Not Your Typical Epiphany: Subversion of Epiphanies in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass

By Finley Corrigan

Corrigan cover art 2a

"Watercolor donkey 3," original digital collage, Flickr

In the ancient world, both Greeks and Romans often conceived their own relationship with the Olympian gods as taking place via epiphanies. In Georgia Petridou’s definition, an epiphany “denotes the manifestation of a deity to an individual or a group of people, in sleep or in waking reality, in a crisis or cult context.”[1] Traditionally, epiphanies could be either anthropomorphic or zoomorphic; while in the former the appearing deity “was attributed with an individual bodily physiognomy,”[2] the latter were “divine manifestations in animal form.”[3] In both kinds of epiphany, both the appearance of the given god(s) and the characters’ responses to it played a key role, and usually the latter used straightforward narratives to record their encounter with the gods.

As proven by literary and artistic sources, both Greeks and Romans usually reacted to epiphanies in a serious and religious way, as they were willing to worship and trust the appearing gods. This pattern characterizes the first ever narrated epiphany from the ancient Greek world, Athena’s anthropomorphic epiphany in Book 1 of the Iliad (eighth century BCE). This famous Greek goddess appears to Achilles just as he is about to kill his enemy Agamemnon. In Homer’s words, “Athena stood behind Achilles and grabbed his sandy hair, | Visible only to him: not another soul saw her.”[4] In the same passage, Athena’s epiphany is further described through Achilles’s reaction: “Awestruck, Achilles turned around, recognizing | Pallas Athena at once—it was her eyes.”[5] Achilles is completely taken back by Athena: once he recognizes her, he stops everything that he is doing, and even refrains from killing Agamemnon. In light of this, Achilles’s reaction to the epiphany is clearly serious and introduces a relationship of dependence with the goddess.

The same reaction characterizes an exemplary zoomorphic epiphany, which is narrated in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysius (seventh century BCE) and describes the god’s transformation into a lion and a bear in front of a terrified crew of sailors: “Dionysius changed into a dreadful lion there on the ship, in the bows, and roared loudly: amidships also he showed his wonders and created a shaggy bear which stood up ravening, while on the forepeak was the lion glaring fiercely with scowling brows.”[6] As in Athena’s case, this epiphanic narrative highlights the sailors’ reaction: all of them were taken by fear and “fled into the stern and crowded bemused about the right-minded helmsman.”[7] Unlike in the previous epiphany, the god’s action is about to become lethal, as “the lion sprang upon the helmsman and seized him;” this could have been any of the other sailors! However, luckily for him, “Dionysus had mercy on the helmsman, held him back and made him altogether happy, saying to him: ‘Take courage, good...; you have found favor with my heart.’”[8] In this zoomorphic epiphany, the serious nature of the human response to the epiphany is focused on the helmsman’s acknowledgment of his unexpected salvation from the god.

While these two passages from Homer and the Homeric Hymn to Dionysius are at the origin of a very long tradition of “serious” epiphanies, there are fewer ancient texts in which characters have a playful response to the gods’ appearance. Due to this subversive variation, these epiphanies do not stress the greatness of the gods’ interventions, but rather the entertainment gained by the receivers.

In this paper, I will explore this alternative pattern by analyzing epiphanies in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, an ancient novel written in Latin in the second century CE which narrates the entertaining wanderings of the protagonist Lucius. I will argue that, throughout this text, Apuleius subverts the traditional representation of epiphanies and their serious function, as he uses them to make fun of Lucius, who undergoes a metamorphosis from a man into an ass. Strikingly, this subversion of serious epiphanies is not alien to our contemporary world, as nowadays it is exploited by many celebrities. This paper will thus show that Apuleius’s subversion lies at the origin of a long tradition which has reached our time.

In the first section of the paper, I will focus on the anthropomorphic epiphany of Diana and Actaeon, narrated at the beginning of Apuleius’s novel. This is a special epiphany, because it addresses the controversial issue according to which humans should not be given access to divine nudity, and also highlights the exaggerated curiosity of the protagonist Lucius. In the second section, I will focus on Photis’s display of beauty in front of Lucius, which will be taken as a subverted version of an anthropomorphic epiphany of Venus; here, both Photis’s beauty and Lucius’s erotic response to her will be discussed in detail. In the third section, I will take Lucius’s metamorphosis into an ass as a subversion of the traditional zoomorphic epiphany. Finally, in the fourth section, I will argue that the famous contemporary singer, Kanye West, often constructs his status as a celebrity by means of subversion of epiphanies, thus showing the relevance of this ancient theme to our times.

