – vengeance

Thrasyllus was delighted with this fateful promise of union, suspecting nothing, but simply complaining, in the eagerness of his anticipation, at the length of day and the never-ending twilight. When the sun at last gave way to night, he appeared, cloaked as Charite had commanded and, lulled by the feigned caution of her nurse, slipped into the bedroom filled with hope. The old nurse, following her mistress’ orders, spoke soothingly to him, bringing cups and a jug of wine, secretly dosed with soporific drugs. He quaffed several cupfuls in quick succession, with greedy confidence, while she explained her mistress’ delay, with the lie that she was tending to her sick father. She soon had him asleep and, once he was flat on his back and defenceless against harm, called Charite. She entered, and stood by the murderer, bent on attacking him, and possessed by a man’s fury:

“See, my dear husband, see this mighty hunter now,” she cried, “your oh so loyal friend! Here is the hand that shed your blood; here is the brain that planned the fatal ambush to destroy you; here are the eyes that sadly found me fair, and now foreshadow future darkness, anticipate the punishment in store. Sleep peacefully, Thrasyllus, and sweet dreams! I shall not tackle you with sword and spear; you shall not know a death to match my husband’s. You shall survive, your eyes shall not, and you shall see nothing now except in mind. I shall have you feel your enemy’s death to be less pitiful than your life. No more light for you, you’ll need some servant’s hand, for you’ll not have Charite, there’ll be no marriage. You’ll know neither the peace of death nor the joys of life, but wander a restless phantom between Hades and the light, seeking to find whose hand destroyed your sight, and never knowing, a thing bitterer than all in your suffering, whom to accuse.  With the blood from your eye-sockets I shall pour a libation over my Tlepolemus’ tomb, and dedicate your orbs as a funeral gift to his blessed spirit. But why should you profit now from my delay, and dream of my touch that instead shall bring you ruin and the torment you deserve? Leave the dark of sleep, wake to another; the darkness of avenging night. Raise your ruined face, know my revenge, realise your fate, enumerate your torments. So, let your eyes grant pleasure to a chaste woman, so let the torches darken your marriage chamber, for the Furies shall attend your nuptials, and Loss be your supporter, holder of the eternal sting of conscience.”

Foreshadowing her action with her words, she now took a pin from her hair, and drove it through Thrasyllus’ eyeballs, leaving him blind and rising now from sleep and drunkenness to inexpressible pain. Then grasping the naked sword which Tlepolemus once used to arm himself, she ran wildly through the streets, making for her husband’s tomb, clearly intending to do herself harm. All the people poured from their houses, and we pursued her, urging each other on to wrest the weapon from her hands. But, at the grave, Charite kept us all at bay with that gleaming blade. Seeing how copiously we wept and variously lamented, she cried out: “Quench your untimely tears! Don’t grieve for me, in ways ill-suited to my virtuous deed, who have found vengeance for my husband’s foul murder, by punishing a man who sought to destroy the sanctity of marriage. Soon I must seek with this sword the road to my dear husband.”

She told us then all the things that his ghost had told to her in dream, and the cunning way she had trapped Thrasyllus and harmed him, then she plunged the sword into her left breast, and fell in her own blood, murmuring incoherent words as she bravely breathed her last. It was left to Charite’s friends to bathe her body tenderly then swiftly lay her beside her husband, his eternal partner in a shared tomb.

All this being known, Thrasyllus sought a self-punishment to match the tragedy he himself had brought about; more than death by the sword, a means too slight for that great crime. He was led to the grave, crying out repeatedly: “Vengeful spirits, behold, here is a willing sacrifice!” Then he closed the doors of the tomb tightly on himself, condemned by his own sentence, intent on starving himself to death.’

Book VIII:15-18 New travels, fresh troubles

The countrymen were deeply affected as he told his tale, with deep sighs and occasional bursts of tears. Fearing the changes a new master might inflict and profoundly pitying the misfortunes visited on their former master’s house, they decided to flee. The man in charge of the horses, who had been so strongly recommended to take good care of me, stripped his house of whatever had value and piled it on the backs of myself and the other pack-animals, then abandoned his old home. We were loaded with women and children, hens and pet-sparrows, little goats and puppies; anything whose weakness might hamper our flight, took advantage of our legs. But the vast weight I carried was no burden to me: here was joyful escape at last, and a fond goodbye to the threat from that vile castrator.

