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In the second century of the Christian Era, Lucius Apuleius wrote an account of the religion of Isis that readers have loved. Apuleius was knowledgeable of the ancient customs of Egypt and Greece and gave his attention to trying to recast the information from past thinkers. He is known for his interest in Platonic philosophy, magical formulas, and historical mysteries. In fact, he was charged with casting magical spells on his wife and defended himself in a work called Apologia. However, for African scholars and those interested in African religion, he is most famous for his book called Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass.
During the Roman Empire, the African deity Auset, called Isis by the Greeks, became one of the most celebrated of all goddesses. She was worshipped, exalted, and praised in every part of the Roman world. Originating in Upper Egypt, this black goddess became the face of woman throughout the lands where Rome ruled. In effect, Africa had seduced the Roman Empire with the worship of Auset.
Apuleius was fascinated by her beauty, power, and strength. Thus, in response to his interest in African and Eastern religions, he wrote Metamorphoses, which contains so many seeds of mythological and romance tales of the Europeans that one could almost claim that the source, for example, of Cinderella, is the Cupid and Psyche encounter in Metamorphoses. Yet it is in the concentration of the religion of Auset that Apuleius makes his most important contribution.
In the book, the Egyptian deity appears to Apuleius, claiming to be all goddesses. Her representation to him is that she is the name of the goddesses of the world. No goddess exists without being Auset. She is the Queen of the Sky, and she is the Queen of Queens, the Lady of all Ladies, the one and all of all goddesses. He writes that when he ended a prayer and told Auset what he needed, he was exhausted and fell asleep. Soon, however, there came to him the venerable face of the goddess herself, coming out of the sea and standing before him in full form. He tried to describe what he was seeing. It was impossible to make a complete description because his eloquence was inadequate. Nevertheless, she was a powerful figure with an abundance of hair, probably a huge Afro style as one sees in the wig room of the Cairo Museum, and many garlands of flowers stuck into her hair.
Apuleius describes Auset as having a disk in the shape of a small mirror on her head, and in one hand she held the light of the moon and serpents and, in the other, blades of corn. Her silk robe shimmered with many colors. He is struck by the complexity of this image of Auset because she bears with her flowers and fruits, a timbrel of brass, and a cup of gold. Furthermore, her mouth held the serpent Aspis, and her sweet feet were covered with shoes laced with palms.
Then, according to Auleius, the goddess Auset spoke words to the effect that she had come to him because of his weeping and prayers. She also told him that she was called by many names, but that she was the natural mother of all things, mistress of all elements, governor of all progeny, chief of all divine things, principal of gods, and light of all goddesses. Establishing further her authority to speak and to rule, Auset told him that she controlled the planets in the air, winds of the sea, and the silences of hell. He wrote in Metamorphoses that the deity told him that her divinity was adored in all the world in various manners and different custom and by many people.
In fact, the Phrygians called her Pssinuntica, the mother of the gods; the Athenians called her Cecropian Artemis; the Cyprians called her Paphian Aphrodite; the Candians called her Dictyanna; the Sicilians called her Stygian Proserpine; and the Eleusians called her Mother of the Corn. But that was not all of the names by which she was called. She said that some called her Juno, others Bellona of the Batdes, and still others Hecate. However, the Ethiopians and the Egyptians called her Auset.
Clearly, Apuleius is attesting to the strength, pervasiveness, and legitimacy of Queen Auset, the head of one of the most heavily propagated religions of the Roman Empire. His book, Metamorphoses, remains one of the best accounts of how this African deity was seen outside of Africa.



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Further Reading

  • Apuleius. (1885). The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche (Translation by Walter Pater; Illustrated by Edmund Dulac). Originally printed as part of the novel Marius the Epicurean. London: Macmillan. (Reprinted: Norwalk, CT: The Heritage Press, 1951).
  • Apuleius. (1932). The Golden Ass (Translation, notes, and preface by Jack Lindsay; Illustrated by Percival Goodman). New York: The Limited Editions Club.
  • Apuleius. (1998). The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses (Translation, notes, and preface by E. J. Kenney). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
  • Apuleius. (2000 [1950]). The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass (Translation and notes by Robert Graves). New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Plutarch. (1936). "On Isis and Osiris." In Moralia V (pp. 34–39) (Translation, notes, and preface by Frank C. Babbit). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.