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In Search of Asherah: The Lost Hebrew Goddess

by July 12, 2014

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.

Did God have a wife? Was a female deity revered alongside the monotheistic Hebrew god, the one most of us in the West know from the Old Testament? It may sound like an outlandish notion, but perhaps there was a lost Hebrew Goddess that, at times, reigned supreme in the ancient Mediterranean cultures.

Goddess Asherah

Asherah, called Athirat in Ugarit, figures prominently as the wife of El, the supreme god, in cuneiform alphabetic texts, dating back to the fourteenth century BCE. Before Abraham (ca 2200-1700 BCE) migrated to what would become known as Israel, Asherah was revered as Athirat, Earth Mother and Fertility Goddess. Upon entering the region, the ancient Israelites adopted her and gave her the Hebrew equivalent name of Asherah. The Ugarit excavation, a second millennium “Canaanite” port city (in today’s northern Syria), put Asherah the goddess, on the map again after having lost her place for thousands of years.

Of course the presence of a Hebrew goddess immediately begs the question: how monotheistic were the pre-exilic Israelites and Judeans? Certainly, the very notion of polytheism is inherent in the quest for Asherah.

Additionally, the many artifacts representing Asherah, and her cult from the region, belies the biblical prohibition against the creation of idols.

At this juncture it is important to make a distinction between the book religion of the ruling classes in the metropolis and folk or popular religion as it was practiced in rural communities, for which most Israelites were a part.

Moreover, it should be remembered that in rural communities of the ancient world, literacy was close to non-existent. Indeed, even rudimentary writing did not become widespread until the eighth century BCE, at which time some were able to write their names, numbers and a few commodities for trade… This was certainly a long way from being able to read or write the literary achievement that we find in the Hebrew Bible!


Thus, the book religion practiced in the cities would likely have had little meaning in the lives of those inhabiting the outlying areas. Instead, the rural communities had their own religious beliefs and practiced their faith locally, even at home using statuary and other artifacts. It was very likely that some form of folk religion had been passed down through the generations, making homespun beliefs an integral part of their everyday lives. Indeed, one scholar defined folk religion as everything that those who wrote the Bible condemned.

By way of contrast, an affinity between the intellectual community and the aristocracy produced a masterful text, which was written entirely from the perspective of the upper or ruling classes.

So if the Bible was authored by and large for the ruling class, then how do we know the way common people worshipped? As mentioned above, there are artifacts from the region to help piece the puzzle into place, but it is also ironically in the Bible itself that we can also find many of the rituals practiced by the rural communities. Indeed, Asherah is mentioned in the early Hebrew Bible some forty separate times, although most often as an object of derision.

For the most part, the biblical writers were unhappy that Asherah, or the “Queen of Heaven”, shared the same platform with their male deity, Yahweh, and repeatedly tried to dissuade their union.

Forasmuch as the ruling elite tried to inhibit Asherah and Yahweh’s “marriage,” their union appears solidified in an ancient blessing seen with some regularity at a number of archeological sites in the region. This is particularly apparent in Kuntillet Ajrud, a 9th-8th century BCE Israelite caravanserai with an attached shrine, which was excavated in 1975-76 near the river of Egypt in northeast Sinai (by Judah’s south border).


The text and drawing of the two deities found there sparked a lively debate within the academic community. The inscription reads: “I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.” The same text was found a number of times in other locations, such as Samaria, Jerusalem and Teman, where there were known sanctuaries to Yahweh.

More evidence is found in Khirbet el-Qom, an ancient burial site dated to ca 750 BCE, excavated in 1968. The following inscription was found on the tombstone of a wealthy man: “Blessed by Uriah by Yahweh, Yea from his enemies by his Asherah he has saved him, By Onah, By his Asherah and by his Asherah.”

Indeed, the phrase “Yahweh….and his Asherah” must have been a fairly common expression in the region, as sixty miles separates Khirbet el-Qom from Kuntillet Ajrud, not an easy jaunt considering the limited transportation options available at the time.

Moreover, the notable phrase “Yahweh and his Asherah” is in an obscure blessing in the Hebrew Bible itself. The cryptic blessing is in Deuteronomy 33.2-3, in an earlier rendition when Asherah’s influence had not yet been fully subordinated.

The full hymn reads:

“YHWH came from Sinai and shone forth from his own Seir, He showed himself from Mount Paran. Yes he came among the myriads of Qudhsu, at his right hand his own Asherah, Indeed, he loves the clans and all his holy ones on his left.”

