The Golden Ass, Book IV

Book IV:1-3 Encounter with the market-gardener


About midday, under a scorching sun, we stopped in a village at a house owned by some elderly friends and acquaintances of the robbers. The friendship even an ass could gather from their first greetings, long conversations, and exchange of embraces. They took some of the things from my back as presents for the old men, and in hushed whispers seemed to be telling them they were proceeds of robbery.  Then they relieved us of the rest of the baggage, and left us to graze and wander freely in a field beside the house. Mutual lunch with an ass and a horse was not to my taste however, as yet unused to dining on hay, but I caught sight of a market garden behind the stable and, dying of hunger, trotted in boldly, right away. I stuffed on vegetables, raw though they were, and then, with a prayer to every god, started to quarter the place to see if there might be a rose-bed glowing among the gardens outside. Being alone, I was confident, you see, of being able to devour the remedy in private; while away from the road I could rise once more from the bowed state of a four-footed beast of burden and stand erect as a man again, where no one could see.

As I tossed about on a wave of thought, I saw some distance away a leafy wood in a shaded vale, and among the varied plants and flourishing greenery I saw the crimson hue of glistening roses. In my not-wholly-animal mind I judged that the grove, in whose dark recesses glowed the regal splendour of the festive flowers, was a sanctuary of Venus and the Graces. So with a prayer to Good-Fortune and Success, I hurtled forward at such a rapid pace that, by Hercules, I felt no ass, but transformed to a racehorse in full flight. Yet my outstanding and agile efforts were not enough to outrun wretched Fate, for when I reached the place I found not delicate blushing roses wet with the nectar of celestial dew springing amidst fortunate brambles and blessed briars, no not even a vale at all, only the brim of a river-bank hedged in densely by bushy trees like wild-bay, extending pale red cups of blossom as if they were the more-fragrant flowers, though oleanders have no scent at all, and are deadly poisonous to grazing creatures, though country-folk may call them ‘rose-laurels’.

So entangled was I in the threads of fate, I was indifferent to my own safety, and was about to consume those deadly ‘roses’ willingly, but as I plodded hesitantly towards the flowers to pluck them, a young man with a large stick came running, in a fury. I suppose he was the market-gardener whose vegetables I’d thoroughly ravaged, suddenly aware of the extent of his loss. When he caught me, he began to thrash away, beating me all over, till I’d have been facing death if I hadn’t had the sense to defend myself to the last. I raised my rump and kicked out with my rear hooves time and again, and left him lying badly wounded on the nearest slope, as I broke free and bolted. Just then however some woman, evidently his wife, looked down the slope and saw him stretched out there half-dead. In a trice she was running towards him, shrieking, arousing pity, and threatening my immediate destruction, and indeed all the villagers roused by her grief and in a furious rage, set their dogs on me instantly from every side, urging them on to tear me to shreds.

I was near to dying then beyond a doubt, seeing those dogs large in size and many in number, fit to fight bears or lions, gathered and ranged against me. Taking the opportunity that circumstance presented, I turned tail and headed at full speed back towards the stable where we’d halted. But the men, controlling the dogs with difficulty, caught me and tied me to a hook by a strong halter. They started to beat me again, and I’d certainly have been slaughtered, if it weren’t that the contents of my stomach, squeezed by the thumping blows, full of raw vegetables, and weakened by the flux, jetted forth and drove the men away from my poor scarred haunches, some sprayed with the liquid foulness, others deterred by the putrid stench.


Book IV:4-5 Feigned exhaustion


Not long afterwards, in the afternoon light, the robbers drove us from the stable, and loaded me in particular with a heavier burden. A good part of the day’s journey done, when I was weary from the miles, weighed down by the pack on my back, staggering from the blows of sticks, and hobbling lamely on worn hooves, we stopped beside a quiet creek with a winding bed. I seized happily on the moment, and formed the perfect plan. I would let my legs buckle, and drop to the ground, firmly determined not to rise and walk despite the beatings, prepared to lie there even if they struck me not with a stick but a sword. I judged that, weak and quite exhausted, I’d earn an honourable discharge; the robbers, intolerant of delay and eager for rapid flight would be certain to split the load on my back between the other two beasts of burden and then do nothing more serious than leave me as a prey to vultures or wolves.

