Apuleius’s Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass) has been prized down the centuries chiefly as a whimsical, slightly grotesque, and occasionally ribald burlesque, but it is also perhaps the single most illuminating text we possess in regard to the spiritual disquietudes and aspirations of the late antique world. In fact, when one reaches its final chapters, one discovers that below the ludicrous surface of the tale lies a strangely moving religious allegory; and the climax of the story includes one of the most devout and beautiful expressions of faith in a benevolent and provident divine savior in all of ancient literature, not excepting the Christian texts.
Lucius, the narrator and protagonist of the tale, who has been transformed by magic into an ass and endured almost a year of tribulations in that form, wakes one night near the sea at Corinth and, seeing the full moon above him, purifies himself in the tide and then prays to this radiant “goddess” for deliverance from his sufferings, addressing her as Regina caeli (Queen of Heaven), as well as Ceres, Celestial Venus, Ephesian Diana, and terrible Proserpina.
He then falls asleep and the goddess visits him in a dream, rising out of the sea in all her unearthly beauty. Wrapped about her, knotted at one shoulder, she wears a black cloak covered with the coruscating images of stars and the moon at mid-month.
“Moved by your supplications,” she tells Lucius, “I am come to you—I the begetter of everything in nature, mistress of all the elements, firstborn of the ages, the supreme deity, queen of the souls of the dead, first among all those in heaven, the one singular form of all gods and goddesses, who by my will superintend the shining summits of heaven, the wholesome breezes of the sea, and the pitiable silences of the underworld—I whose single divinity is venerated throughout the world under a multitude of aspects.” She then reveals to him that, however she is invoked, her true name is Queen Isis.
She promises him that, on the next day, she will restore him to his human form with the assistance of one of her priests, whom she is at that very moment also visiting in a dream. She then charges Lucius to remember that hereafter he is dedicated to her service, until the day of his death. But she assures him that, under her guidance, his will be a blessed and a glorious life and that, once his days reach their appointed term—a term which she, incidentally, has the power to extend—and he descends to the dead, he will see her shining among the shadows of Acheron and reigning in the Stygian firmament, and she will bring him into the Elysian Fields, where he will often find himself a grateful beneficiary of her gifts.
On the next day, during public festivities celebrated in her honor, the goddess does as she has promised. The priest she visited in the night then exhorts Lucius, newly restored to human form and clothed in the white garment of one of the votaries of Isis, to “join with joyous tread in the triumph of the goddess who has saved you. Let the irreligious see, and let them both see and recognize their error.”
Lucius is persuaded, but before he enters the great procession the priest advises him further: “That you may be yet securer and safer, enlist in this holy army, to which only lately you have been sworn in, and dedicate yourself now in service to our religion and submit voluntarily to the yoke of its ministry. For, when you have begun to serve the goddess, then you will feel fully the fruit of your liberty.”
Ultimately, after a period of doubt regarding his own ability to observe the rule of sacerdotal chastity, Lucius seeks initiation as a priest in the mysteries of Isis. He does not divulge any details of his induction into the mysteries, but he does speak of the experience in a series of startling images: he draws near the very border of death, he says, and places a foot on Proserpina’s threshold, and is ravished through the elements, and sees the sun shining in its full glory at midnight.
After the rites have been concluded, he must at last reluctantly leave her temple; but before he goes he falls down before the image of Isis and utters one of the most extraordinarily fervent prayers to be found anywhere in ancient literature:
O You, the truly holy and eternal redemptrix of the human race, be ever generous to the mortals whom you cherish, bestowing a mother’s sweet love upon the miserable in their times of trial. Neither day nor night nor a single moment, however small, is devoid of your blessings, for you protect men at sea and on land, and you chase away life’s storms by stretching forth your saving right hand, wherewith also you unwind the inextricably tangled weave of fate, and calm Fortune’s tempests, and restrain the baneful courses of the stars. The gods above worship you, the gods below venerate you, you turn the earth, you give the sun its light, you rule the world, you trample down hell. It is you whom the stars obey, you for whom the seasons return, you in whom the gods rejoice, and you whom the elements serve. At your bidding, winds blow, clouds nourish the earth, seeds sprout, and harvests swell. At your majesty, the birds traversing the heavens, the beasts wandering the mountains, the serpents lurking in their lairs, and the monsters swimming the sea tremble.