However, as the book religion solidified, Asherah became increasingly marginalized in the scriptures… to the point of being reduced to her cult object—the stylized tree or wooden pole which became known as asherah or asherim. Trees were revered as symbols of life and nourishment in arid regions, and so became associated with Asherah and her cult.

Interestingly, many scholars believe that Asherah’s tree functioned in the Garden of Eden parable. Because Asherah’s name was increasingly tied to Yahweh’s in the folk religion of the area, the patriarchal elite may have found it necessary to propagandize against goddess worship by integrating the story of the fall of mankind to the tree which was clearly associated with Asherah.

Asherah’s influence may not have been immense, or even positive, in the official or book religion, but her presence clearly loomed large in the rural communities.

Although we have no text or sacred scriptures from the folk religion of this considerable group of people, we do have much in the way of figurines from the region. To be sure, aniconism was, and still is, inherent in the Hebrew Bible, but ample archaeological evidence suggests that those who lived outside the metropolis—and indeed sometimes right inside it—idolized statuary and cult objects as part of their popular or folk religion.


Anthropomorphically, Asherah is represented many times in various forms scattered throughout the region; the most prolific of these is the pillar figurines. These figurines first started appearing in the late tenth to ninth century BCE and had become common from the eight through seventh centuries. The term “Images of Asherah” is used often in the Hebrew Bible, and it is believed that the pillar figurines are what the writers of the bible had in mind.

But what were these figurines meant to convey? Symbolizing the nurturing aspect of the mother goddess, the breasts are exaggerated with the hands more or less supporting them. The pillar figurines were predominantly found in private houses, suggesting their domesticity, and many scholars contend that the figurines represented fertility to women in a region beset by hardship and drought. Sadly lactation and fertility concerns are indicative of some type of famine for which the region was prone. Considering survival was the ultimate burden for the average Israelite/Judean, apprehension about fertility in general was likely widespread.

Was their concern for fecundity what attracted the rural Israelites and Judeans to the goddess Asherah? Reasonably, in a land prone to famine and drought, Asherah may have been linked to the almighty Yahweh because of her association with abundance.

Fascinating as it is, examining a topic that dates back three millennia has its distinct disadvantages. While there are voluminous artifacts and articles associated with Asherah from the region, there are still a number of pieces missing in the puzzle. This, of course, doesn’t prohibit us from attempting to bring the discussion into greater focus, with the distinct hope for further scrutiny and more scholarship to come.

Romania: Citizens of Rome

by July 11, 2014

By Anya Leonard

Most people don’t think of the Ancient world when they hear ‘Romania’, despite the obvious name.

Modern day connotations often include Vampires and Gypsies, Soviets and Slavs… but all this modern history cloaks its classical past.

Indeed, the takeover of the ancient ‘citizens of Rome’ marked a pivotal point in the rise and fall of arguably the greatest Empire of the western world.

The main clue to its crucial role is the modern Romanian language, steeped in latin, belying the territory’s profound period of Romanisation. Quite a bit of its archeological evidence, unfortunately, was ruined at the hands of conquerors.

But let’s go back. Who, in fact, were the Dacians?

To start with, they weren’t always referred to as Dacians; that was the Roman term. The Greeks described them as the Getae, a northern branch of the Thracians. Herodotus wrote in his Histories Book IV XCIII, that the Getae were, “the noblest as well as the most just of all the Thracian tribes”. Meanwhile Thucydides reported in Peloponnesian Wars, Book II: “[Getae] border on the Scythians and are armed in the same manner, being all mounted archers”.

Map of Dacia

It was between 82 and 44 BC, however, that the Dacian Kingdom reached its peak, under the reign of Burebista (Boerebista), a contemporary of Julius Caesar. To do so, he pushed forward a few extreme changes, not least of which was convincing the people to cut their vines and give up drinking. He then reorganized the army, conquered Greek towns, and extended the Dacian territory. Burebista also centralized the money control, suppressing indigenous minting of coins and implementing the Roman denarii as a monetary standard. Finally, he established the Geto-Dacian capital at Sarmizegetusa.

Indeed, the Dacians appeared so formidable at the time that Caesar contemplated an expedition against them, but was prevented from doing so by dying in 44 BC.

Coincidently, Burebista was murdered in that same year, and the kingdom was divided into four (later five) parts under separate rulers.

The nice thing about ancient history is how conveniently everything slots together, at least in hindsight. So, it should come as no surprise that one of these five entities was Cotiso’s state, to whom Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, betrothed his own five year old daughter, Julia.

