The Golden Ass, Book VI

Book VI:1-4 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: Ceres and Juno


Meanwhile Psyche wandered day and night, restlessly seeking her husband, eager if she could not mollify his anger with a wife’s caresses, at least to appease him with a devotee’s prayers. Spying a temple on the summit of a high mountain, she thought: “How do I know he might not live there?” Swiftly she moved towards it. Though she was wearied from her efforts, hope and desire quickened her step. When she had clambered up to the lofty ridge, she entered the shrine and stood by the sacred couch. It was heaped with ears of wheat, some woven into wreaths, and ears of barley. There were sickles, and all the other harvest implements, but scattered about in total disorder, as if left there by the harvesters escaping the summer sun. Psyche sorted them all into separate piles, thinking she should not neglect the temples or rituals of any deity, but rather appeal to the kindness and mercy of them all.

It was bountiful Ceres who found her, carefully and diligently caring for her shrine, and called to her from afar: “Psyche, poor girl, what’s this? Venus, her heart afire, is searching intently for you. She wants to punish you severely, demanding vengeance with all her divine power. Yet here you are looking after my affairs. How can you think of anything but your own safety?”

Psyche drenched the goddess’ feet with a flood of tears, and swept the temple floor with her hair, as she prostrated herself on the ground, uttering countless prayers, seeking to win the deity’s favour: “I beseech you by the fruitful power of your right hand, by the joy-filled ceremony of the harvest, by the unspoken mystery of the sacred basket, by the winged flight of your dragon-servants, by the furrowed Sicilian fields and Pluto’s chariot and the swallowing earth, by Proserpine’s descent to a gloomy wedding, the torch-lit discovery of that same daughter of yours’ and her return, and by all the other secrets which your sanctuary in Attica, Eleusis, cloaks in silence, oh, save the life of wretched Psyche, your suppliant. Let me hide for a few days here at least among your store of grain, till the great goddess’s raging anger abates with the passage of time, or until my strength, exhausted by my long journey, is restored by a chance to rest.”

Ceres answered: “Your tears and prayers move me more than I can say, and I long to help you, but Venus is not simply my niece, we share ancient ties of friendship, and besides she’s so good-hearted, I can’t afford to offend her. I fear you must leave the shrine at once, and count yourself fortunate not to be held here as my captive.”

Driven away despite her hopes, doubly afflicted with sorrow, Psyche retraced her steps. In the valley below, at the centre of a dimly-lit grove, she caught sight of another beautifully-fashioned temple. Not wishing to miss any path, however uncertain, that might lead to better expectations, and happy to seek help from any deity, she approached the sacred doors. There she saw rich offerings, gold embroidered ribbons, attached to the branches and the doorposts, whose lettering spelled the name of the goddess to whom they were dedicated, with thanks for her aid. So Psyche knelt and clasped the altar, still warm from sacrifice, in her arms, then dried her tears and prayed:

“Sister and consort of mighty Jove, whether you reside in the ancient sanctuary of Samos, which was granted the sole glory of your birth and  infant tears and nurturing; or whether you frequent the lofty site of blessed Carthage, where they worship you as a Virgin riding the Lion through the sky; or whether you are defending Argos’ famous walls beside the banks of Inachus, where they call you the Thunderer’s bride, queen of the gods; you whom the East adores as Zygia goddess of marriage, and the West as Lucina goddess of childbirth: be Juno the Protectress to me in my dire misfortune. I am so weary from my great troubles. Free me from the dangers that threaten, for I know you come willingly to the help of pregnant girls in peril.”

As she bowed in supplication, Juno appeared in all the glorious majesty of her divinity. “How I wish,” she cried, at once, “I could match my will to your prayer. But it would bring me shame to go against the wishes of Venus, Vulcan’s wife and my daughter-in-law, whom I’ve always loved as if she were my own. And then the law prevents me harbouring another’s fugitive servant without their consent.”