But this brilliant plan of mine was thwarted by wretched luck. The other ass somehow divined and anticipated my scheme, pretending to exhaustion and falling to the ground with his load. He lay there like the dead and despite sticks, goads, and efforts to drag him up by ears, tails, and legs on either side, wasn’t tempted to rise. In the end, the robbers, tired of waiting for his resurrection, agreed not to linger any longer beside a dead or foundered ass; split the load between me and the horse, drew their swords, hamstrung his legs, dragged him some way from the track, and hurled him, still living, from a high, steep cliff into the valley below. Contemplating the fate of my poor comrade, I determined then to abandon all such schemes and tricks, and show my masters I could be an honest ass. I also gleaned from their talk that we’d soon be stopping for a rest at journey’s end, their home and quarters. We climbed a gentle slope and reached our destination, There, I was freed of my burden, the goods were unloaded and stashed away, and instead of a bath I eased my tiredness by rolling in the dust.


Book IV:6-9 The robber’s cave


Time and place demand a description of the robber’s cave, and its surrounds, a test of my skill and a chance to see whether I was merely the ass I seemed, in mind and perception.

The mountain was rugged, shaded by leafy forests, and very high. Its precipitous slopes, surrounded by jagged and quite inaccessible rocks, were lined with deep hollowed-out gullies choked by a mass of thorns, and isolated on every side, forming a natural fortress. From the mountain-top a flowing spring gushed out in a foaming stream, and rushed headlong down in silvery falls, then split into several channels, flooding the valley with standing water and covering the land with a marshy lake or sluggishly-moving river. Above the cave, on the mountainside there rose a steep-sided tower. Strong, and solid wattle fencing, fit for penning sheep, flanked the entrance on either side like a narrow path between well-built walls. Take my word for it: it was the hall of a robber band. Nearby, there was nothing except a little hut badly thatched with cane, where guards chosen by lot from the rest kept watch by night, as I later learned.

After tying us firmly by halters outside, they stooped down one by one and crept into the cave where they found the old woman bowed down by the years who, it seemed, was charged with the health and upkeep of that whole band of young men. They flung insults at her: ‘Hey you, last corpse for the pyre, life’s great shame, sole reject of Orcus, after idling about amusing yourself all day aren’t you even going to offer us an evening meal after all the risks we’ve taken! All you do, night and day, is pour good wine down your greedy throat.’

The old woman answered, in fright, in a high-pitched tremulous voice: ‘There’s plenty of stew for you, my brave and loyal young saviours, cooked and ready, and tender and tasty too. There’s plenty of bread and well-rinsed cups brimming over with wine, and hot water as ever ready for you to wash.’

At this, they shed their clothes swiftly and, naked, warmed by a roaring fire, they bathed in hot water, rubbed on oil, and reclined at tables lavishly heaped with food.

They’d barely settled down before another larger troop appeared, robbers too as you quickly saw from the loot they carried: silver and gold, in vessels and coins, and gold-embroidered silks. After warming themselves with a bath, they too couched beside their comrades. Then they drew lots as to who should serve. They ate and drank with abandon, downing mounds of meat, banks of bread and swilling wine like water. They jested raucously, sang deafeningly, bawled abuse at each other, and generally behaved like those semi-human Lapiths and Centaurs.

Then a brawnier one than the rest spoke up: ‘We who stormed Milo’s house in Hypata, besides gaining a vast amount of wealth by our courage, have not only got back home in one piece, but even, it’s worth saying, have added eight more legs to the ranks: while you, raiding the Boeotian towns, return without your leader, brave Lamachus, whose life was worth a good deal more I’d judge, and with good reason, than all the loot you’ve brought. Destroyed by excess of boldness, that great hero will be remembered with famous generals and kings, while you, though thieves good and true, with your petty servile pilfering are merely scavengers, haunting the public baths, or creeping timidly into old ladies’ houses.’

A member of the second troop answered him: ‘Any fool knows that the large mansions are easier prey than the smaller. Though the big houses have a host of servants they’re keener on their own safety than their master’s goods; while frugal men live alone and keep the little, or the more, they have cleverly concealed, and guard and defend them more keenly, at the risk of their own lives. Events themselves prove what I say.