Indeed, Augustus’ reign was peppered with Dacian interaction. It was in this period their northern neighbors were compelled to recognize Roman supremacy, albeit very grudgingly. So much so, that the Dacians could hardly have been described as ‘subdued’, seizing every opportunity to ravage Roman cities in the province of Moesia by crossing the frozen Danube.

This did not put the Dacians on good terms with their Roman overlords, and instead placed them on the ‘agenda’, the ‘to take over properly’ list. And this task was finally picked up and completed by the Emperor Trajan.

The Romans had several wars with the Dacians in order to achieve this goal.

The trophy of victory went back and forth, each side taking swipes at each other. First the Romans were victorious in the Battle of Tapae in 88 AD. In 87 AD, however, they were defeated by the Dacian general, Decebalus. Then the Second Battle of Tapae in 101 AD saw the Romans victorious. Decebalus rebuilt his power yet again and attacked Roman garrisons in 105 AD. In response, Trajan marched into Dacia once more, attacked the capital in the Siege of Sarmizegethusa, and razed it to the ground.

Dacia was finally quelled.

Trajan Column

The country was occupied and Decebalus committed suicide in 106 AD. Trajan captured Decebalus’ treasure and took control of the Dacian gold mines in Transylvania, refurbishing his coffers. The whole account was recited by Cassius Dio, and depicted beautifully on the famous Column of Trajan.

But what exactly did all this mean for Rome?

Well, quite a lot in fact. The Romans had conquered and destroyed the ancient Kingdom of Dacia, but their conquest also sparked an unbalance in power. See, a larger section of the land remained outside of Roman Imperial authority, which was a catalyst for a renewed alliance of the Germanic and Celtic tribes and kingdoms… against the Roman Empire.

You could say Dacia was the Roman annex that broke the Empire’s back. Well, maybe not exactly – or at least so quickly.

Dacian Prisoner

In fact, the Romans were in Dacia for a while, ensuring the peoples were properly Romanized. The region’s rich ore deposits brought colonists from all over the empire for work, introducing Vulgar Latin and giving birth to the Proto-Romanian language. Tribes of Goths came and went. By AD 336, there were Dacians still to be conquered, this time by Constantine the Great. He even took the title Dacicus Maximus or ‘Great Victor over the Dacians’ when he ‘restored’ Dacia to the Roman Empire. You can even find Dacians prisoners on the Arch of Constantine.

It was only when that famous Christian Roman Emperor died, that the Romans finally and permanently abandoned Dacia… which was forever changed by the occupation.

Anaximander’s Boundless Universe

by July 7, 2014

Anaximander is often considered to be the first philosopher, at least in some circles. The more anaximanderpopular opinion, which is shared by your associate editor, is that the first philosopher was Thales of Miletus. As Bertrand Russell states in his History of Western Philosophy…

“Philosophy begins with Thales.”

However, Anaximander, Thales’ pupil, might take the title as “the first philosopher” simply because of his attempts to construct the type of philosophical argument that we have come to know and love. Thales, though we love him so, declared that the underlying principle of the universe was water, and that all things come from water in one way or another. He provided no real argument to support this seemingly baffling claim; or if he did, we simply would not know, seeing as how the man left no extant work.

On the other hand, Anaximander did attempt to construct a series of arguments to support his hypothesis that the universe was born from an unknowable, unobservable substance known as Apeiron, which loosely translates to “the boundless” or “that which has no limit.”

The question of who was truly the first philosopher of Greece, Thales or Anaximander, will never truly be answered. However, that is not our concern today. Today we are interested in this mysterious first substance that Anaximander so eloquently named “the boundless.”

Thales and Anaximander both belonged to a group of early presocratic thinkers who lived in Miletus, a coastal town on the shores of what is now modern day Turkey, in about 550 BC. These “Milesian philosophers” primarily concerned themselves with one question and one question only:

Why and how does the universe exist?

Heavy stuff, right?

XXXN.B. that these early thinkers were not blessed with the millennia’s worth of scientific knowledge we possess today. While we now stand on the shoulders of giants, these presocratic philosophers were giant-less. They were striking out for the first time into the fields of natural science and cosmology, and they were doing it on their own. While their conclusions might appear to be baffling to us, we must remember that it is only because of these early scientific endeavors that we are blessed with the olympiads of knowledge that we take for granted today. If we do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants, then the Milesians were the first rung of the ladder that we climbed to reach our lofty perch.

That being said, what is it that they were specifically searching for?

The Milesian philosophers were interested in the underlying substance that constituted all of existence. They believed that there existed a common denominator from which all things come to be. This primary substance was known as Arche and it translates roughly to “the source.”