We crossed the rugged heights of a wooded mountain, and travelled the length of a low-lying plain beyond. Just as twilight darkened the road we came to a busy and prosperous town. There, people advised us not to go forward that night or even at dawn, saying the place was infested with packs of enormous wolves of vast size and weight, that plundered at will with relentless savagery. They lay in wait by the roadside like robbers, attacking the passers-by, and in their wild hunger stormed neighbouring farms, so that human beings were threatened now not merely defenceless sheep. Then they told us the road we would have to take was strewn with half-eaten human corpses and the fields about gleamed with white bones stripped of their flesh. We must travel with utmost care, they warned us, alert to the threat of ambush on every side, and only in daylight, well after dawn, when the sun was high in the sky, since the dreadful beasts showed less aggression in the presence of strong light. If we travelled in a tight wedge-shaped convoy, not strung out along the way, we might make it through.

But our useless leaders, in their blind and reckless haste, fearing pursuit ignored this good advice. Without waiting for dawn they loaded our backs and drove us along the midnight road. Fearing the dangers prophesied I guarded my flanks as best I could against the wolves’ attack by hiding myself at the heart of the throng of closely-packed animals. All were amazed to see how I matched the other creatures’ swift pace, but my speed was no sign of zeal but rather cowardice on my part. The thought occurred to me then that the mythical Pegasus had probably taken flight from fear, and so was described as winged when he’d merely reared in the air, and leapt to the sky, frightened of being scorched by the fire-breathing Chimaera.

The herdsmen driving us were armed as if for battle, with javelins, lances, and hunting spears, clubs, stones from the rocky path, and sharpened stakes, and they carried fiery torches to scare off the ravening wolves. We were only lacking a bugle or two to make us a marching army.

But those fears were imaginary, those anxieties were in vain, rather we fell into a far worse trap. The wolves were frightened away maybe by the noise of the throng of men, or the bright light of the torches, or perhaps were simply prowling somewhere else, in any case none came near, nor were even sighted far off, but the labourers on an estate we passed, thinking we were a band of robbers, terrified for themselves and their possessions, set their dogs on us. These were enormous savage creatures, fiercer than any wolf or bear, well-trained for guard duty. They urged them on with the usual shouts and cries, so their inborn aggression was intensified by their owner’s racket as they ran at us, swarmed around us, and leapt on us from all sides, ripping at animals and men alike, and dragging us to the ground. What a spectacle more worthy of tears than telling, by Hercules, as a swarm of excited dogs caught at those who fled, clung to those who stood still, clambered over the fallen, and worked their way through our whole convoy with their hot slavering jaws.

In an instant this perilous danger was followed by far worse trouble. The farmers began to hurl rocks at us from the rooftops and slopes nearby, so that we were in two minds which threat to guard against most, the dogs nearby or the stones from afar. One of the latter struck the woman seated on my back. When she felt the sudden pain she screamed and wept, shouting out to her husband, my overseer. He called on the gods for help, and staunching the blood from his wretched wife’s wound cried out in a massive voice: ‘Why attack and assail us so viciously? We’re poor men, just weary travellers. Where’s the profit for you in this? What theft are you out to avenge? Are you beasts from some lair, or cave-dwelling savages, that you seek your pleasure in spilling human blood?’

At this, the shower of heavy stones ceased, the vicious dogs were restrained, and the noise subsided. One of them called down from the top of a cypress tree: ‘We’re not thieves or robbers either; we were only defending ourselves from any attack from you, so go your way quietly and in peace, secure from further trouble.’

That was that, but we all took the road bleeding from various wounds, gashed by rocks or fangs, or hurt in some other way. When we’d gone some distance along the trail, we came to a neat plantation of tall trees, all carpeted with meadow grass, where the troop chose to rest for a while for refreshment, and to tend their various wounds. They collapsed on the ground to recover their breath, and regain their strength then quickly began to treat their hurts, washing the clotted blood away with water from a nearby stream, that flowed beside the grove, applying vinegar-soaked sponges to their many bruises, and bandaging welling cuts, every one of them looking to themselves.

Book VIII:19-22 Eaten alive

Now an old man appeared, gazing down on us from a summit at hand; a goat-herd he was, as could be seen by the she-goats browsing round him. One of us asked him if he’d any milk or curds for sale. He shook his head several times before replying: ‘How can you dream of food and drink, or anything else right now? Don’t you know where you are?’ Then he gathered his goats, and made off into the distance. His words and his sudden flight filled us all with no little dread. We wondered what was wrong with the place, but there was no one the others could ask, till a second old man approached on the road, tall and bent with the years, hunched over his staff, wearily dragging his feet, and weeping copiously. Meeting with us he clasped the knees of all the young men in turn, wracked by tears.

