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Chaos and Order, Fortune and Isis

Chaos and Order, Fortune and Isis

The Role of Fortune in The Golden Ass

Blas Pedro Uberuaga

December 14, 1992

Roman Literature

Dr. Louis Perraud

Humans have always endeavored to discover the nature of the world in which we live. This search, at the most profound level, involves questions of why, questions such as why there is lightning, why objects fall down, and why we exist. Another question we seem to continually ask is why bad things happen to us instead of good ones. Why don't they happen to my neighbor? In other words, we are always asking "why me?" Apuleius asked this question in his novel The Golden Ass. His main character, Lucius, is constantly dealt one misfortune after another. These misfortunes are attributable to various sources, but, most of the time, Lucius blames his problems on Fortune. In instances involving other characters, the main agent of change in the human situation is the malicious actions of people. Such reversals of fortune are so sudden that they cause no insecurity. Usually, the people who suffer these reversals are taken completely by surprise, often going from a happy existence to a wretched one. This seems to be the type of changes that Apuleius fears the most. Fortune, on the other hand, seems to be the source of insecurity, since it is a constant force in one's life that must always be dealt with. It is always there in the back of the mind. However, it does not evoke fear, since usually, through perseverance, it can be overcome. The only freedom from this insecurity comes from the favor and the subsequent worship of the divine, who, in this case, is the goddess Isis.

Throughout The Golden Ass, Lucius comes into contact with and hears of many people who were living in relative bliss when they experience a crisis which takes them completely by surprise. Usually, these crises are the result of actions, normally malicious in nature, taken by other characters in the novel. The results of these crises vary. Most end with the punishment of the cause of the problem. However, the protagonists of the different stories suffer different ends. Some end up dead while others return to their happy lives, though there seem to be more of the former than the later. Two examples of this that I want to examine are those involving the princess and the stepmother. Afterwards, I will look at the episode involving Lucius directly.

The princess is the first main character Lucius meets after being transformed into an ass. Her story is as follows. First, the princess, Charite, is captured by bandits. She is eventually rescued by her fiancé, Tlepolemus, who she then marries. However, Tlepolemus has a rival, Thrasyllus, who kills Tlepolemus and then tries to seduce Charite. Finally, after learning the circumstances of her husband's death, Charite blinds Thrasyllus and then kills herself. Thrasyllus ends up starving himself to death after Charite's suicide. Charite experiences two major disruptions in her life: first her kidnapping and then the murder of her husband. Neither, of course, are natural. Both are caused by other people who, at the time, where motivated by evil (though, it could be argued that Thrasyllus had a higher motivation: his love (or lust) for Charite). In this case, both evildoers are punished, but the heroine does not live happily ever after. She too dies as a result of her involvement in these situations. Here, fate takes a cruel turn for the worse for all involved.

The second story I wish to look at occurs on pages 230 to 240. These pages relate the story of a man, his two sons, and his second wife. The wife, the first boy's stepmother and the other's real mother, falls in love with her stepson and, when rejected by him, attempts to poison him but poisons her son instead, blaming the entire incident on the stepson. Through the intervention of a wise doctor, the poisoned boy, feared to be dead, revives and the stepson's innocence is revealed. The stepmother is subsequently forced into exile. This story is basically the same as the other: one character, inflamed by love, tries to destroy another character. In the first story, the first character is successful. Here, she again would have been successful if not for the thoughtfulness of the doctor, who's foresight averts any deaths. The only thing that was able to counteract the evilness of one character was the benevolent intervention of another, outside character. This sort of mirrors the overall struggle of Lucius against the machinations of Fortune which, in the end, are only thwarted by the intervention of Isis.

Near the beginning of the book, Lucius finds himself in a similar situation, although his is not caused intentionally. During the festival of laughter, Lucius is accused of killing a group of men, which even he believes he did. He is put on trial, during which it appears that there is no hope for escape. In the end, it is revealed that he did not kill any men, but destroyed some wineskins. This whole situation was caused by the actions of Fotis, his lover, though the results of her actions were completely unintentional.

The only time in the entire book that Lucius shows genuine fear is here, during the trial. He never stops bursting into tears. This suggests to me that it is such situations that Apuleius fears the most as well: those that are unforeseen and show no hope for a favorable resolution. The only chance for what may be called salvation is the intervention of some outside power, as with the doctor above and the old hag here who forces Lucius to reveal the true identity of the "men" he has murdered. These sudden misfortunes are the potential agents of total destruction. In the world of The Golden Ass, there does not seem to be any other force that has the destructive power equivalent to that exercised by people. Part of this destructive power stems from the sheer surprise with which these events overtake people, leaving them in a state of wretchedness. To contrast, in the Aeneid, the actions of men define only the smallest details. The truly important actions are taken by the gods, who decide when and how significant events will occur. Even they, however, are ruled by fate, which foreordains that certain events definitely will take place. In The Golden Ass, there does not seem to be a force equivalent to fate, though, in some ways, Fortune might be similar, as I will mention later. There are gods, but, if we consider Fortune to be something other than a god, for the most part they play a negligible role in human affairs. People have the most power to define or change things on this world. The few times the gods do intervene, however, make all the difference in the world.