Keep in mind that this type of metaphysical philosophy is something that modern readers might not be very familiar or even comfortable with. We can happily recount the periodic table of the elements or observe the structure of an atom under an electron microscope.

However, metaphysics is often uncomfortable for us. It does not bother with the specific happenings of the universe. Metaphysics aims at understanding being qua being, the underlying principles of all things. Put very simply, if physics is the study of existence, metaphysics hopes to answer the question, “what is existence?”

Ultimately, Anaximander wanted to know where the universe came from. He wanted to explain the origin of reality as we know it. The philosopher did so with the Apeiron.

Before we go any further, we must first recognize that the ancient Greeks held the belief that the world was constructed form the four primary elements: earth, water, wind, and fire.

anaximander reliefWhen considering the underlying foundation of the universe, Anaximander came to the conclusion that this world has the capacity for infinite plurality; meaning that the things within our universe are unique. Every rock, tree, and drop of water is different from any other rock, tree, or drop of water that ever was or ever will be.

In short, nature is unlimited in its ability to produce variation and change.

Building upon this, we can see that if there exists the potentiality for infinite variation, there must logically exist the potentiality for an infinite amount of matter. Epicurus would come to a similar conclusion when he wrote…

“The sum of things is infinite. For what is finite has an extremity, and the extremity of anything is discerned only by comparison with something else.” -Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus)

So we see that our universe, at least through this argument, has no limit upon it and is actually infinite. Therefore, Anaximander concluded that none of the four primary elements could possibly function as the Arche of the universe. For how could it be said that any one substance, which is concrete and discernible, is responsible for the unlimited variety that exists within reality.

And so Anaximander appeals to what is known as the Apeiron, an unobserved substance (substance being a rather generous description for it) that has no limits placed upon it. It is this prime substance, this endless primordial essence, that all things are born from and, in time, all things will disappear into.

“Anaximandros of Miletos, son of Praxiades, says that the first principle of things is the infinite; for from this all things come, and all things perish and return to this. Accordingly, an infinite number of worlds have been generated and have perished again and returned to their source…” -Aetius of Antioch

So we see that Anaximander believed that the boundless, the infinite Apeiron, was the source of all existence. It was the active cause through virtue of which reality as we know it can be.

However, we are still left wondering what exactly “the boundless” is. What, precisely, is the Apeiron? Anaximander gives us no definite answer to this question, a frustration which is expressed by the 1st century philosopher Aetius of Antioch…

“…but he fails to say what the infinite is, whether it is air or water or earth or some other thing. He fails to show what matter is, and simply calls it the active cause.” -Aetius of Antioch

anaximander statue
Well, it seems like we might have an answer. However, we are no closer to understanding precisely what this answer means. We cannot grasp upon the notion of an Apeiron.

However, one possible solution exists – a conclusion that would be supported by the renowned philosopher, Aristotle.

You see, dear reader, there is one hypothesis that states that the word Apeiron does not translate to “the boundless” but rather to “the indefinite.”

Anaximander believed that the world was composed of two pairs of opposites: the hot and the cold, and the wet and the dry. These unique qualities would correspond to the four primary substances: fire, earth, water, and wind.

It is possible that Anaximander believed that these four elements were once combined within the Apeiron and that they took on shape and form after leaving the Apeiron, creating the world as we know it in the process.

Therefore, we must understand that the Apeiron is an unknowable quantity. It is neither hot nor cold, nor is it wet or dry. However, it has the potential to be all of these things at once, and at the same instance it is none. In other words, the Apeiron is that which is indefinite.

This is a rather difficult idea for people to wrap their heads around. How can it be that there exists some boundless substance that at once has the qualities of all things while simultaneously having no qualities at all?

Aristotle would come to a similar conclusion in his Metaphysics when considering the idea of matter and form. When attempting to understand the essence of an object, Aristotle would conclude that the substance is the hylomorphic compound of matter and form.

Hercules StatueThat is to say that a bronze statue of Heracles (insofar as it is a bronze statue of Heracles) is only so because it is composed of matter (bronze) and form (Heracles). These two predicates combine to create the essence of the statue.

However, if we were to separate matter and form (in thought) then we would struggle to comprehend the result. In truth, we simply cannot comprehend matter without form.

When considering the example of the statue, we might say that if we were to separate the matter (bronze) from the form (Heracles) then we might be simply left with a pile of bronze. However, we must recognize that we have not removed form from this compound. The matter has simply taken on a new form (a pile of bronze).