‘May Fortune and your guardian spirits smile on you,’ he sobbed, ‘may you be healthy and happy when you reach my years, only help a wretched old man, save my grandson from death, and spare him to my old grey head. My sweet comrade on this journey, he was trying to catch a sparrow singing in the hedge when he fell into a pit that yawned at its feet, and now he’s doomed to death, though I know he’s alive from his calls to me, and his weeping. I’m too weak to save him, as you see, but your youth and strength could easily aid a poor old man and save the youngest of my line, my only heir.’

We were all filled with pity as he begged us to help and tore at his grey hair. One of the younger men, stouter of heart, and stronger of limb than the others, the only one of us uninjured in the recent battle, leapt up readily and asked where the boy was. The old man pointed with his finger to a clump of bushes, and the youth set off in his company. When we animals had grazed, and the humans had tended their wounds and were refreshed, we all rose with our loads and started down the road. At first they shouted and called the young man’s name repeatedly, then anxious at his delay they sent someone off to find their missing comrade, tell him we were off, and bring him back. Soon the messenger returned, trembling and pale as boxwood, with a strange tale to tell of his friend. He had seen his body he said, lying on its back, almost totally eaten by a vast serpent. The snake was coiled above him as it consumed him, but the poor old man was nowhere to be seen. Hearing this, and matching it to the goat-herd’s earlier remarks, who must have been warning them of none another than this same denizen of the place, they fled from that pestilential region, travelling more swiftly than before, driving us along rapidly with repeated blows of their sticks.

After a long day moving at breakneck pace, we came to a village where we stayed the night, a place where a noteworthy crime had been committed which I’ll relate.

A servant, whose master had made him steward of his entire estate, had previously acted as bailiff therefore of the large holding where we had stopped for the night. He was married to a servant in the same household, but burned with love for a freedwoman, who lived outside his master’s estate. Angered by her husband’s disloyalty, the wife set fire to his store-room and all his accounts, destroying both utterly. Not content with this act as revenge for the insult to her marriage, she turned her bitter rage against her own flesh. Tying a rope round her own neck and that of the child she’d just borne her husband, she hurled herself into a deep well, dragging the infant with her. Their master, horrified at their deaths, had the servant, whose infidelity had provoked the dreadful tragedy, arrested, stripped naked and smeared with honey, and tied to a rotting fig-tree inside whose trunk lived a colony of nesting ants that marched in and out in their myriad streams. Detecting the sweet sugary scent on his body, they quickly fastened their tiny jaws in his skin, wounding him deeply with endlessly repeated bites, until after interminable torment, he died. His flesh and his innards were totally consumed and his body stripped to the bare bones which, gleaming a brilliant white, were left tied to the tree.

Book VIII:23-25 Auctioned

Having fled from that detestable halt, leaving the residents in the depths of mourning, we travelled on again, and marching all day over the plain arrived, exhausted, at a well-known populous city. The herdsmen decided to make their home and permanent residence there, as seeming to offer a safe retreat far from anyone who might search for them, and also attracted by the abundance of rich and plentiful food. After three days rest to restore the animals, and render us more saleable, we were taken off to market. In a loud voice the auctioneer announced our prices, but while the horses and other asses were sold to some wealthy man I alone remained, an unsold item, scorned in disgust. I was angered by now at being pawed by buyers trying to guess my age from my teeth, so when a man with foul-smelling hands kept scraping my gums again and again with his fetid fingers, I grabbed his hand with my teeth and crushed it to a pulp. This rid those standing by of any desire to buy a creature so ferocious, so the auctioneer, whose voice was cracked and hoarse, began to utter witticisms at my expense. ‘How long must this old nag stand here without a sale? Poor old thing, he’s crippled by worn-out hooves, deformed from pain, and totally lazy except when he’s being vicious. His skin’s fit for nothing but making a garbage sieve. So I’ll give him away to any man who won’t mind wasting fodder.’

With such remarks the auctioneer had the crowd roaring with laughter. But cruel and savage Fortune, whom my flight across the land had not eluded, un-placated by my earlier sufferings, turned her blind gaze once more in my direction, and amazingly put me in the way of the very purchaser to add to my harsh misfortunes. Learn what he was: a eunuch, and an old one at that, bald on top but with ringlets of grey hair circling his scalp, the scum of society, one of the dregs who frequent the city streets sounding their cymbals and castanets, dragging the Syrian Great Goddess round with them, using her to beg. He was more than eager to buy me, and asked where I came from. ‘Oh, he’s a fine Cappadocian, a strong little chap,’ the auctioneer cried. And how many years had I? ‘Well,’ the auctioneer replied, ‘the astrologer who did his chart said this year he was five, but no doubt as a citizen who fills in his census returns he can tell you the answer better than I. It’s a crime of course to sell you a Roman citizen as a slave, that’s the Cornelian Law, still why not buy yourself this fine and useful piece of property, who’ll give you satisfaction at home and abroad?’

