Amazigh Philosopher and World Advocate (c. 124 – c. 180 AD) Lucius Apuleius is known as the author of several prose masterpieces written in Latin. Apuleius is best remembered for his brilliant novel, the Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass. He is the author of Florida and of three philosophical treatises, entitled De Plato, De Socrates, and De Mundi. In addition, a great deal of recent scholarship has paid close attention to another of his works, Apologia (Defense,) a unique document in the Latin classics. It is a piece of linguistic virtuosity, thought to have been orally delivered by Apuleius in his own defense in front of pro-consul Claudius Maximus and a court of Roman magistrates convened in Sabratha, a North African city not far from Tripoli. He stood accused of sorcery, an offense punishable by death under Roman law enacted in the first century.
He was indeed a “Barbarian,” as he presented himself in this extraordinary speech he gave during the trial held in 158 AD. He delivered a piece of oratory so remarkable that it was circulated in print after the trial and, fortunately for posterity, was preserved in its entirety. What subsequent scholarship has failed to emphasize, however, is that Lucius Apuleius was the first Amazigh philosopher and novelist of world fame, indeed the first African to publish outside Africa. (1) He was a “Barbarian” who demonstrated with amazing virtuosity and wit that he could speak and write Latin as well as any educated Roman, and more in tune with Greek philosophy, Platonic ideals, and ancient Egyptian wisdom than the majority of his contemporaries. While Apologia has been hailed as a linguistic tour de force, magic in and of itself, it is more than superb rhetoric: it conveys an essential message reaching all Imazighen of yesterday, today, and to-morrow.
Our first Amazigh man of letters possessed a profound knowledge of ancient Egyptian ritual lore and practices. He became an initiate of the mystery cults of Neith/Tanit (Greek Isis,) and of Auser/Azzar (Greek Osiris) and was anointed ‘sacerdos” or Priest of Isis and Osiris. In addition, he relates in the final chapter (chapter 48) of his famous novel The Golden Ass, apparently written long after the trial of Sabratha, that he received a third and most unusual calling. This calling was bestowed upon him in a dream when the Great Egyptian God Auser/Azzar/Osiris appeared in his full glory to call Apuleius to a worldly function which is manifestly to be most extraordinary. The mission was that of “Advocate in Court.” Apuleius believed himself to be very fortunate to receive such a calling. This ministry was so rare indeed that only one other had ever been similarly called to it. What was to be made of this divinely bestowed office? Was it a premonition, a final word referring to his legacy, or a prophecy?
Beyond the sacerdotal functions that he already exercised, Apuleius was chosen by the Gods to fulfill a certain role in the material arena of the world. The time was nearing the close of the second century AD. Lucius is retired to an ancient palace constructed in the time of Silla (around mid-century BC), dating back some two hundred fifty years. Apuleius himself faded from the public record around 180 AD, only to be discovered in the Middle Ages and re-discovered in modern times by European scholars.
At the onset of a new millennium, North Africans who are like him the descendants and cultural heirs of Numidians and Gaetulians are in deep struggle, as a people, in the face of powerful colonizers who deny them their language and cultural identity. The message delivered by Lucius Apuleius standing on trial and asserting his origins as a Barbarian, when it is not politically correct to do so, is powerful indeed. An illustrious ancestor who raises his voice in the most eloquent manner to remind us not only of his sentiment of pride in his origins but also of transcendent forces at work empowers us. He has become a true “Advocate in Court” for a whole people. I suggest that it is incumbent upon all Imazighen to re-instate him in his true place, as the first Amazigh poet, philosopher, sage, and North African literary figure to have come to world attention through his erudition, wit, and psychological and spiritual understanding of human nature.
For the most part, the ending message of Apuleius has been ignored by successive scholars. I wonder if the few laconic remarks that conclude The Golden Ass predict that his destiny was not to be weighed in terms of years but in terms of centuries, and that he had a role to play in the mundane arena of world affairs, according to a timetable of the ancient gods, and not a human timetable. Nearly two thousand years after Apuleius appeared in front of a Roman pro-consul to defend himself, playing his own “Advocate in Court,” as a self- declared and proud “Barbarian,” a native son of Numidia and Gaetulia, the extraordinary life of this Numidian emerges anew from scholarly archives where his real identity was ignored (however, cf. Note 2) to shine as a call to consciousness and a bright beacon.
As a scholar erudite in both Roman and Greek literatures, and a remarkable novelist and philosopher, he has of course already acquired a sort of immortality. However, the extraordinary message that he left is particularly and most meaningful to a whole group of North African people, Imazighen of today, and the future, as he takes his legitimate place in international consciousness among notable scholars and men of letters of North Africa. He is to be identified and duly honored as the forerunner of a long line of creative Amazigh sons and daughters of Numidia and Gaetulia, long denied their linguistic rights in North Africa. As such, he at last would emerge as “Advocate in Court” for all Imazighen whose culture has been labeled “oral,” who have been denied a written legacy and too often been represented as Barbarians without literature. He is the very proof of the contrary. In 158 AD, this proud and immensely witty Amazigh brother made mincemeat of his accusers who were pointing to his Barbarian origins, in an exercise of linguistic virtuosity and Graeco-Roman erudition unrivaled in the literary annals of the Roman world.