Book VI:5-8 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: brought to account


Terrified at this second shipwreck of her hopes, unable to find her winged husband, Psyche abandoned all thought of salvation, and took counsel of her thoughts:

“What else can I try, what other aid can ease my tribulations, since the goddesses despite their favourable views cannot help me? Where else can I turn caught in such a web? What roof can conceal me, what darkness can hide me from the all-penetrating eyes of powerful Venus? Why not pluck up courage, as a man would, and abandon idle hope? Go to your mistress willingly, though late, and by yielding to her furious pursuit mollify her. Besides, who knows that you may not find the one you’ve long searched for, there, in his mother’s house?” So, ready to risk the unknown consequences of surrender, even destruction itself, she pondered how she should commence her imminent appeal.

Meanwhile Venus, abandoning all attempts to find her on earth, sought the heavens. She ordered her chariot readied, that Vulcan the goldsmith had carefully wrought with subtle skill, offering it to her as a gift before they entered into marriage. It was noted for its filigree work and more valuable for the very gold removed by the refining file! Four white doves, with glad demeanour, emerged from the dovecote surrounding her chamber, offered their snowy necks to the jewelled harness, then lifted the burden of their mistress and happily took flight. Sparrows rose in the chariot’s wake, chirping madly at its approach; and all the birds, that sing so sweetly, great Venus’s retinue filled with song and unafraid of rapacious eagles or circling hawks along the way, echoed their delight with honeyed melodies. Thus the clouds parted, the Heavens opened, to welcome their daughter and the highest ether received the goddess with joy.

She went straight to Jove’s royal citadel, and urgently demanded to borrow the services of Mercury, the messenger god. Nor was Jupiter’s celestial assent denied her. In triumph she descended from the sky, with Mercury too in her wake, and gave him careful instructions:

“Arcadian, you know your sister Venus has never accomplished a thing without your presence, and no doubt you’re aware I’m trying in vain to find a runaway servant. So nothing remains but for you to publicly proclaim a reward for whoever finds her. Go carry out my order at once, and describe her features clearly, so that no one charged with wrongfully hiding her can claim ignorance as a defence.” With that she handed him the details, Psyche’s name and the rest, and promptly left for home.

Mercury rushed to comply, running here and there from person to person, fulfilling his task with this proclamation: “If any man knows the whereabouts of, or can arrest in flight, the runaway servant of Venus, the princess named Psyche, he should meet with Mercury, author of this announcement, by the shrine of Venus Murcia in the Circus Maximus. The reward offered is seven sweet kisses from Venus herself, and one more deeply honeyed touch of her caressing tongue.”

After his proclamation, the desire for so fine a reward roused the competitive instinct in every mortal man, and more than anything it put an end to Psyche’s previous hesitation. Familiarity, a servant of Venus, ran at her as she approached her mistress’ door, and began shouting at the top of her voice: “So, you worthless girl, you’ve at last remembered you have a mistress! Just like your thoughtless behaviour to pretend ignorance of all the trouble we’ve endured, searching for you. But now you’ve fallen into my hands and a good thing too, now you’re in Death’s claws indeed, and you’ll pay the price for this endless defiance.”


Book VI:9-10 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: the first task


With that she seized her tight by the hair and dragged her inside. The unresisting Psyche was thrust into Venus’ presence. The goddess burst into savage laughter as women do when deeply enraged, beating her round the head and dragging her about by the ear, crying: “So you deign to call on your mother-in-law at last, do you? Or are you here to visit that husband of yours, laid low by your own hand? Don’t you worry, I’ll entertain you as a fine daughter-in-law deserves. Where are those attendants of mine, Anxiety and Sorrow?”