When we reached Thebes with its seven gates, we followed the first tenet of our calling, and enquired in depth about wealthy locals. That led us to Chryseros, a banker, owner of piles of cash, who hid his vast assets with skill, in fear of having to pay the levy. So secluded and alone, in a small but well-secured house, he dressed in rags and lived in squalor, contemplating his gold. We set out to deal with him first, thinking nothing of tackling a solitary man, assuming we’d liberate his riches without any bother.


Book IV:10-12 Thieving in Thebes – Lamachus and Alcimus


We lost no time and as darkness fell we were stationed at his front door. We agreed not to force them, shatter them, or remove them, for fear the noise would rouse his neighbours and give the game away. So our noble standard-bearer Lamarchus, with a proven confidence born of courage, slid his fingers little by little through the keyhole and tried to slip the bolt. But Chryseros that meanest of bipeds must have been on the watch and observing us for some time. Tiptoeing up, in total silence, he suddenly launched a mighty blow, and nailed our leader’s hand to the door with a long spike. Then leaving him pinioned there, in that deadly trap, he climbed to the roof and called to his neighbours, shouting to each, summoning them by name, crying out that his house was on fire and all must rally to the common cause. And each in turn, terrified by his own proximity to the danger, came running anxiously to help.

What a dilemma that left us in, to desert our comrade or risk arrest: so with his consent we agreed a somewhat drastic solution. We severed his arm with a blow, at the joint that binds it to the shoulder, and leaving the arm where it was, and staunching the flow of blood with a bundle of rags in case it betrayed our trail we rushed off with what remained of Lamachus our leader. Agitated as we were, we were assailed by the noisy outcry filling the neighbourhood, and startled into flight by the imminent danger, but he could neither match our speed nor safely be left behind. It was then our hero’s noble spirit and outstanding bravery drew from him this plaintive appeal and prayer: “By the right hand of Mars,” he cried, “and you loyalty to our oath, free a good comrade from capture and torture both. Should a brave robber outlast his hand, that alone can steal and murder? Happy is the man who chooses to die at the hand of a brother!” Failing to convince any of us to slay him, he drew his sword with the hand that was left, kissed the blade over and over, then freely plunged it, a mighty stroke, into the midst of his chest. We paid homage to the strength of our redoubtable general, wrapped his corpse in a linen robe, and committed him to the all-concealing waves, and there Lamachus lies, a whole element his grave.

And Alcimus too, though he ended his life in a manner worthy of his powers, failed to win Fate’s approving nod, for all his careful plans. He had broken into an old woman’s cottage, while she was asleep upstairs, and though he should have given her throat a squeeze and ended her life right there, he chose instead to hurl her possessions through a wide window, one at a time, for us to carry off later. He heaved the whole contents out, but unwilling to leave even the bed where the old lady was sleeping, he rolled her off the mattress and dragged it and the sheets away, planning to drop them through the casement too. But the evil old woman clung to his knees and pleaded: “Oh, my son, you’re just giving a wretched crone’s shabby junk to those rich neighbours next door?”

Her cunning words fooled Alcimus who thought she was telling the truth, and afraid no doubt that all he had dropped would indeed be snatched by her neighbours, he convinced himself he was wrong. So he leaned from the window to make a thorough survey of the situation, and especially to judge the wealth of the house next door she’d mentioned. As he attempted this, the old sinner suddenly gave him a shove, a weak one but unexpected, while he was hanging out intent on his observation. It sent him head-first, and he fell from no mean height, onto a huge rock near the house, shattering his ribs. We found him vomiting gouts of blood from his chest, and after telling us what had happened, left this life without suffering long. We buried him as we had Lamachus, and gave our leader a worthy squire.


Book IV:13-15 Thieving in Plataea – the bear’s skin


Doubly assailed by their loss, we abandoned our attempts on Thebes, and descended on the next city, Plataea. There we picked up the gossip about a certain Demochares who was funding a gladiatorial show. Now he, a man of noble birth, and great wealth, and generous nature, was about to mount an entertainment as brilliant as his fortune. Who would have the talent; the eloquence, the very words to describe each item in that extravaganza? There were gladiators known for their strength, animal-handlers of proven skill, and criminals without hope of reprieve who’d provide a meal and fatten wild beasts. There were moveable structures of wood, scaffolding towers like houses on wheels, covered with lively paintings, ornate cages for savage creatures, and how many of those there were, and what fine specimens! He’d selected those tombs for condemned men with care, had even imported animals from abroad, and amongst them, deploying the vast resources of his whole estate, he’d brought together a congregation of massive wild bears, to furnish a dramatic spectacle. There were bears hunted down by his own staff and taken alive, there were those acquired as expensive purchases, and some presented as gifts to him, in rivalry, by his friends. He had all these creatures well-fed and tended with scrupulous care.