He closes with his own promises.
But from my soul I can lift up only meager praises, and from my inheritance I can offer only poor sacrifices; my voice does not have sufficient power to utter how I feel before your majesty, and neither would a thousand mouths with a thousand tongues, even if they could continue speaking tirelessly and forever. Hence I shall, however poor I am, do what a truly religious man can: I shall think upon your divine aspects and your most holy power and keep them ever guarded in the secret places of my heart.
What is now especially striking about Lucius’s prayer, quite apart from its sheer ardor, is how perfectly its inventory of the goddess’ powers and blessings combines elements of what we might almost call the theological, the Mariological, and the Christological—or, at least, the matrological and the soteriological. Isis creates and nourishes and sustains; Isis cares and loves and protects and provides; Isis defeats death and hell; Isis saves.
And Lucius learns all of this in a moment of revelation and personal conversion, an experience of the profoundest inner transformation, of which his outer transformation from beast to man turns out to have been a comic symbol. And the new life upon which he has now embarked becomes actual for him only through a sacramental initiation that carries him beyond the power of death, borne up by the grace of divine and omnipotent love.
Some Christians, it is my experience, become terribly anxious when confronted by the similarities between the language of Christianity in the early centuries and that of many of the pagan devotions of late antiquity (just as certain of Christianity’s cultured despisers rejoice in them). And, of course, some of the more primitivist strains of Protestantism have historically take these similarities as proof of something corrupt and even perhaps diabolical in the Catholic forms of Christian belief and observance.
Whatever the case, it is simply a fact that neither in the intensity of its piety, nor in the spiritual longings it answered, nor even in its liturgical and sacramental conventions, did Christianity bring something entirely novel into the world. As early as the late first century, Christianity was in very many places—morphologically, but also in its dogma—a “mystery religion” of a sort known throughout the empire, offering salvation through sacramental initiation into a corporate association and sacramental devotion to a savior deity.
And it would be pointless to deny that, say, the iconography of Isis and Osiris might conceivably have influenced later Christian iconography of Mary and Christ, or that something of the ancient reverence for the Magna Mater deorum lived on in Christian veneration of the Mater Dei—radically transformed perhaps, redeemed if one likes, flowering into a new kind of devotional beauty, but springing up from the same roots of spiritual longing and imagination.
I mention all this now because I happened to be in the U.K. this last week, at the book festival in Hay-on-Wye, and met a man who had written a book supposedly “exposing” Christianity as a collection of borrowings from paganism, and therefore as clearly false. I pointed out to him, not really very gently, that such books had been written hundreds of times before, and that even the best of them proved nothing of any interest other than the obvious truth that Christianity’s earliest religious forms were not wholly alien to the culture in which they took shape. He, however, insisted that he had proved the case against the Christian religion with unanswerable finality. I insisted in turn that I needed a cup of coffee and left him to himself.
The gospel entered the ancient world at a time of tremendous religious plurality and spiritual ferment: an age of religious anxiety, when mystery religions, Orphic cults, Gnosticisms, and innumerable devotional sects multiplied uncontrollably and continuously throughout the empire. And I suppose one can look at the issue from either direction. One can gaze backward and conclude that the rise of Christianity was simply the accidental evolutionary consequence of the cultural forces of a certain period and nothing else.
But one might also conclude that Christianity endured, spread, and ultimately succeeded in large part because it provided an answer to seemingly unanswerable cultural and spiritual dilemmas, and addressed certain perennial human yearnings with perhaps unrivalled power. What one thinks that says about the gospel, however, is all very much a matter of what one understands nature, culture, and history to be.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.