When they entered she handed the girl over to them for punishment. At the goddess’s command they flogged poor Psyche and tortured her in other ways, then returned her to their mistress’s sight. Then Venus screeched with laughter again: “Look at her,” she cried, “trying to stir my pity with that offering, that swollen belly of hers! No doubt she thinks its illustrious origin might gladden its grandmother’s heart. Indeed what joy, in the very flower of my youth, to be known as a grandmother, with the offspring of a lowly servant as Venus’ own grandson! But how foolish of me to call it such: since this ‘marriage’ of mortal and god took place in some country villa, with nary a witness, without the father’s consent. It was not done within the law, and your child too will be illegitimate, if indeed I allow the birth at all.”

Having launched this tirade, Venus flew at her, beat her about the head severely, tore her hair, and ripped her clothes to pieces. Then the goddess called for wheat, millet and barley, poppy-seeds, chickpeas, lentils and beans, and mixed the heaps all together in one pile. Then she returned to Psyche: “You look such a hideous creature you’ll only attract a lover by hard work. So I’ll test out your industriousness myself. Sort that pile into separate kinds, each in its own heap, finish it all by this evening, and show it me for approval.” With that Venus took herself off to a marriage feast.

Psyche sat there dumbfounded, gazing silently at that confused and inextricable mountain of a task, dismayed by its sheer enormity. But a passing ant, a little ant of the fields, pitied the great god’s bride, and seeing the intractable nature of the problem, condemned the goddess’s cruelty. Running this way and that, it summoned and gathered together a whole squadron of local ants, crying: “Nimble creatures of Earth, the Mother of all, take pity on this pretty girl in trouble, run swiftly now to the aid of the wife of Love himself!”  Wave after wave of the six-footed folk appeared, and with tireless industry took the heap apart piece by piece, and sorted it into differing piles each of a separate nature, then quickly vanished from sight.


Book VI:11-13 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: the second task


Venus returned from the wedding festivities that evening, smelling of balsam and soaked with wine, her whole body garlanded in gleaming roses. When she saw how perfectly the difficult task had been performed, she cried: “This is not your doing, you wretch, but the work of that boy who fell in love with you to your misfortune and his.” Then she threw Psyche a lump of bread for her supper, and went to her bed.

Cupid was still under close custody, locked in a room deep in the house, partly for fear his injury would be worsened by wanton self-indulgence, partly to keep him from meeting his sweetheart. So, under one roof but separated, the lovers spent a wretched night.

But as soon as Dawn’s chariot mounted the sky, Venus summoned Psyche and gave her a fresh task: “Do you see the wood which borders all that bank of the flowing river, where dense thickets overlook the source nearby? Sheep, with fleece that glistens with purest gold, wander there and graze unguarded. Obtain a hank of that precious wool, in any manner you please, and bring it to me straight away, such is my decree.”

Psyche left willingly, not to fulfil the goddess’ demand, but to escape from her troubles by throwing herself from a cliff into the river. But a green reed, that piper of sweet music, stirred by the touch of a gentle breeze, was divinely inspired to prophesy thus:

“Poor Psyche, though you’re assailed by a host of sorrows, don’t pollute these sacred waters with a pitiful act of suicide. Conceal yourself carefully behind this tall plane-tree that bathes in the same current as I do. Don’t go near those dreadful sheep right now, as they soak up heat from the burning sun and burst out in wild fits of madness, venting their fury on passers-by with those sharp horns set in stony foreheads and their venomous bite, but wait till the sun’s heat fades in late afternoon, when the flock settles to rest under the calming influence of the river breeze. Then while their savagery is assuaged and their temper eased, just explore the trees in the wood nearby, and you’ll find the golden wool clinging here and there to the bent branches.”

Thus a simple reed, in its kindness, taught Psyche in distress how to save her self. She never faltered, nor had reason to regret obeying the advice so carefully given, but accepted her instructions, and easily filled the folds of her dress with soft gleaming gold, carrying her spoils to Venus. Yet her success at this second dangerous task garnered no favour in her mistress’ eyes. Venus frowned and said with a cruel smile: “I know the true author of this achievement only too well. But now a serious test will prove if you’ve real courage and true intelligence. Do you see that steep mountain peak, rising above those towering cliffs? Dark waters flow from a black fount there, down to the nearby valley’s confined depths, and they feed the swamps of Styx, and the bitter stream of Cocytus. Draw me some of the freezing liquid from the bubbling heart of that spring, and bring it me quickly in this little phial.” With that, she gave her a crystal jar, and added a few harsh threats for good measure.