But these grand and glorious preparations for the public’s pleasure failed to escape Envy’s baleful eye. Exhausted by long confinement, emaciated from the scorching heat, and listless from lack of exercise, the bears were ravaged by a sudden epidemic, their number reduced almost to nothing. Let out to die, the remnants of their carcases lay scattered in the streets and the poor, in their ignorance, with no choice in what they ate, seeking free meat for their shrunken bellies, the vilest of supplements to their diet, ran to take advantage of these random banquets. Seizing our opportunity, Balbus here and I devised a cunning scheme. We picked the bear of the greatest bulk, and carried it to our hideout as if for eating. Once there, we carefully stripped the flesh from the hide, taking care to keep the claws, and leave the head intact down to the neck. We flayed the whole skin neatly, sprinkled it with fine ash, and pegged it in the sun to dry. While the celestial fires were removing all the moisture, we stuffed ourselves bravely with the meat, and handed out duties for the execution of our scheme, as follows: one of us, the bravest and the strongest of our band, would volunteer to dress in the skin and imitate a bear. Once he had been introduced to Demochares’ yard, taking advantage of the dead of night, he could easily force an entrance for us.

The cleverness of the plan prompted several of our brave lads to offer themselves for the task. By unanimous acclaim, Thrasyleon was chosen and undertook to run the hazard of our risky stratagem, so he hid himself, serenely, in the bear-skin, now soft and flexible and easily donned. We stitched the edges up tightly, and though the seam was neat we still concealed it in the shaggy hair. Then we forced the head over Thrasyleon’s own, and pulled the hollow neck down to his throat, with holes at the eyes, and small ones at the nose for breathing, and led our brave comrade, now transformed into the creature, to a cheap cage we’d already bought, into which he crawled with a vigorous effort, quickly and unaided.


Book IV:16-21 Thrasyleon’s fate


Now everything was ready for the rest of our ruse. We forged a letter in the name of a certain Nicanor, a Thracian, a close acquaintance of Demochares, making it appear that as an act of friendship he was offering his spoils from hunting to adorn the show. Then late in the evening, under cover of darkness, we took Thrasyleon in his cage to the house, along with the counterfeit letter. He was so astounded by the creature’s size, and delighted by this timely gift from his friend he counted out ten gold pieces from his purse at once, for us, the bringers of delight, or so he thought. Then since novelty will always stir desire for instant viewing, a great crowd appeared to marvel at the beast. But our cunning Thrasyleon escaped close inspection by pawing the air and threatening them. The citizens cried out, again and again, with single voice, that Demochares was fortunate, no blessed, in thwarting ill-fortune by somehow acquiring this new arrival, while he commanded it to be taken to his parkland, and handled with the utmost care.

Here I intervened: “Caution, sir! This bear, tired from the hot sun and a lengthy journey, ought not to join a crowd of other animals who are not, as I hear, in the best of health. Why not employ an open airy corner of the house, or a place beside some water which would cool him? These creatures make their lairs, you know, in dense groves or damp caves by pleasant springs.”

Nervous of my warning, and thinking of the mounting total of his losses, he found no reason for demurring, and readily allowed us to place the cage where we thought best. “And we’re quite willing,” I said, “to keep the bear company tonight, and see that, hot and tired as he is, he has his accustomed food and water at just the right times.”

“Don’t trouble your selves about that,” he replied, “my staff by now have had plenty of practice feeding bears.”