In my estimate, Apuleius is not only the remarkable scholar, great novelist, and spiritual figure of weight that is already recognized, but indeed an Amazigh prophet of some sort. I believe that the last vision in which Osiris appeared to him in full form and called him to his destiny as “Advocate in Court” was indeed anointing him with a special worldly task, and that his words, encapsulated in the Apologia he so masterfully delivered, were prophetic. His fame has endured through nearly two thousand years of scholarly tribute and has been particularly significant for those increasingly interested in ancient mysteries and mysticism. He must be also be re-claimed by the Numidian and Gaetulian descendants of North Africa as their first literary figure in the world court of international human rights, the world court of international consciousness. Somehow, he set the stage for this stance in his own words: “I am a Numidian and a Gaetulian, and I am proud of it. I don’t see why I should be ashamed of this.”
Apuleius was born around 124 AD in Madauros, a Roman colony in the south of Numidia, which was situated in an area now located near modern Mdaourouch in Algeria, and he died some time after 180 AD in or around Carthage. He referred to this colony as a “most splendid one, ” (“splendissima colonia sumus,” Apologia, chapter 24.) In his marvelously witty Apology, he actually spends some time describing his exact background, and his pride in it. He was, he said, both Numidian and Gaetulian. Noting the fact that he is in the eyes of his accusers a “Barbarian,” he boasts of his ability to speak Latin and Greek with eloquence and practically mocks them for criticizing at the same time his Barbarian origins and his Greek oratory skills (“eloquentiam Graecam, patriam barbaram.”)
It is evident from the text that Apuleius stood deliberately in front of his accusers as a native of North Africa and asserted his Barbarian heritage proudly. Though Sabratha was not yet a colony at the time of his trial, he points out the fact that his father had already served as an official of the Roman colony of Madaurus, and that his family had a certain status in that area. None the less, he is quite clear in not identifying himself as Roman. He had by then traveled the world, mastered Greek and Latin, and even taught Rhetoric in Rome before returning to his homeland in North Africa. He was familiar with Homer, Plato, and Virgil. Yet, it is his very native heritage that he stresses, while demonstrating the width and breadth of his erudition in a masterly oration, which mocks those who denigrate his origins.
At the time of the trial, the record shows that he had already undergone initiation in ancient rites and become a priest of the Great goddess of Africa and Egypt, Neith, known as Isis to the Greeks. Her ancient worship was known in archaic pre-pharaonic times in the western Delta of the Nile, and was later maintained in the numerous temples erected in her honor throughout North Africa. Apuleius was extremely interested in archaic occult knowledge from Egypt, and became an initiate of the Auser/Azziri (Greek Osiris) cult. He was also an expert herbalist, and it is believed that he wrote an entire treatise on the herbal cure of diseases, which was still in use in the Middle Ages. (2)
Perhaps it is because he was a priest of an archaic North African cult with knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs that he was perceived by the Roman authorities as a dangerous: “magician.” He was responding to accusations and serious charges of having obtained through magic means an older wealthy widow’s consent to marry him. He apparently successfully defended himself, and it appears that charges were dismissed following the trial.
Here is a partial quote of the passage about his origins from chapters 24 and 25 of the speech addressed to the Roman pro-consul Claudius Maximus, Semelianus, and a panel of magistrates in Sabratha:
“About my homeland, it is situated on the border of Numidia and Gaetulia. I am part Numidian and part Gaetulian. I don’t see why I should be ashamed of this…
And I don’t say this out of shame for my country. For even though we were once in a city belonging to the King Scyfax, when he was overthrown, we were given as a gift of the Roman people to the King Massinissa, and now, with the recent arrival of resettled veteran soldiers, we have become a most magnificent colony…
Why did I offer this information? So that from now on, Semelianus, you may be less offended by me, and so that you may extend your good-will and forgiveness, if by some negligence, I did not select your Attic Zarat as my birthplace.”
The self-presentation is a seasoned mixture of indigenous pride, and unquestionable allegiance to Roman rule to the point of boast about the colony of Madaurus. It was surely dictated by the circumstances since he was on trial under serious charges possibly leading to punishment by death. His sharp wit seems also to have diluted the punches he dealt one after another.