Book VI:14-15 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: the third task


Psyche, determined now, if she failed, to end her wretched life at last, clambered swiftly and steadfastly towards the mountain summit. But when she neared the ridge that was her goal, she saw the vast difficulty of her deadly task. A high and immense rock wall, jagged, precarious, and inaccessible, emitted dread streams from jaws of stone, flowing downwards from their precipitous source through a narrow funnel they had carved, and sliding unseen down to the gorge below. On either side fierce serpents slithered from holes in the cliffs, extending their heads, eyes given to unblinking vigil, their pupils on watch at every moment. Even the waters were alive and on guard, crying out: “Off with you! Where are you going? See here! What are you doing? Beware! Be gone! You’ll die!” As if changed to stone though present in body, the helpless Psyche took leave of her senses, and overwhelmed by the threat of inescapable disaster lacked even the last solace of tears.

But the sharp eyes of kindly Providence saw an innocent soul in trouble. Mighty Jupiter’s royal eagle, wings outstretched, was there to aid her: the raptor recalled that time long ago when at Cupid’s command he had served to carry Ganymede, the Phrygian cup-bearer, through the heavens to Jove. Now he brought timely assistance, honouring Cupid’s claim on him. Seeing the ordeal the god’s wife was enduring, he left the bright roads of high heaven, and circling above her called: “Simple and innocent as you are, do you really expect even to touch, never mind steal, a single drop from that most sacred and cruel of founts? Jupiter himself, and all the gods, fear these Stygian waters. Surely you know that, just as you swear by the power of the gods, so the gods in turn swear by the power of Styx. Now, pass me that phial!”

He snatched it from her hand, and swept off to fill it from the stream. Balanced on his great sweeping wings he flew beyond the serpents’ reach, those savage jaws, those incisors, those triply-grooved flickering tongues, swerving to right and left. The water rose and threatened to harm him if he did not desist, but he gathered them, claiming he sought them at Venus’ orders, acting on her behalf, and was granted easier access on that account.


Book VI:16-20 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: the underworld


So Psyche regained the little jar, now full, and quickly brought it to Venus. But still the cruel goddess’s will was not appeased. Menacing her with greater, more terrible threats, Venus glared at her balefully: “Now I see how readily you’ve performed those impossible tasks of mine, I’m certain you must be some kind of high and mighty witch. But there’s one more little service you must perform, my dear. Take the jar and plunge from the light of day to the underworld, to the dismal abode of Pluto himself. Hand the jar to Proserpine and say: ‘Venus asks that you send her a little of your beauty, enough for one brief day. She has used and exhausted all she had while caring for her son who’s ill.’ And don’t be slow to return, since I need to apply it before I attend a gathering of deities.”