So we said our farewells, and left. We walked beyond the town gate, and found a mausoleum in a secluded and isolated spot, distant from the road. The coffins of the dead, who now were ash and dust, were half-hidden by the products of age and decay, and we broke open several at random, to serve to hide the loot we anticipated stealing. Then in accord with the rules of our profession, we waited in the moonless night for the hour when deep sleep invades and conquers mortal hearts. We placed our troops, armed with swords, at the very doors of Demochares’ house, as a pledge of our intention to attack. Thrasyleon played his part to perfection, choosing that thief’s moment of the night to creep from his cage, swiftly slay the guards, who lay nearby, with his sword, kill the doorkeeper, snatch the key, and fling open the doors. In we rushed at once, and penetrated to the depths of the house. He pointed to the storeroom where he’d eagerly observed a vast quantity of silver being placed that evening. We broke in at once, in force, and I ordered my comrades to carry off as much gold and silver as they could, hide it in those chambers of the dead, most reliable of guardians, and in a trice hurry back to steal a second load. I would wait, on their behalf, and keep careful watch by the entrance till they’d quickly returned. And the figure of a bear lumbering round the yard seemed designed to scare off any of the servants who might wake. Who, on such a night, no matter how brave and strong, seeing the monstrous form of that vast creature, would not take to their heels, bolt the bedroom door behind them, and hide there shivering and trembling?

It was all well planned, our dispositions soundly made, but disastrous events intervened. While I anxiously awaited my comrades’ return, one of the servants, disturbed by the noise – an act of the gods I suppose – crept quietly out and saw the creature, on the loose and ambling round the yard. He retraced his steps in total silence and let all the household know, somehow, what he’d seen. In a flash the whole house was filled with a crowd of servants, lighting the dark with torches, lamps, candles, tapers, and whatever else illuminates the night. Not a one of them emerged unarmed; each held spear, or club, or naked sword, as they ran to the entrance, calling the hounds, the long-eared kind with bristling coats, and setting them on the beast to subdue him.

As the uproar grew, I quietly backed away from the house. But hidden by a door I caught a glimpse of Thrasyleon’s marvellous defence against the dogs. Though he was in mortal danger, he never forgot his role or ours or his courage, as he fought those gaping jaws, as if with Cerberus himself. As long as life was in him, he played out the task he’d chosen, now retreating, now resisting, with every turn and twist of his body, until he’d retreated from the house. But even though he’d won his way to the open street, he could find no means of escape, since all the dogs from the neighbouring alleys, numerous and fierce, joined a host of hounds from the house, in pursuit. I witnessed the whole wretched, fatal spectacle; our Thrasyleon ringed, besieged by packs of savage dogs, and lacerated by countless bites.

At last, unable to endure such torment any longer, I mingled with the crowd of people surging round, and like a good comrade tried to help as best I could, by trying to dissuade the most vociferous, crying: “What a waste! It’s a crime to kill so large a beast; it’s one that’s worth its weight in gold!”

But my skill in oratory was no help to the poor lad: for a big strong fellow came running from the house, and in an instant stuck a spear right through the bear’s body. Then another did the same, and now their fear was gone, others swiftly vied to use their swords at close quarters. Thrasyleon, the pride of our troop, his breath gone but not his steadfastness, worthy now of immortality, never betrayed his pledge by shouting or even screaming, but continued to growl and roar like a bear, though torn by the teeth and wounded by the blades, and bore his current misfortune with noble fortitude, winning eternal glory for himself, though surrendering his life to fate. He’d so terrified the crowd, filling them with fear, that till dawn, or rather till full daylight, no one dared to lay a finger on his motionless corpse until at last, a butcher with a glimmer of confidence, timidly and gingerly approached the creature, and slit open the skin, to find a noble robber not a bear. Thus was Thrasyleon, too, lost to us, yet never will he be lost to glory.

Then we swiftly gathered up those spoils the faithful dead had guarded, and as we fled Plataea at the double, we turned this thought over and over in our minds: there’s a reason loyalty is lacking in this life, she’s taken herself off to the dead and joined the shades, disgusted at our betrayals. And so exhausted by the weight of our burdens, wearied by the roughness of the road, and lacking three of our friends, we brought in the spoils you see before you.’


Book IV:22-25 The captive


His story ended, the robbers poured a libation of pure wine from golden cups, in memory of their dead comrades, sang some songs in honour of their god Mars, and went to sleep. As for us the old woman brought boundless, generous quantities of fresh barley, so the horse at least thought himself at a Salian priests’ banquet, though I who’d never eaten the stuff before, except ground fine and cooked as porridge, had to search around for the corner where they’d piled the left-over bread. My jaws ached with hunger, near draped in cobwebs from long neglect, and I gave them a thorough workout.