This odious buyer kept on asking one question after another, and finally asked anxiously how docile I might be.

‘This is no ass you see before you, it’s a bell-wether of the flock, never a biter or kicker, but gentle as a lamb for any task. You’d think,’ said the auctioneer, ‘that inside this ass’s hide lived the mildest of human-beings. It’s not hard to prove either: just stick your face between his back legs, and you’ll easily demonstrate his truly passive nature.’

The auctioneer was having fun at the eunuch’s expense, but the latter got the point of the joke and swore with feigned indignation: ‘You lunatic, you deaf and dumb corpse of an auctioneer! I call on the all-powerful, the all-creating goddess, Syrian Atagartis; and holy Sabazius too, and Ma of Commagene; on Idaean Mother Cybele and her consort Attis; on Lady Astarte and her consort Adonis; may they strike you blind as well for tormenting me with your scurrilous jests. Do you think I’d entrust the goddess, you fool, to some savage creature that might tumble her sacred image from its back, and be forced to run round like a servant-girl, hair streaming in the wind, to find a doctor for my goddess as she lay there on the ground?’

Hearing that, it crossed my mind to start leaping around like mad, so he’d give up the whole idea of buying me when he saw how savage I was when roused. But that eager purchaser thwarted my scheme, by paying a price on the nail that my owner, of course, being doubtless thoroughly sick and tired of me, swiftly and joyfully accepted: less than a single gold piece, seventeen denarii. He handed me over at once with the halter, made of common broom, to this Philebus for such was the name of the man who was my new owner.

Book VIII:26-29 With the wandering Eunuchs

Taking possession of his new follower, he dragged me home with him, and reaching the doorway cried: ‘Look what a pretty slave I’ve bought you, girls!’ The ‘girls’ were his troop of eunuchs who began dancing in delight, raising a dissonant clamour with tuneless, shrill, effeminate cries, thinking no doubt his purchase was a slave-boy ready to do them service. But on seeing me, no doe replacing a sacrificial virgin, but an ass instead of a boy, they turned up their noses, and made caustic remarks to their leader. ‘Here’s no slave,’ one cried, ‘but a husband of your own.’ And ‘Oh,’ called another, ‘don’t swallow that little morsel all by yourself, give your little doves the occasional bite.’ Then amidst the banter they tied me to the manger.

Now in that house was a corpulent lad, a fine flute-player, bought in the slave-market with the funds from their begging-plate, who circled around playing his pipes when they lead the goddess about, but at home played the part of concubine, sharing himself around. Seeing me now he smilingly set a heap of fodder before me, and said with delight: ‘At last you’re here to take turns at this wretched work. Live to please our masters, and give my weary muscles a rest.’ On hearing this I began to wonder what new ills were in store.

Next day they prepared to do their rounds, dressing in bright array, beautifying their faces un-beautifully, daubing their cheeks with rouge, and highlighting their eyes. Off they went, in turbans and saffron robes, all fine linen and silk, some in white tunics woven with purple designs and gathered up in a girdle, and with yellow shoes on their feet. The goddess they wrapped in a silken cloak and set her on my back, while they, arms bare to the shoulder, waving frightful swords and axes, leapt about and chanted, in a frenzied dance to the stirring wail of the flute.

Passing a few small hamlets in our wanderings, we came to a rich landowner’s country house. On reaching the gate, they rushed in wildly, filling the place with tuneless cries, heads forward, rotating their necks in endless circling motions, their long pendulous hair swinging around them, now and then wounding their flesh savagely with their teeth, and at the climax slashing their arms with the double-edged knives they carried. One in their midst began to rave more ecstatically than the rest, heaving breaths from deep in his chest, simulating a fit of divine madness, as if filled with inspiration from some god, though surely the presence of a deity should make men nobler than themselves, not disorder them or make them lose their senses. But behold the benefit he won from these ‘heavenly powers’. Raving like a prophet, he began to chastise himself with a concocted tale of some sin of his against the sacred laws of religion, and demanded self-punishment for his guilt. Then he snatched up the whip, the insignia of those emasculated creatures, with its long tufted strands of twisted sheep’s hide strung with those animals’ knuckle bones, and scourged himself savagely with strokes of its knotted lash, showing amazing fortitude given the pain from his gashes. The ground grew slippery with blood from the flashing blades and flailing whips, and I grew very uneasy at this gory flood from the countless wounds lest this Syrian goddess might have a stomach for ass’s blood, yearning for it as some humans do for ass’s milk.