Now Psyche felt that this was indeed the end of everything: the veil had been drawn aside, and she saw she was being driven openly to imminent destruction, forced, was it not obvious, to go willingly on her own two feet to Tartarus and the shades. Instantly she climbed to the summit of the highest tower, intending to throw herself from it, as the swiftest and cleanest route to the underworld. But the turret suddenly burst into speech: “Unhappy girl, why seek to destroy your self in this way? Why rashly surrender everything before this the last of your tasks? Once your breath is gone from your body, you’ll sink to the depths of Tartarus indeed, but from there you’ll not return. Listen to me. Not far from here is the famous city of Achaean Sparta. Seek Cape Taenarus there, in the region, it’s remote, that borders on Lacedaemon. There is a breathing-hole of Dis, and through its gaping portal they’ll show you a rough-made path. Once cross the threshold and take that road and you’ll reach Pluto’s palace by the shortest way. But don’t go into the shadows without bearing in each hand a barley-cake soaked in honeyed wine, and hold two coins in your mouth. When you’ve completed a good part of your gloomy journey, you’ll meet with a lame ass carrying wood, and an equally lame driver, who’ll ask you to hand him some sticks that have fallen from his load. But don’t utter a single word, and pass them by in silence. Not long afterwards you’ll reach the river of the dead, where Charon the ferryman demands an instant toll, then carries the shades to the further bank in his patched-up skiff. Thus we see that avarice lives even amongst the dead, and Charon, the tax collector for Pluto, that great deity, does nothing without a fee. A pauper who’s dying must find the passage-money, and unless there’s a coin to hand, no one will allow him to expire. Let that squalid old man have one of the coins you bear, but make sure he takes it out of your mouth with his very own hand. And when you’re crossing that slow-moving stream an aged corpse afloat on the surface will raise its rotting hands and beg you to lift him into the boat: but don’t be swayed by mistaken pity. One you are across the river, and have gone a little further, some old women weaving, at the loom, will ask you to lend a hand for a while, but you must not help them either. All these and more are traps laid for you by Venus, to make you let go of one of those barley-cakes. And don’t think losing a barley-cake is of little consequence, if you lose either cake you’ll not see daylight again. For you’ll arrive at the monstrous dog, with triple heads of enormous size, a huge and fearsome creature with thunderous jaws, who barks enough to frighten the dead but in vain; he can do them no harm. He keeps constant guard at the threshold of Proserpine’s dark halls, defending the insubstantial palace of Dis. One barley-cake thrown as a sop will hold him, and you can get by easily, and enter Proserpine’s presence. She’ll receive you courteously and benignly, and try to tempt you to sit down by her in comfort, and eat a sumptuous meal. But you must squat on the ground, demand common bread and eat that. Then tell her why you are there, take what is set before you, and make your way back, bribing the savage dog with that second barley-cake. Give the avaricious ferryman the coin you kept in reserve, cross the river, retrace your steps, and you’ll return to the heavenly choir of stars. But above all else, I warn you, be careful, whatever you do, not to open and not to look in the jar you’ve tied to your waist, and don’t let your curiosity loose by thinking too much about that hidden treasure, divine beauty.”

Thus the far-seeing tower performed its prophetic service. Psyche reached Taenarus without delay and, with both coins and cakes, hastened down the path to the underworld. She passed the lame ass-driver in silence, gave up her toll to the ferryman, ignored the cries of the floating corpse, spurned the cunning requests of the weaver-women, fed the dog a cake to assuage his fearful madness, and entered the palace of Proserpine. She accepted neither the pleasant seat nor the luxurious meal her hostess offered, but sat on the ground at her feet, and contenting her self with a simple crust, achieved what Venus had asked. In secret, the jar was quickly filled and sealed, and Psyche gathered it up again. She silenced the barking dog with the ruse of that second cake, paid her last coin to the ferryman, and ran even more swiftly back from the underworld. But despite her haste to be done with her terms of service, once she’d returned to the brightness of day, and greeted it with reverence, her mind was overcome by a most unwise curiosity, “Behold,” she said to herself, “I’m foolish to be the bearer of such divine beauty, and not take a tiny drop of it for myself. It might even help me please my beautiful lover.”


Book VI:21-22 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: the jar of sleep


And with those words she unsealed the jar; but there was never a drop of beauty there, nothing but deathly, truly Stygian sleep. When the cover was lifted slumber attacked her instantly, enveloping her entire body in a dense cloud of somnolence. She collapsed where she stood, fell on the path, and deep slumber overcame her. She lay there motionless, like a corpse but fast asleep.