Behold, in the night, the robbers woke and decamped: variously equipped, some armed with swords, some dressed as ghouls they suddenly vanished. I kept bravely, vehemently chewing away; even impending drowsiness had no effect on me. When I was Lucius, I’d leave the table filled by one or two slices of bread, but now I’d a vast belly to serve and was already gulping down my third basketful as dawn’s clear light caught me at my labours.

Roused at last by an asinine sense of shame, but with extreme reluctance, I trotted off to slake my thirst in the nearby stream. At this moment the robbers returned, anxious and preoccupied, with not a single piece of goods, not even a worthless rag. Despite their swords, and show of force, and the presence of the whole troop, they’d only managed to snatch a girl, though to judge from her refined manner, a child of one of the region’s notable families. Even to an ass like me, she seemed a girl to covet. Sighing, plucking at her hair and clothes, she entered the cave and once inside they tried to soothe her fears with talk.

‘Don’t fear for your life or honour,’ they said, ‘just bear with our need for money: necessity and poverty led us to this profession. Your parents, however mean they are, won’t hesitate to pay a ransom from their great store of riches, for their own flesh and blood.’

How could the girl’s fears be soothed by this sort of blather? She wept uncontrollably, her head between her knees. So they called the old woman aside and told her to sit beside the girl, and console her as best she could with gentle words, while they got on with their trade. The girl though could not be kept from tears by anything the old woman could say, but cried all the louder, her breasts heaving with sobs, till it even drew tears from me.

‘Alas,’ she cried, ‘torn from so dear a home, from family and servants and my revered parents, the unhappy spoil of theft become enslaved, and shut like a slave in a stony cell, deprived of all the comforts I was born and raised to, tormented by uncertainty as to whether I’ll survive or be butchered by these thieves, this dreadful gang of sword-fighters, how can I help crying, or even endure alive?’

So she lamented, and then exhausted by the pain in her heart, the strain on her throat, and the tiredness of her weary body, she allowed her drooping eyelids to fall in sleep. But her eyes had only been shut an instant when at once like a woman possessed she started up and began to torment herself more violently than before, pounding her breast and tearing her pretty face. When the old woman asked her why she was plunged in fresh grief, she only heaved a deeper sigh and cried: ‘Oh now it’s certain, now I’m totally lost and done for, and not a hope of rescue, I must find a rope or a sword or a nearby precipice.’

At this the old woman grew angry, and asked her, with a scowl, what on earth she was crying for, and what had roused her from deep sleep and provoked that loud wailing again. ‘You think to cheat my young men of their profit from this rich venture, do you? Persist and I’ll make sure those tears are wasted – robbers pay them little attention anyway – and see you roasted alive!’


Book IV:26-27 Her dream


Terrified at her words, the girl kissed the old woman’s hands and cried: ‘Mother, forgive me, and in my harsh misfortune, show a little human kindness. The experiences of a long life have not, I think, exhausted the springs of pity in that revered grey head of yours. Just gaze on this calamitous scene.

There’s a young man, my cousin, the foremost of his peers, three years older than I, whom the whole city look on like a son. We were raised together from earliest childhood, inseparable playmates in our little house, even sharing room and bed. With the affections of a sacred love, he was pledged to me, and I to him, engaged by contract with promises of marriage, registered formally with our parents’ consent. On the eve of our weeding he sacrificed at shrines, at public temples, accompanied by a crowd of both our kin. Our whole house was decked with laurel, lit by torches, and echoing with the wedding hymn. There was my poor mother clasping me to her, and pinning on the prettiest marriage finery, pressing sweet kisses on my lips and uttering anxious prayers that grandchildren might appear, when suddenly a warlike gang of men with swords burst in, brandishing their hostile naked blades. They turned their attention not to murder or plunder, but marching in a tight-packed close formation through our room snatched me, ill and fainting from the cruellest fears, out of my mother’s trembling arms without a single person fighting back, or offering the slightest resistance. So my lover’s wedding was prevented, as Cybele thwarted Attis; and married life denied him, as war denied Protesilaus.

A moment ago a cruel dream renewed, or rather crowned, my troubles. I saw myself, after being dragged violently from the house, my bridal suite, my room, almost my very bed, crying my unfortunate lover’s name through the pathless wilds, while he, denied my embrace, drenched with perfume still and garlanded with flowers, followed the trail of alien feet. Then in my dream, as he lamented his lovely young bride’s kidnap with pitiful cries, and called to passers-by for aid, one of the thieves infuriated by his relentless pursuit, snatched up a huge stone at his feet, and striking my unfortunate lover, killed him. That dreadful vision was what terrified me, and shook me out of my dark sleep.’