The rich humor displayed throughout the famous speech and the depth of his initiate knowledge are particularly manifest in the work that immortalized him, The Golden Ass. More than any other part of his life works, this monumental novel has created scholarly interest and commentaries. It includes the famous tale of Psyche and Amor, as an intercalated text. This brilliant, witty, erudite, and irreverent novel is a tale of ludicrous adventures, in which the author is also the main character. It is a precursor to a literary genre in which Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, the Picaresque novel of Tom Jones and many other followers excelled. The Golden Ass has been translated into numerous languages, used by later imitators, and has also been the inspiration and source of numerous literary works over the centuries including The Decameron, Don Quixote, and Gil Blas.
The central story of Lucius turned into an ass in search of human consciousness, and return to human form ends with a hymn to the feminine powers of the world. It is a journey which transcends time and place and offers extraordinary material for ages to come, with a modernity which has never faded. Modern day psychologists have poured over the very story of Psyche and Cupid for guidelines to journeys of transformation. They have valued the transformative powers necessary to achieve manhood alongside the mystical path offered by ancient Egyptian rites of initiation with which Lucius Apuleius was intimately familiar. His famous hymn to the Great Feminine Goddess (chapter 47) beginning with the invocation: “O blessed queen of Heaven” is still unequaled in its haunting beauty and majesty. The Supreme Goddess replies:
“Behold, Lucius, I have arrived. Thy weeping and prayers have moved me to succour thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, the Mistress and Governess of all the Elements, the initial Progenitrix of all things, the Chief of powers divine, Queen of Heaven, the First of the Gods celestial, the light of the Goddesses. At my will, the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell are disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in various manners, in various customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me the Mother of the Gods… Behold I am come to take pity of thy misfortune and tribulation, behold I am present to favor and aid thee, leave off thy weeping and lamentation, put away thy sorrow, for behold the healthful day which is ordained by my providence.”
In the last two chapters (47 and 48) the picaresque and bawdy turns into a contrasting seriousness of tone. The catharsis is over. It has been said of Apuleius that he used his great sense of humor as a form of therapy for the soul, and that laughter and consciousness are the twin motors of the path to understanding. The great allegory is perhaps the one our people, the descendants of Numidians and Gaetulians, have traversed over the centuries, a great gale of laughter punctuating a recurring search for identity through various avatars of foreign occupation, eager to find our human countenance and full identity. This prophet of a kind shows the path. Look within, he tells us, and look at the great feminine powers of the earth, the African nature, the ancient Egyptian wisdom which is also ours, and you will become the Senators of your own ancient land and palace, this magnificent land that North Africa is. He has become for us The Senator. It is interesting to note that Apuleius uses the image of the mirror over and over. He also uses the word “viator” (nine times, it is said, and probably more) in the Golden Ass, a word that literally signified “a journeyer or traveler” but has been translated by scholars as “a free human being”. His message, transcending the ages, is that he saw himself not only as a “sacerdos” (priest), but a “viator” (Amazigh, free human being.) and this message should not be lost on us. Our Senator Lucius Apuleius, nearly two thousand years ago, already embedded in the message he left for posterity the image of a free human being, “viator”, or Amazigh.
In the last and forty-eighth chapter of The Golden Ass, Lucius relates how he moved from the initiation to the Mystery of the Goddess to the initiation in the archaic mystery cult of Anzar/Osiris and entered the priesthood. As a Priest of these occult mysteries, he has gained the sacred wisdom imparted by both masculine and feminine initiations, and we learn from him that the two Mysteries “unite and concord” but follow a “difference of order and ceremony.” Having achieved the most profound knowledge of mystical experiences, Lucius is finally called to his extraordinary mission:
“The great God Osiris appeared to me in the night, not disguised in any other form, but in his own essence, commanding me that I should be an Advocate in the Court, and not fear the slander and envy of ill persons, which bear me grudge by reason of my doctrine, which I had begotten by much labor. Moreover, he would not that I should be any longer of the number of his Priests, but he allotted me to be one of the Decurions and Senators and he appointed me a place within the Ancient Palace which was erected in the time of Silla, where I executed my office in great joy with a shaven crown.”