Cupid, feeling better now that his scar had healed, could no longer endure the absence of his beloved Psyche and, dropped from the high window of the room where he’d been confined. With wings restored by his long rest, he flew all the more swiftly, and swooping to Psyche’s side he wiped away the sleep with care and returned it to the jar where it belonged. Then he roused her with a harmless touch of his arrow, saying: “Look how you’ve nearly ruined yourself again, poor child, with that insatiable curiosity of yours. Now be quick and finish the task my mother assigned. I’ll take care of everything else.” With this he took lightly to his wings, while Psyche, for her part, swiftly carried Proserpine’s gift to Venus.

Now Cupid, pale of face, devoured by uncontrollable love, was so concerned by his mother’s sudden harshness he returned to his old tricks, quickly flying to heaven’s heights on his swift wings, kneeling before great Jove, and attempting to win support for his cause. Jupiter tweaked Cupid’s cheek, raised the lad’s hand to his lips, kissed it and replied. “My dear son, despite the fact you’ve never shown the slightest respect granted me by all other deities, but wounded my heart again and again, and shamed me with endless bouts of earthly passion, I, who command the elements, I, who ordain the course of the stars; and despite the fact you defy the law, even the Lex Julia itself, and the rules that maintain public order; that you’ve injured my good name, and destroyed my reputation through scandalous adulteries, transforming my tranquil features vilely into snakes and flames, and birds and beasts, and even cattle; nevertheless, because of my sweet disposition, and the fact that you were cradled in my own arms, I’ll do as you ask. But only on one condition; that you beware of making me your rival by giving me, in payment for this favour, some other girl of outstanding beauty.”


Book VI:23-24 The tale of Cupid and Psyche: the marriage


So saying, he ordered Mercury to call an impromptu gathering of the gods, with a fine of a hundred pieces of gold for failing to attend the heavenly assembly, which threat guaranteed the celestial theatre was filled. Almighty Jupiter, from his high throne, gave the following address:

“O deities, inscribed in the roll-call of the Muses, you all know it to be true that I raised this lad with my own hands. I’ve decided the impulses of his hot youth need curbing in some manner. We must take away the opportunity; restrain his childish indulgence with the bonds of matrimony. He’s found a girl, he’s taken her virginity. Let him have her, hold her, and in Psyche’s arms indulge his passions forever.”

Then he turned to Venus saying: “Now my daughter, don’t be despondent. Don’t fear for your lineage or status, because of his wedding a mortal. I’ll make it a marriage of equals, legitimate, in accord with civil law.” And he ordered Mercury to bring Psyche to heaven at once. Once there he handed her a cup of ambrosia, saying: “Drink this Psyche, and be immortal. Cupid will never renege on the bond, and the marriage will last forever.”

Presently a rich wedding feast appeared. The bridegroom reclined at the head, clasping Psyche in his arms. Jupiter and Juno sat beside them, and all the deities in order. Ganymede, the cup-bearing shepherd lad, served Jupiter his nectar, that wine of the gods, and Bacchus-Liber served all the rest, while Vulcan cooked the meal. Now the Hours adorned everyone with roses and hosts of other flowers; the Graces scattered balsam; the choir of the Muses sounded; Apollo sang to the lyre, and Venus danced charmingly to that outpouring of sweet music, arranging the scene so the Muses chimed together, with a Satyr fluting away, and a woodland creature of Pan’s piping his reeds.

So Psyche was given in marriage to Cupid according to the rite, and when her term was due a daughter was born to them both, whom we call Pleasure.’


Book VI:25-29 An escape attempt


This was the tale the drunken, half-demented old woman told her girl-prisoner, while I stood there regretting, by Hercules, that I’d no stylus and pad to record so fine a story.

Now the robbers returned, loaded with loot, though after a serious skirmish; and some of them, the more enterprising, were keen, so I heard, to leave the injured there to recover from their wounds, and head back for the rest of the sacks that they’d hidden in a cave. Quickly swallowing a meal, they prodded the horse and I along the road, as their future bearers of goods, beating us with their sticks. At last, towards evening, when we were weary from many a hill and dale, they led us to the cave, burdened us with piles of their pickings, and not even allowing a moment’s respite for us to regain our strength, started back again at the trot. They were in haste and so agitated the relentless beating and prodding made me tumble over a stone at the edge of the road. I lay there under a hail of blows, till they forced me to rise, though I found it hard, with a lame right leg, and a bruised left hoof.

