This bizarre painting, by the Danish artist Nicolai Abildgaard (c. 1743 – 1809), was inspired by an even more bizarre piece of ancient writing. The text in question is a peculiar novel-like story called The Golden Ass—also known as Metamorphoses—written by a Roman man named Apuleius between the years 160 and 180. Despite the fact that The Golden Ass was written nearly two thousand years ago, Apuleius’ book reads like a comedic adventure novel. The story follows the odd life of a man named Lucius, who was cursed by an insatiable curiosity of the occult. His nosiness eventually brought him to the home of a witch, and from there, one thing led to another, and he ultimately found himself transformed into a donkey. It is this early scene of Lucius’ transformation that Nicolai Abildgaard re-created in his painting.
Lucius, as the painting portrays, had come in contact with a woman named Fotis (or, Photis, as she is usually called) prior to the peculiar transformation seen above. Photis had aided Lucius in his quest to secretly see with his own eyes a witch named Pamphile perform a magic spell. Lucius and Photis struck up an intimate relationship, and Lucius used his charm and charisma to pressure his accomplice (who was a maid in the witch’s household) to arrange for them to witness Pamphile as she use her powers. Lucius had his wish, and he allegedly saw this scene that Apuleius described:
“Pamphile completely stripped herself; then she opened a chest and took out a small number of boxes. From one of these she removed the lid and scooped out some ointment, which she rubbed between her hands for a long time before smearing herself with it all over from head to foot. Then there was a long muttered address to the lamp during which she shook her arms with a fluttering motion. As they gently flapped up and down there appeared on them a soft fluff, then a growth of strong feathers; her nose hardened into a hooked beak, her feet contracted into talons—and Pamphile was an owl” (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, 3.21).
Lucius, understandably was amazed and excited about the feat of shapeshifting that he had witnessed. Yet, Lucius’ overabundance of curiosity and interest in magic not only made him want to see magic—he also wanted to try it out for himself. Lucius, after some frantic pleas and encouragement, was able to convince Photis to fetch from Pamphile’s nearby stash some of the ointment that had been used in the transformation spell. Even though Lucius did not have any instructions on how to use the ointment and did not know exactly what needed to be done or muttered during the spell, he decided, anyway, to make his own attempt of transforming into an owl by copying what he had seen. Lucius’ imitation of the ritual, nevertheless, did not go well. Apuleius (narrating from the viewpoint of Lucius) described the comical scene of the transformation that ensued:
“[T]hen very apprehensively she [Photis] slipped into the room and took the box out of the chest. I seized it and kissed it, praying that it would grant me good luck on the wing; then I tore off my clothes, and plunging my hands into it scooped out a generous portion of the ointment and rubbed it all over myself; then I flapped my arms up and down in imitation of a bird. But no down or feathers appeared; instead my hair became coarse and shaggy, my soft skin hardened into hide, my fingers and toes lost their separate identity and coalesced into hooves, and from the end of my spine there protruded a long tail. My face became enormous and my mouth widened; my nostrils dilated and my lips hung down; and my ears became monstrously long and hairy. The only redeeming feature of this catastrophic transformation was that my natural endowment had grown too—but how could I embrace Photis like this? In this hapless state I looked myself over and saw that I was now no bird, but an ass” (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, 3.24-25).
Such is the bizarre scene from the ancient tale that inspired Nicolai Abildgaard’s painting. Lucius’ accomplice, Photis, as a maid of a witch, quickly ran off to try to pull together ingredients that would hopefully cure Lucius from his unfortunate transformation. Yet, in a plot-driving turn of events, the transformed man (now completely a donkey) was stolen from the stables before he could be re-transformed back into a man. As a result, Lucius was stuck as donkey for much of the remainder of Apuleius’ peculiar book. In the comedic chapters that followed, the donkey with a human mind was handed over from owner to owner, and was dragged from town to town in the Roman Empire due to each transaction. Poor Lucius, all the while, continued to desperately look for a cure to turn him back into his human form as he was transported around the Mediterranean during his donkey odyssey.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses by Apuleius, translated by E. J. Kenney. London: Penguin Books, 1998 and revised 2004.