Heaving a sigh, the old woman spoke again: ‘Be of good heart, young mistress, don’t let a dream’s vain fantasy disturb you. In the first place dreams that come in daytime are always said to prove untrue, and secondly a nightmare often signifies the opposite. For example, being beaten, weeping, someone slicing at your throat, will announce a large and profitable deal; while laughter, stuffing sweet pastries, or love-making, foretell sad spirits, bodily weakness, and every sort of loss. Come let me divert you with an old wives’ tale, one that makes a pretty story.’ And she began.


Book IV:28-31 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: fatal beauty


‘In a certain city there lived a king and queen, who had three daughters of surpassing beauty. Though the elder two were extremely pleasing, still it was thought they were only worthy of mortal praise; but the youngest girl’s looks were so delightful, so dazzling, no human speech in its poverty could celebrate them, or even rise to adequate description. Crowds of eager citizens, and visitors alike, drawn by tales of this peerless vision, stood dumbfounded, marvelling at her exceptional loveliness, pressing thumb and forefinger together and touching them to their lips, and bowing their heads towards her in pious prayer as if she were truly the goddess Venus. Soon the news spread through neighbouring cities, and the lands beyond its borders, that the goddess herself, born from the blue depths of the sea, emerging in spray from the foaming waves, was now gracing the earth in various places, appearing in many a mortal gathering or, if not that, then earth not ocean had given rise to a new creation, a new celestial emanation, another Venus, and as yet a virgin flower.

Day by day rumour gathered pace, and the fame of her beauty spread through the nearby islands, the mainland, and all but a few of the provinces. People journeyed from far countries, and sailed the deep sea in swelling throngs, to witness the sight of the age. Venus’s shrines in Paphos, Cnidos, and even Cythera itself were no longer their destinations. Her rites were neglected, her temples abandoned, her cushions were trodden underfoot, the ceremonies uncelebrated, the statues un-garlanded, the altars cold with forsaken ashes. The girl it was, that people worshipped, seeking to propitiate the goddess’ great power in a human face. When she walked out of a morning, they would invoke transcendent Venus in feast and sacrifice. And as she passed through the streets, crowds would shower her with garlands and flowers.

This extravagant bestowal of the honours due to heaven on a mere mortal girl roused Venus herself to violent anger. She shook her head impatiently, and uttered these words of indignation to herself with a groan: “Behold me, the primal mother of all that is, the source of the elements, the whole world’s bountiful Venus, driven to divide my imperial honours with a lowly human! Is my name, established in heaven, to be traduced by earthly pollution? Am I to suffer the vagaries of vicarious reverence, a share in the worship of my divinity? Is a girl, destined to die, to tread the earth in my likeness? Was it nothing that Paris, that shepherd, whose just and honest verdict was approved by almighty Jove, preferred me for my matchless beauty to those other two great goddesses? But she’ll reap no joy from usurping my honours, whatever she may be: I’ll soon make her regret that illicit beauty of hers.”

And she swiftly summoned Cupid, that son of hers, a winged and headstrong boy, who with his wicked ways and contempt for public order, armed with his torch and his bow and arrows, goes running around at night in other people’s houses, ruining marriages everywhere, committing such shameful acts with impunity, and doing not an ounce of good.

Venus, with her words, rousing his natural impudence and wildness to new heights, led him to the city and showed him Psyche in person – such was the girl’s name – and told the tale of her rival’s loveliness, moaning and groaning in indignation. “I beg you,” she said, “by the bond of maternal love, by you arrows’ sweet wounds, by the honeyed licking of your flames, revenge your mother fully; exact harsh punishment from defiant beauty. One act of yours, pursued with a will, would accomplish all: let the girl be seized by violent, burning passion for the most wretched of men, one to whom Fortune has denied rank, wealth, even health, one so insignificant there is none on earth equal to him in misery.”