‘How long are we going to waste good fodder on this worn-out beast,’ said one, ‘Now he’s lame as well.’ ‘Yes,’ another cried, ‘we’ve had no luck since he came. We’ve barely made a decent profit, most of us wounded and the bravest lost.’ ‘As soon as we’ve unloaded these sacks he’s borne so unwillingly, I say we toss him over the cliff,’ said a third, ‘as food for the vultures.’

While these kind souls were debating my death, we’d already reached home, fear turning my hooves to wings. They quickly unloaded the spoils, and with no concern for us, nor for that matter with my execution, they called to the injured friends they’d left behind and returned to fetch the rest of the booty themselves, impatient, as they said, with our tardiness.

No small anxiety gripped me as I pondered the threat of death that menaced me. I thought to myself: ‘Lucius, what are you standing here for, awaiting the end of all? Your death, a cruel one at that, has already been agreed by the robbers, and hardly requires much effort. Look at that chasm there, with those sharp rocks jutting upwards, to pierce you before you reach its depths, and split your body apart! That marvellous magic spell of yours may have given you an ass’s form, and its labours to perform, but rather than its thick hide it wrapped you in a skin thin as a leech’s.  Well then, show a man’s courage, and try to escape while you can. You’ve a good opportunity now, while the robbers are away. Or are you afraid of that old half-dead hag who’s keeping an eye on you? Even if you’re lame, you could still see her off with a kick of your leg. But where in the world to go, who’ll give you sanctuary? Now there’s a stupid, asinine question: what traveller wouldn’t be glad to take a means of transport along?’

So with a sudden sharp tug I broke the halter by which I was hitched, and set off as fast as all four legs could carry me. Yet I still couldn’t evade that vigilant old woman’s hawk-like eye. Seeing I’d broken loose, she grabbed the rope as I went by, with more alacrity than you’d expect from one of her years and gender, then struggled to pull me about and lead me back. But remembering the robber’s murderous decree, I kicked at her with my hind legs, without a shred of pity, knocking her to the ground. Still she clung on stubbornly, lying flat on the earth, so that she followed me as I ran, dragged along in pursuit! And she began to scream, what a noise, begging the help of some stronger arm, though the feeble sounds that formed her cries were useless, since there was only the captive girl about, who flew out on hearing the shouts, and saw before her a scene from a memorable piece of theatre, an aged Dirce, by Hercules, dragged off by an ass instead of a bull. Now she summoned a man’s courage and performed a bold and beautiful feat: she twisted the rope from the old woman’s hands, stayed my headlong flight with caressing words, mounted nimbly on my back, and spurred me onwards once more.

I was driven not just by my desire to escape in the manner I’d chosen, and my zeal to rescue the girl, but persuaded too by her blows that descended from time to time, and so I hit the track with the speed of a racehorse, galloping flat out. I tried to neigh delicate words to her and, pretending to bite my back, turned my neck and kissed her lovely feet.

She sighed deeply then turned her anxious face towards the sky. “O gods above,’ she cried, ‘help me now in my desperate plight. And you, crueller Fortune, cease your fury at last. I should have atoned enough in your eyes given all these piteous torments I’ve endured. And you, protector of my life and freedom, if you carry me safely home to my parents and handsome lover, how I’ll thank you, honour you, and feed you! First I’ll comb out that mane of yours, and adorn it with my maiden’s gems. Then I’ll curl the locks on your brow, part them neatly, and carefully disentangle the hair of your tail, all matted and bristly from neglect. Glittering with golden amulets, bright as the starry sky, you’ll march triumphantly in joyful public procession. I’ll stuff you with food every day, my hero, bringing you nuts and sweet dainties in my silk apron. And with delicacies to eat, to perfect leisure and profound happiness, I’ll add this glorious honour: I’ll enshrine the remembrance of my salvation, through divine providence, in a painting showing our present flight, to be hung in my entrance-hall. There people will see it, and when stories are told they’ll hear it, and the clumsy commentaries of the learned will perpetuate the tale: “How a princess fled her captors, riding on an ass.” You’ll be featured yourself amongst the ancient wonders, and given your example we’ll believe in truth that Phrixus swam the Hellespont on a ram’s broad back; that Arion rode a dolphin, and Europa a bull, and if Jupiter really was that bull and bellowed, perhaps this ass I’m on conceals some deity, or human.’