So we begin to picture a type of matter that has no shape, substance, or dimensions. This type of substance is usually referred to as “prime matter,” and it is unique in that it is ,all at once, nothing at all while simultaneously having the potentiality to be all things.

Whether we have come to accept Anaximander’s Apeiron as the prime substance of the universe, or simply decide to shake it off as interesting food for thought, there is no denying the allure and mystery of such an idea. It is the idea that from the infinite void there came, for a time, a discernible universe. It is the idea that our universe will some day return from whence it came – back into the abyss, into the infinite, into the boundless reaches of the Apeiron.

Man Is The Measure

by July 7, 2014

PericlesAs democracy came about in Athens during the 5th century BCE, the city grew into prosperity. With the leadership of Pericles, Athens ushered in a “Golden Age” of scholarship and culture that would be marked with several advancements in the area of philosophy, literature and politics. During this time there was an established system of law which, like our modern legal system, guaranteed an individual his right to trial. Any man brought to court was allowed to plead his case before a collection of judges who would consider an appropriate ruling. And while there was nothing in the way of formal legal representation, there slowly emerged a group of legal advocates that, for a fee, would act as advisors to the accused. It was opportunities such as these that gave birth to the group known as “The Sophists”.

The sophists were a collection of wandering teachers that roamed Greece during the late 5th century, dispensing wisdom and lectures for a fee. And while many of them would find work as legal advocates, many others lectured on subjects such as literary criticism, poetry, and grammar. Still, their chief aim was to provide training in rhetoric, persuasion, as well as the art of winning over a crowd. And while the sophists are often criticized, there remained great need for their services.

With the decline of aristocracy and the sudden rise of democracy, rhetoric became extremely important to those with political ambition. Early politicians like Themistocles, were trained in the art of rhetoric and persuasion and would gain lofty political titles because of it. Public speaking was also important to the average citizen who always ran the risk of being brought to court where he, and he alone, would be forced to defend himself with only the power of his words.

Still, the sophists are often remembered with disdain. Harsh criticisms were brought against them by the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They were accused, and perhaps rightfully so, of relying on persuasion and rhetoric to appear wise, without actually pursuing any form of knowledge. They could excite a crowd with their eloquent prose, and persuade their listeners to agree with them, even when possessing a weaker argument. All the while they were accepting the coins of their students, becoming rich from their lectures that often dispensed untruth.

That isnt to say that all the sophists were thieves and con men. Many of them were men who happened to possess a particular mind set that had drawn them to sophism. At the heart of sophism their is a universal understanding that possessed them; it pushed their movement onward. It was the belief that all truth is relative. It was this singular idea that possessed the sophists. Many of them used it as an excuse, validation for making weaker arguments strong while collecting a fee all the while. Others saw the philosophical implications of such an idea.

“If you are ignorant of [what a Sophist really is], you cannot know to whom you are entrusting your soul—whether it is to something good or to something evil.” -Plato (Protagoras)

ProtagorasProtagoras was born in Abdera, in northeast Greece. He would spend much of his life traveling, lecturing to anyone who could afford him. He would eventually travel to Athens and become the advisor to the ruler Pericles. A man who was a self proclaimed sophist, Protagoras would put forth several ideas that expanded on the loose doctrine of sophism. These ideas would expand to all areas of human nature and would partially be supported by later anthropological studies. Although he admits to being a sophist, Protagoras is often remembered more as a pre-Socratic philosopher who gave us the rather bold idea that man is the measure of all things.

As mentioned before sophism rejected the idea of objective truth. Protagoras expanded on this and began examining the essence of human nature and how it would relate to such abstract notions such as justice, virtue and wisdom. Having little to no interest in philosophical speculation about the substance of the cosmos or the existence of gods, Protagoras place humans at the forefront of his philosophical inquest.

By observing the sophists arguing amongst each other, each possessing different arguments yet each believing themselves to be correct, Protagoras concluded that truth was very much a matter of opinion. The worth or value of an idea is determined entirely by the person that holds it. There exists no universal measure with which we can compare ideas and accurately determine their worth, ideas and their value are of a subjective nature, changing just as quickly as a man changes his mind.

This might seem rather obvious when we take the time to reminisce about ideas that we once held in such high regard. As a child you undoubtedly thought it was a good idea to stay up late, watch television and eat copious amounts of candy. These ideas, at the time, were of great worth to you; they were regarded very highly.

Yet, we all grow older and these ideas that we once held in high regard are often eclipsed by our changing attitudes. Political alliances, attitudes about love, as well as commitment to a career are all aspects of ourselves that undoubtedly change over the course of our lives. And in this way we witness the subjectivity of knowledge, the ever changing landscape of truth.