But when they were weary at last of self-flagellation, or at least were sated, they ceased their antics and took up a collection, people vying for the pleasure of dropping copper coins, and even silver, into the ample folds of their robes. They were also given a fat jar of wine, with milk and cheese, cornmeal and flour, and even a feed of barley for me, the goddess’ beast of burden. They gathered it greedily, piled it into sacks presciently acquired to carry the takings, and heaped them on my back. Now weighed down by a double load, I was a walking shrine and a storage-chest in one.

Book VIII:30-31 Imminent death

In this manner they roamed about plundering the whole region. One day, delighted with a larger than usual take in some hill-town, they decided on a festive banquet. On the back of a fictitious prophecy, they extracted a farmer’s fattest ram for sacrifice, needing they said to appease the Goddess’ hunger. Once the preparations were done, they paid a visit to the bath-house, returning afterwards with a guest, a strapping countryman, with strong limbs and thighs. They’d barely tasted their salad hors-d’oeuvres before those vile creatures were driven by their unspeakable urges to commit the vilest acts of perverse lust. They soon had the young man naked on his back, and crowding round him forced their foul caresses on him. My eyes could not long endure such an outrage. I tried to call out: ‘No, no. Help, citizens, help!’ but all that emerged was ‘O, O!’ with all the rest of the syllables lost; a fine and clear and strong and ass-like cry, but sadly and inopportunely timed. For a crowd of lads from a neighbouring village, out looking for an ass stolen in the night, who were searching all the stables thoroughly, heard me braying from the house, and assumed their stolen property was hidden somewhere there. Determined to win their goods back on the spot, they burst in, all together, to catch my masters performing their vile abominations. In a trice they roused the neighbours and shouted to everyone to come and witness the wretched scene, pouring ridicule on the priests with caustic praise for their chastity.

Confounded by this scandal, the news of which spread swiftly from mouth to mouth, and made them justly despised and detested in the eyes of all, they gathered their belongings, and at midnight we stealthily left town. Before sunrise we’d completed the best part of a day’s journey, and by the time it was fully light had reached a deserted wilderness. There after holding a long discussion among themselves, they girded themselves for my punishment. They dismounted the goddess from my back, and set her on the ground, then stripped me of all the tackle and tied me to an oak. Then they flogged me with one of those whips of theirs strung with sheep-bones, until I was well-nigh dead. One of them threatened to hamstring me with his axe, because I had brayed so offensively at his pretence of snow-white virtue, while the rest voted to keep me alive, not out of consideration for me, but for the Goddess’ statue lying there on the ground. So they burdened me again with the baggage, beating me with the flat of their swords, till we reached the next large town. There, one of the notables, a religious man with a particular reverence for that Goddess, roused by the cymbals tinkling, the drums beating and the plaintive music of the Phrygian flute, came running out to meet us, and receiving the Goddess with the hospitality of a devotee, he settled us within the walls of his extensive mansion, and strove to win the Goddess’ favour with deep reverence and rich sacrifice.

Here, I recall, there arose a particularly grave risk to my life. One of our host’s tenants had been out hunting, and sent his master the gift of a large and succulent haunch of venison from some mighty stag. This had been hung by the kitchen door but, negligently, not high enough off the ground, thus a hound, also a connoisseur of venison, snatched it on the quiet and overjoyed at his catch swiftly removed himself from watching eyes. When Hephaestion the cook realised his loss, he blamed himself and shed many a tear in vain. When his master requested the venison for dinner, the cook was plunged into deep terror and dejection. He found a rope and tied a noose in it, ready for suicide, then said a fond farewell to his little son, but his loyal wife, aware of her husband’s dreadful plight, seized the noose tightly in both hands. ‘Have you lost your mind,’ she cried, ‘from fear? Don’t you see, in this very situation, divine providence has provided the perfect remedy? If you can still see clearly, despite Fortune’s dreadful storm, wake up and listen to me. Take that ass that’s just arrived to some out of the way spot and slit his throat. Then cut off a haunch to replace the one that’s lost, stew it till tender, add a really savoury gravy, and serve that to the master instead of the other.’

That worthless rascal was pleased with the thought of my dying to save his skin, and with lavish praise for his wife’s sagacity, began to sharpen his knife for the imminent butchery.


End of Book VIII