While she was uttering these sentiments, mingling frequent prayers with her sighs, we reached a fork in the road. She seized the halter and tried hard to steer me to the right, since that must have been the way to her parent’s house, but I knew the robbers had gone that way, to fetch the rest of their loot, and so I stubbornly resisted, and expostulated with her in my mind: ‘Unhappy girl, what are you doing, where are you going? Why hurry to Hades and on my hooves too? You’ll do for us both, this way.’ And there the robbers came upon us, tugging in opposite directions, as if in a dispute over land, or rather the right of way. They’d seen us from afar, in the moonlight, and greeted us with ironical laughter.


Book VI:30-32 Re-capture


‘Where are you off to in the night,’ cried one, ‘aren’t you afraid of midnight ghosts and wandering spirits? What a good girl, eager to see your parents! Well, we must provide an escort for you, as you’re all alone, and show you the short way home.’ Suiting the action to the word, he grabbed the halter and turned me around, giving me the usual beating with the rough stick he was carrying. Then, hastening unwillingly towards imminent death, I remembered the pain in my leg, nodded my head and limped. ‘So,’ he cried, ‘you’re staggering and weaving again. Those legs of yours can gallop but they can’t walk. Yet you were flying faster than old winged Pegasus!’

While he was jeering at me, and brandishing his stick, we reached the barricade in front of the cave. And, there, dangling from a low branch of a tall cypress was the old woman, a noose around her neck. They cut her down, dragged her away at the end of the rope, and threw her over the cliff. Then they swiftly chained the girl, and like ravening beasts attacked the meal left for them, posthumously, by that diligent but unfortunate old crone.

While they bolted their food with voracious greed, they began to discuss our punishment and the vengeance they’d take on us. As might be expected of such a turbulent crew, various suggestions were uttered: that the girl should be burned alive, thrown to wild beasts, crucified or torn to pieces on the rack: though they all agreed that whatever happened she certainly had to die. Then one of them calmed the uproar and quietly delivered the following address:

‘The traditions of our guild, our temperance, my own sense of moderation, do not condone indulging our anger beyond all bounds, by invoking wild beasts, crucifixion, flame or rack, those speedy exits by a sudden death. Take my advice and grant the girl her life, but only the sort of brief existence she deserves. Remember your earlier decree, regarding that ass of ours, forever idle but a consummate glutton, now a counterfeiter of sham lameness, who aided and abetted the girl’s attempt at escape. Vote to slit his throat at dawn, and gut him, then strip the girl and, since he preferred her company to ours, sew her inside his belly, with her head sticking out but the rest of her imprisoned in his beastly hide. Then set that stuffed ass down on top of a crag, and let the power of the burning sun hold sway. Then both will suffer the punishments you’ve rightly chosen: the ass will die, as he’s long deserved, while the girl will suffer the countless bites of insects that eat the flesh, and the roasting fires when the fierce heat of the sun burns the ass’s belly, and the pains of crucifixion when dogs and vultures pick at her guts. And think of all her other torments and suffering too, inside a dead animal while still alive, her nostrils scorched by the terrible stench, and slowly wasting and wasting away and starving to death, not even her hands free to achieve her own demise.’

As he finished, the bandits wholeheartedly stamped their feet and roared their assent. All ears as I was, what else could I do but mourn for the corpse I’d be on the morrow?