“No intelligent man believes that anybody ever willingly errs or willingly does base and evil deeds; they are well aware that all who do base and evil things to them unwillingly.” -Plato (Protagoras)

There are some rather important implications to this idea of relativism. If knowledge and truth is subjective, then that would seem to suggest that ethical and moral behavior is also relative. And Protagoras again took this leap. The philosopher believed that nothing was inherently good or bad. Something is only ethical or right if a person or society judges it to be so. Actions such as murder, theft, even rape are immoral actions simply because our society judges it to be so. And if we take the time to deeply consider this idea, we are cast into a very dark place where all good and evil becomes equally accessible, morally defensible if you have the right, or wrong, mindset.

Socrates spent much of his life navigating the philosophical terrain of objective ethical notions. To Socrates, ideas such as justice and virtue were not just passing considerations that were reconfigured to meet one’s preference. They were ideals that existed eternally and without question or compromise. Socrates sought to find these answers through the numerous public lectures that he held throughout his life. And certainly there are some valid arguments against Protagoras’ ideas.

For instance, mathematical properties should exist eternally, regardless of the ideas of man. Protagoras dismisses this, concluding that mathematical principles do not necessarily exist in nature and are therefore abstract ideas which need not concern us. I can only assume that Pythagoras promptly rolled over in his grave. 

The confrontation between the philosophical ideas of Protagoras and Socrates come to a head in Plato’s Protagoras, a dialogue where Socrates and Protagoras, now an old man, face each other to discuss the nature of virtue. Protagoras, true to form, makes a very long, very dramatic speech where he recounts the creation of man by Prometheus.

Protagoras takes the stance that virtue can be taught, and that the sophists are doing a public service by educating the youth. Socrates, of course, engages in a debate with short, precise questions that he hopes will prove his own point. The two philosophers eventually concede to each other, complementing each other on their wisdom. Yet, it would appear that Protagoras has won in a subtle way. Each man still holds different truths that are validated by their own beliefs.

When Protagoras states that “man is the measure of all things” he concludes that all knowledge, virtue, or wisdom is determined by the the man or society that holds those beliefs. On a warm summer day in Athens, a man from Sweden will visit and comment that the climate is hot. A man from Egypt will visit and comment that it is so cold. And yet, both of them are right. This type of thinking was common within the legal and political system of ancient Greece.

Our modern legal system similarly deals in compromise, exceptions and reasonable doubts. There are no absolutes. The conclusion that Protagoras, as well as the sophists, drew was that there is nothing that is either right or wrong, but thinking it will make it so. There exists only man and the judgments that we cast on ourselves.

The Holy Ass

by July 3, 2014

By Ben Potter

Regular readers might recall that from time to time we investigate the origins of the novel. So far we’ve looked at the bucolic innocence of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe as well as Petronius’ quasi-pornographic romp The Satyricon.

Hot on such esteemed heels we now come to the only Latin novel that is extant in its entirety.

Not only that, but it is probably the only substantial piece of prose from the ancient world that can hold its own in the modern sense. It does not largely (or solely) rely on being ‘of interest’ or ‘historical importance’, but is instead that most elusive and wonderful of things: a elegant piece of literature and entertainment in its own right.

Golden Ass

The recipient of this rather obsequious eulogizing is Lucius Apuleius and the text in question is the exemplary Metamorphoses, commonly referred to as The Golden Ass.

A quick internet search of the book will often regurgitate adjectives such as ‘bawdy’ or ‘picaresque’ and, whilst both are certainly justifiable, they do not quite do this peculiar (perhaps unique) work due service.

We could also call it a semi-autobiography, a cautionary guide for a young nobleman, or a set of Milesian Tales (so influential to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).

Far ore than anything else, The Golden Ass is a work of religious devotion – and a proselytizing one at that.

To fully appreciate this, we need to understand a little about Apuleius himself.

At this point regular readers will be expecting the almost stock-phrase: ‘Unfortunately we have almost no biographical information about [inset name] and what we do have is highly dubious’.


Well surprisingly, and unlike many other noteworthy characters from antiquity, not only do we have a decent amount of information to go on, but it also paints a picture of an extremely colorful life.

Born in the North African town of Madaurus, Apuleius was a true man of the world. Studying first at Carthage, then Athens, he eventually made his way to Rome where he studied Latin oratory and took a place at the bar.

However, this was not before he managed to flit away the small fortune bequeathed to him by his father through drinking and whoring his way around Greece, during a trip to the Olympic Games.