While these isolated incidents are occurring at various times to various characters, there is a larger struggle taking place at a higher level. This is the struggle between Lucius, and presumably all of us, and what he calls Fortune. To Lucius, Fortune is the cause of most of his affliction. She is a cruel entity that maliciously throws obstacles into his path. In this way, she is not so much different from the other evildoers mentioned before. The main difference, it seems, and also the reason I think that Apuleius does not fear Fortune, is that Fortune views those she is against as, according to the High Priest, "playthings" (272), while the other malicious characters in the book are intent on the destruction of others. Several times, Lucius makes comments such as "but Fortune cruelly exposed me to fresh trials" (162), "Fortune seemed insatiable; now she thought out a new torment for me" (163), and "But merciless Fortune . . . found me a buyer whom she could depend upon to prolong my agonies" (187). She is not out to destroy him, but rather, it seems, to have a good time at his expense.

There are times when Lucius credits Fortune with some good happening, but at the same time doubts her motives. On page 165, he says "Fortune came to my rescue, if only to reserve me for greater dangers." Lucius regards Fortune as an adversary. She is an opponent and, as such, is meant to be overcome. He knows what he is up against, and, therefore, does not fear her as much as he does the power of other people. However, he has very few resources to draw upon during the course of their battle. The only thing he can rely on is his intelligence, and in the end even this is not enough to save him. He has to call upon the divine to assist him in his battle versus Fortune. It is the simple realization that he needs the assistance of a divine power that frees him from Fortune's manipulations. This parallels the basic tenets of Christianity, which says that only through God's grace can a person be saved. The main difference here is that Isis saves Lucius from troubles in this life, while God will save us from death in the next life.

There appears to me to be yet another major difference between Lucius' struggle against Fortune and the constant barrage of misfortunes the other characters visit upon one another and it is the reason I feel that, for Apuleius, Fortune is the bringer of insecurity while the other characters are not. In Lucius' life, Fortune is a constant. There is not a moment when he does not wonder if Fortune will seek him out as a target again and throw him some new misery. Thus, she is always in the back of his mind, nagging at him, forcing him to feel insecure. The other source of misfortune, people, do not cause such anxiety because he does not brood upon what they might do to him. They have an element of surprise because he does not dwell on them. Fortune worries him more because she is always present.

Fortune, in comparison with figures from the Aeneid, seems to be a synthesis of Juno and fate. She is like Juno in that they both seem to single out a specific mortal and then use their powers to harass that mortal. Juno picked Aeneas and Fortune, Lucius. They differ in that Juno intends to destroy Aeneas while Fortune just wants to play with Lucius. Fortune makes his life miserable, but refrains from doing any lasting harm just so she can continue her game. The other characters in the book, such as the stepmother and Thrasyllus, are closer to Juno in personality than is Fortune. They are out to destroy others, much like Juno. Fortune does not want to kill Lucius, she just wants to toy with him, much like cats seem to do with mice, almost to the point of trying to test him, for whatever reason. It could be that Fortune and Isis work together in this, though this is pure speculation.

Fortune also seems to be a divine or supernatural personification of what might be fate in the Aeneid, although, unlike fate, Fortune can be thwarted. Mortals can surmount Fortune at times, but never completely conquer her. However, fate can never be overcome. Mortals have no influence over fate and neither do the immortals. They are similar in that both are powers higher than humans and distinct from gods (though, Fortune is personified to such a degree in The Golden Ass, one might be confused as to whether or not she is meant to be a deity). The major difference I see between Fortune and fate is that the gods cannot overcome fate; they can Fortune.

I think that this weakness of Fortune is of primary importance in the novel. Because Fortune can be defeated by the divine, and only by the divine, it is necessary for mortals to appeal for divine grace in order to free themselves from Fortune's grip. The High Priest says "She [Fortune] has no power to hurt those who devote their lives to . . . our Goddess's majesty" (272). This is a central concept to many religions: the idea that something that is necessary for happiness (whether in this life or the next) requires the help of the divine. It is this divine grace that is the source of security in The Golden Ass. Because Fortune is the root of insecurity, Isis can have a special role in Lucius' life. She is able to keep Fortune away from her chosen. Isis is therefore the source of security. This process is similar to what Christianity is based on. A mortal has to recognize the fact that he or she needs God, and then, only after this recognition, God will save the mortal through divine grace.

After analyzing the role of Fortune in The Golden Ass, I have come to the conclusion that Fortune is an embodiment of both the unforeseen and the inexplicable. She causes events that people did not expect and for which there is no rationale. Lucius cannot give a reason for why he was sold to the eunuch priests. He just was. There is an element of chaos in his life, and this chaos is Fortune. She is the closest figure in Apuleius' novel to Virgil's fate. The main difference is that she can be conquered, although this cannot be accomplished by mortals alone. They need divine intervention to keep Fortune from playing with their lives. After a mortal calls upon the divine, he or she can live a secure life free from worry. There may still be tragedy in one's life, but this will not be caused by Fortune. Rather, it will be the result of other people, people who usually have evil designs on another person. In this respect, the cult of Isis shares a lot with other religions, even Christianity. By being a source of security, Isis is more than the traditional Roman gods are. They, in general, promise nothing for the mortal. In fact, they almost play the same role in human lives as does Fortune in Lucius' life. Religions such as the cult of Isis probably developed out of a need for security, the search of which is another basic undertaking of human kind.

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Last updated: Fri, 18 Aug 2006 - 12:08:18


These pages created by Blas Pedro Uberuaga.