With this she kissed her son long and tenderly with parted lips then, seeking the nearest strand of tide-swept shore, stepped on rose-tinted feet over the trembling crests of the foaming waves, and stood once more on the crystal surface of the deep. The ocean instantly obeyed her wishes, as if commanded in advance. The Nereids were there, singing a choral song; Portunus, the god of harbours, with his sea-green beard; Salacia, Neptune’s wife, her lap alive with fish; and Palaemon the dolphins’ little charioteer. Troops of Tritons too leapt here and there in the water. One blew softly on a melodious conch; another with a silk parasol shielded her from the sun’s hostile blaze; another held a mirror to his mistress’ eyes; while yet more swam harnessed in pairs to her chariot. Such was the throng escorting Venus as she moved out to sea.


Book IV:32-33 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: the oracle


Psyche, for all her conspicuous beauty, reaped no profit from her charms. Gazed at by all, praised by all, no one, neither prince nor commoner, wishing to marry her, sought her hand. They admired her divine beauty of course, but as we admire a perfectly finished statue. Her two elder sisters, whose plainer looks had never been trumpeted through the world, were soon engaged to royal suitors and so made excellent marriages, but Psyche was left at home, a virgin, single, weeping in lonely solitude, ill in body and sore at heart, hating that beauty of form the world found so pleasing.

So the wretched girl’s unhappy father, suspecting divine hostility, fearing the gods’ anger, consulted the ancient Miletian oracle of Apollo at Didyma. With prayer and sacrifice he asked the mighty god for a man to marry the unfortunate girl. Apollo, though Greek and Ionian too, favoured the author of this Miletian tale with a reply in Latin:


“High on a mountain crag, decked in her finery,

Lead your daughter, king, to her fatal marriage.

And hope for no child of hers born of a mortal,

But a cruel and savage, serpent-like winged evil,

Flying through the heavens, and threatening all,

Menacing ever soul on earth with fire and sword,

Till Jove himself trembles, the gods are terrified,

And rivers quake and the Stygian shades beside.”


The king, blessed till now, on hearing this utterance of sacred prophecy went slowly home in sadness and told his wife the oracle’s dark saying. They moaned, they wept, they wailed for many a day. But the dire and fatal hour soon approached. The scene was set for the poor girl’s dark wedding. The flames of the wedding torches grew dim with black smoky ash; the tune of hymen’s flute sounded in plaintive Lydian mode, and the marriage-hymn’s cheerful song fell to a mournful wail. The bride-to-be wiped tears away with her flame-red bridal veil; the whole city grieved at the cruel fate that had struck the afflicted house and public business was interrupted as a fitting show of mourning.

But the need to obey the divine command sent poor Psyche to meet the sentence decreed, the ritual preparations for the fatal marriage were completed in utter sorrow, and the living corpse was led from the house surrounded by all the people. Tearful Psyche walked along, not in wedding procession, but in her own funeral cortege. Her parents saddened and overcome by this great misfortune hesitated to carry out the dreadful deed, but their daughter herself urged them on:

“Why torment a sorrowful old age with endless weeping? Why exhaust your life’s breath, which is my own, with this constant wailing? Why drown in vain tears those faces I love? Why wound my eyes by wounding your own? Why tear your white hair? Why beat the breasts that fed me? Let this be your glorious reward for my famous beauty. Too late you see the blow that falls is dealt by wicked Envy. When nations and countries granted me divine honours, when with one voice they named me as the new Venus, that’s when you should have mourned, and wept, and grieved as if I were dead. I know now, I realise that her name alone destroys me. Lead me now to that cliff the oracle appointed. I go swiftly towards this fortunate marriage, I go swiftly to meet this noble husband of mine. Why delay, why run from the coming of one who’ll be born for the whole world’s ruin?”

With this, the girl fell silent, and went steadfastly on, accompanied by the throng of citizens around her. They came to the steep mountain crag decreed, and placed the girl, as commanded, on its very top, then deserted her, one and all. They left behind the bridal torches, lighted on the way, and now extinguished by their tears, and heads bent low began their journey home, where her unhappy parents, exhausted by this dreadful blow, shut themselves in the darkness of their room, and resigned themselves to endless night.

Meanwhile Psyche, on the topmost summit, frightened, trembling, and in tears, was lifted by a gentle breeze, a softly whispering Zephyr, stirring her dress around her and causing it to billow, its tranquil breath carrying her slowly down the high cliff slopes to the valley below, where it laid her tenderly on a bed of flowering turf.