His later taste for the law may well have germinated from the necessity to defend himself against accusations of black magic when, shortly after marrying his friend’s mother, said friend promptly died.

The fact that the bride was enormously wealthy, as well as significantly advanced in years, convinced the family he had bewitched her and poisoned him.

Apuleius’ tongue-in-cheek (and victorious) legal defense, A Discourse on Magic, is his other, significant, surviving work.

In fact, all this sin and scandal does not diminish, but accentuates, the most important feature of Apuleius’ life; his devotion to the gods.

Goddess Isis

Not to the whole ancient pantheon mind you, but primarily to Isis, Osiris and then later, Asclepius.

But it is to Isis that The Golden Ass is foremost devoted.

The vehicle Apuleius uses to exalt his goddess is a broad plot almost completely lifted from either Lician of Samosata or Lucius of Patras, whose efforts, Ass and The Ass respectively, follow the same basic thread:

  • A nobleman engages in activities not worthy of his station
  • He dabbles in the dark arts
  • He is accidentally transformed into a donkey
  • This incarnation allows him to spy on private conversations and see all sorts of ribald behavior
  • He suffers greatly before regaining human form

The first two steps set up the precautionary tale, not exactly against impiety, but ‘mis-piety’. Classics legend Robert Graves explains:

“A nobleman should not play with black magic: he should satisfy his spiritual needs by being initiated into a respectable mystery cult along with men of his own station”.

However, it is the last step to which Apuleius gives his most serious attention.

Golden Ass

His transformation comes about through the kindness of the goddess Isis and he, in turn, devotes his life to her.

The religious allegory is not a subtle one; when a man behaves badly, when he dishonors or disregards the gods, he must go through the trials and tribulations of bestial servitude and suffering. Only upon accepting Isis into his heart will he be truly humanized and given the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the hereafter.

One suspects that Apuleius would have been rather pleased at learning some considered his work to be no more than a series of foolhardy and lubricious frolics. This seems exactly the point of the work – to not be considered overtly religious, but to charm, compel and covertly convert.

Though that’s not to say that he was entirely dismissed as an indecorous interloper into the world of tasteful literature.

It seems the black magic accusations against him caused some to see The Golden Ass as a literal memoir rather than an amusing recruitment tool… or indeed a work solely of wit and whimsy.

The Christian community, or at least its intelligentsia, were apparently genuinely troubled that Apuleius’ miraculous exploits were perceived as even more wonderful than those of Christ. Indeed, several centuries later, the Inquisition did their utmost to transform The Golden Ass once and for all into ashes.

St Augustine

Apuleius’ countryman, St Augustine, stated that his pagan predecessor “either reported or invented his transformation into asinal shape”.

In fact, the lives of these two devout Africans run along parallel lines, i.e. Carthage university, debauchery, residence at Rome, salvation. The key difference being that Apuleius chronicles his transformation with a sense of humor, a little less vitriol, and far less pomposity.

Unlike Augustine who wallowed in the blissful guilt of his youthful transgressions until he was old and grey, Apuleius saw his debaucheries as pleasurable pit stops on the road to enlightenment.

He appreciated what many of us know, though don’t always like to admit: that the follies of youth are what maketh the man.

He doesn’t quite go as far as to say that fornication and degradation are necessary rites of passage… but if he does speak of regretting them, then he does so with a suppressed smirk and a twinkle in his eye.

After all, a young man cannot remain a crude beast forever, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t enjoy his asinine desires while they last.

Exploding Heinrich Schliemann

by June 27, 2014

By Ben Potter

While we are usually content to quote Cicero, read poetry, and drink too much wine, this week we have decided to get our hands dirty. We will bury our fingers in the earth, feel the grit under our nails and return to the (literal) foundations of Classical Civilization; archaeology.

Well… we obviously won’t go scrubbing around in the filth – we are bookish weaklings after all – but we can at least talk about those that have.

Heinrich Schliemann

And there is no place we could possibly begin our odyssey of excavation other than at the door of the most famous and polarizing archaeologist of them all, that controversial German trailblazer, Heinrich Schliemann.

We’ve been often told that any significant archaeological find tells us more about the Ancients than a thousand pages of Homer. For Schliemann, it was this crossroad, between the literal and the literary, that was precisely the crux of the matter.

Though neither a professional classicist nor archaeologist, Schliemann was nevertheless obsessed with the legend of Troy. He believed, as young as age 8, that he would be the man to unearth the ancient site and thus prove Homer and Virgil were part of an historical, as well as a poetical, tradition.