Is the end to the adventures of Lucius a prosaic one? No: Decurions were a specific type of Senators in the world of Roman politics. This was the name of Senators for Roman colonies, generally of native stock. It is the third movement of the great symphony of his life, where mysticism makes a leap into leadership and politics. The Palace in which he was to execute his office as a Senator was built in the time of Silla, that is around 50-60 BC, and must have represented a different era, an earlier time at which the ancient Carthage had not yet been destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans. (3)
I cannot help but feel that the specific choice of this ancient palace built in the age of Silla as a place awaiting the destiny appointed to him by the gods is most interesting. A time element is clearly inserted here, as a link from the pre-Roman past to the post-Roman future. Since Apuleius saw himself truly as a “Platonic philosopher” in the Greek tradition, and his doctrine was one radically different from that of the Romans in power, he was a man of the world who had achieved a transcendent vision based on archaic powers. It is not hard to imagine that he was selected by divine interference to discharge a special office of broad import. We know that Apuleius himself spent the latter part of his life in Carthage. He left no visible trace after 180 AD, but he left us his message of transcendence. In the palace of Ancient Wisdom, he tells us in his parting prophetic words, he will have “executed (his) office in great joy with a shaven crown.” Apulée (Lucius Apuleius). Engraving Apulée (Lucius Apuleius). Engraving Source : Thoemmes Press Portrait Gallery Apuleius formally conjured up Lady Philosophy to stand by his side as co-defendant in the trial that he underwent. He gave us the mirror to look at ourselves, and the great bawdy laughter to become conscious of our identity, as well as the brave words that said clearly in the face of the ruling invaders: “It is true I am not a Roman, and you call me a Barbarian. Yes, I am a Barbarian, and say I have no shame in my origins. Moreover, I can use your own language so well, so proficiently, and with such virtuosity as to make you look ridiculous in your charges of barbarism. The tools of consciousness are my own, delivered in words from your language that I throw back at you with such ease and dexterity, and the mirror image that I am placing before you is that of the other you despise through ignorance In this defense of my identity, I am aided by all the powers of the earth, ancient wisdom, our African heritage, all the powers of transformation and true knowledge. We are the heirs to ancient Egyptian wisdom, to the Isis/Osiris mysteries of ancestral truth, to the transcendental consciousness that will outlive and outwit the centuries, and this message, I know, by the grace bestowed upon me by my dreams, will live on and become my long lived legacy as a North African philosopher and not a Roman, even though I use your language to send the message off.”
It is an honor and privilege indeed to offer this late salute to the memory of such a great man as Apuleius, Amazigh prophet and “viator,” for his enduring magic, his superb gift of wit and irony, and his legacy of ancient wisdom.
Helene E. Hagan. Anthropologist
Author of “The Shining Ones: an Etymological Essay on the Amazigh Roots of Egyptian Civilization.” Xlibris, a branch of Random House, Revised Hardcover Edition, 2001.
1. Terentius, dramatist of an earlier era (c. 185-159 BC), was a native of North Africa. It is not clear, however, what his ancestry was, whether Roman, Punic or Libyco-Phoenician. Another North African writer, Tertullian, (c.160-225 AD) was born of native parentage. He became an outstanding lawyer. Converted to Christianity, he devoted his life and education to the defense of his Christian faith. As for Augustine, see below, note 2.
2. In the fifth century AD, Augustine, another native of North Africa was still concerned with the type of pagan beliefs espoused by the followers of Apuleius. There is evidence that towards the end of the third century AD there developed a legend around Apuleius and his reputation for magic and supernatural powers, which pagan advocates opposed to the miracles of Christ. (Lactantius, Divin, Inst., V.3.7) The reputation of Apuleius continued to develop in the fourth century AD into the fifth, and St. Augustine felt it necessary to mention his opposition to it. (De Civ. De. VIII, 19-22-23 and Ep. 138-18.) It is noted herein that a treatise on herbal cures attributed to Apuleius was still in use in the Middle Ages.
3. Between 60 and 46 BC, during the reign of Juba I, the North African Kingdom of Numidia is not under the rule of Romans. Juba was defeated at Thapsus in 46 BC by Caesar. The Romans officially annexed Numidia at that date and renamed it “Africa Nova.” Bocchus II willed the Kingdom of Mauretania to Octavian in 33 BC. However, Mauretania was not similarly annexed by the Romans until 40 AD. It is also to be noted that the name of Mauri was applied to all non-romanized natives of North Africa still ruled by their own chiefs, until the third century AD. (Carthage, Rome and the Berbers, J.A. Ilevbare, Ibadan University Press, 1980.)
Andreas, Johannes – Collected Works of Apuleius (1469)
Apuleius – Metamorphoses
Apuleius – Apologia
Apuleius – Florida
Apuleius – Philosophical Treatises – “On Plato and his Teachings.” “On the God of Socrates” and “On the World.” (Often mistakenly attributed to Aristotle.)
C.S. Lewis – Till we have Faces, A Myth Retold. (1956) (Amor and Psyche)
Schlam, Carl C. – Metamorphoses of Apuleius: On making an Ass of Oneself. Chapel Hill, University of Carolina Press, 1992.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise -Psychological Interpretation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius – Out of print. C.J. Jung Institute, Zurich.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise – The Golden Ass of Apuleius, The liberation of the Feminine in Man, Jungian Studies, 1992.
Winkler, John J. – Auctor and Actor: a narratological reading of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Berkeley University Press 1985.
For adventures of Lucius that inspired noted authors and reappeared in subsequent literature, cf. The Decameron (Bocaccio,) Don Quixote de la Mancha (Cervantes,) and Gil Blas (Le Sage.)