However, this destiny was not easily realized. Our latter-day Homeric hero took a route so long and circuitous that it made Odysseus’ journey look like a jog around the block.

Though, in his defense, Schliemann’s detours away from his desired target were not of his own making; even to a lesser extent than Odysseus’ were of his.

Schliemann’s father, a corrupt Protestant minister, paid for three years of quality schooling for his ambitious young progeny. However, once the Pastor’s crimes of embezzling church funds were exposed, the family’s new-found poverty meant Heinrich had to give up any dreams of university, leave school at fifteen and find gainful employment.

He did a variety of menial tasks, some with a soupçon of the Homeric. For example, as a cabin-boy bound for Venezuela he was shipwrecked off the coast of Holland and settled there for some time.

His import/export firm eventually posted him to St Petersburg before his upped-sticks to try his luck in the Californian gold fields.

A scandal-tainted exit saw him return to Russia and gain his fortune as a war-profiteer during the (original) Crimean War.

By 1866, at the age of 44, Schliemann was finally wealthy enough to retire and pursue his original ambition. The preceding 36 years had merely been a preamble.

He relocated to Paris and attended the Sorbonne, thus completing his truncated education. Now, at long last, the man who had seen so much of the modern world was ready to delve into the ancient.

MAP of Hisarlik

There were three working theories for the site of Troy in Turkey; Pinarbasi, Hisarlik and Alexandrian Troas. Regional expert, Frank Calvert, believed Hisarlik was the true site and was desperate to begin excavations there.

Englishman Calvert, frustrated at a lack of funding from the British museum and no doubt boggled at the energy, verve and, above all, wealth of the intrepid German, put him onto the idea of carrying out excavations at Hisarlik.

Calvert had no idea that, in order to uncover the secrets of god-like men, he had just made a pact with the devil.

You see, Schliemann was a gifted linguist (he spoke 15 languages) and literary enthusiast, but he was also an opportunistic con-man!

Fraudulent, avaricious, disloyal, impetuous, narcissistic… he has been called much, and off the back of much supporting evidence. He falsified his own diaries, supposedly with an eye on posterity. He more or less abandoned his first family. He… ahem… ‘preserved’ archaeological finds by smuggling them through customs.

However, the one believable word he spoke was that he wanted to be the man to uncover the site of Troy… this he accomplished.

Of course, such a volatile character, complete with an ad hoc education, was unlikely to conform to the stereotypical image of a serious intellectual attempting to dig a great pit using only a pastry brush. No, Schliemann’s preferred tool was not one most people keep in the kitchen; dynamite.

The question arcs though the air, slowing waiting to detonate: “how could he do this without destroying countless valuable artifacts?”

Ah! Well…erm… exactly!

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring”. Alexander Pope foretold the danger of the enthusiastic amateur.

Levels of Troy

And his methods, far more than his ego, thefts or countless subterfuges are why many classical archaeologists still must resist the temptation to spit or swear when they hear his name.

Indeed Schliemann’s assumption, plucked out of thin air, that Homer’s Troy must be the lowest level of excavation caused him to race his way through the actual site, churning up soil, bone and booty and grinding them into dust.

Calvert’s identification of the ‘Trojan’ pottery dated the items found to hundreds of years before the Homeric Troy. Convincing the asinine Schliemann of this was far more difficult than blasting through the ancient foundations they’d gone there to preserve.

Jewels of Helen

The height of Schliemann’s stubbornness is evidenced by the ‘jewels of Helen’ which were famously photographed round the neck of his teenage Greek wife, Sophia (their two sons were named, of course, Andromache and Agamemnon). These predated Homeric Troy by 1000 years, but Schliemann, without offering a shred of supporting evidence, maintained their authenticity until late into his life.

A similar boast was made of the ‘Agamemnon mask’ found at the dig site in Mycenae, Greece. There are countless reasons to assume this was not actually a likeness of the head of the Greek army at Troy; the most damning of which is the, not insubstantial, suspicions that Schliemann planted the item there himself!

Agamemnon Mask

Although Calvert may have rued chumming up with Schliemann, he, a world-renowned expert, was still complicit and culpable in the maddening methods his part-time partner employed.

Schliemann has been pilloried and celebrated to equal degrees and, unusually in such cases, with equal justifications.

He may have been a chancer, a conman and a trickster – he may have taken a demolition derby approach to an artistic science of patience and finesse – but he, more than any other individual of the 19th century, reignited an interest in Homer and the classics across Europe and America.

And that being a good thing, is something we can all agree upon.