I. Subversion of Anthropomorphic Epiphany in Byrrhena’s Atrium

Let us begin our analysis with the description of Diana in Byrrhena’s Atrium, within which Apuleius subverts the traditional pattern of anthropomorphic epiphany.

In this scene, Lucius, the protagonist of The Golden Ass, becomes a spectator of the encounter between Diana and Actaeon. According to this famous episode of ancient myth, Actaeon unwittingly stumbles across the goddess Diana, when she is bathing naked in a spring with the nymphs. In Apuleius’ narrative, Diana’s epiphany occurs in Byrrhena’s atrium, which is occupied by her grand statue:

The atrium was by far the most splendid I have ever seen. The tally of pillars were four, one in each corner, and they supported effigies of the goddess who carries palm branches [the goddess of Victory]. […] And oh, my!—a Diana made of Parian marble occupied the exact center point and balanced out the entire room. What an utterly resplendent piece of statuary: her clothing blew in the wind, and she was making a sprightly charge forward at anyone entering. […] Dogs […] flanked her, a bodyguard on either hand: they had a menacing glare, pricked-up ears […] and teeth bared in fury.[9]

In this vivid passage, Apuleius narrates Diana’s anthropomorphic epiphany using a statue of her: he is in fact able to articulate “the otherworldly nature of the gods through Diana’s [large] size and the precious materials used for her fabrication.”[10] The two marble dogs on either side of her have caused much controversy, as scholars are not certain whether they truly belong to Diana or are the hunting dogs of Actaeon, the other important character who is introduced in the final section of the same chapter:

In the middle of the marble foliage was Actaeon, craning forward and gawking at the

deity. He was visible both in the stone and on the spring’s surface while, waiting for Diana to begin her bath in those very waters, he started to become less a human and more a stag.[11]

With the addition of Actaeon, Diana’s epiphany is not only anthropomorphic but also an illicit one, since, as we have just read, Actaeon subverts the prohibition that humans should not be given any kind of access to divine nudity. This illicit epiphany leads to an unexpected outcome: after Actaeon sees Diana nude, he begins to turn into a stag with a dappled hide and long antlers, robbing him of his ability to speak. Because of this, he flees in fear, and soon after, is attacked by his own dogs who do not recognize him anymore. This final tragic event is only subtly hinted at by Apuleius’s text, but was well known to the Roman readers from their knowledge of Actaeon’s myth. Overall, both Actaeon’s transformation into a stag and his subsequent death perform a proleptic function in the novel, because it foreshadows Lucius’s transformation into an ass and his encounter with ferocious dogs.

On close examination, there are many differences between Diana’s epiphany and traditional ancient epiphanies. To begin with, the character’s reaction to Diana is not religious: Acteon responds with lust to her beauty and it is on account of this response that he is turned into a stag. Like Acteon, Lucius is mesmerized by Diana: as we read in the following chapter, he “inspected that tableau over and over and was delighted beyond anything.”[12] Lucius’s response to Diana’s epiphany combines lust and curiosity, a combination which further highlights the playful function of this epiphany.

A second difference concerns narrative form. While Greek and Roman epiphanies are traditionally conveyed via straightforward narratives, the account of Diana’s epiphany is complex, since it includes two major spectators and the transformation of a man into an animal. Finally, Apuleius clearly presents this epiphany with the purpose of entertaining readers, since Actaeon, while looking at the goddess Diana, turns into a stag instead of worshipping and praying to her. The religious approach to epiphanies is indeed subverted here.

II. Subversion of Anthropomorphic Epiphany: Photis’s Enacted Epiphany

A few chapters after Diana’s epiphany, Apuleius introduces another subversion of epiphany, as Photis’s display of beauty is compared to an anthropomorphic epiphany of the goddess Venus. The identification of a human character with a divine figure creates a first subversion of epiphany, which scholars usually call “enacted epiphany.” Second, similar to Diana’s previous interaction with Actaeon, Photis’s epiphany is also subversive on account of both her portrait as a prostitute and Lucius’s lustful and erotic response to her.

Enacted epiphanies typically “emphasize the ambivalence between the body of the god and that of certain humans of special age, physique, and sociopolitical status.”[13] In The Golden Ass, Photis is compared to the goddess Venus, primarily through the beauty that both of them possess:

Photis was looking back at me over her shoulder and laughing. I didn’t leave until I had carefully inspected her entire appearance. […] If you were to take a superbly beautiful woman, sack her head of its hair and denude her face of its magnificent organic frame, she might have descended from heaven, emerged from the sea, she might be drawn from the waves—she might be Venus herself, with the whole band of Graces in attendance, with the whole race of Cupids in her train.[14]

After suggesting this identification between Venus and Photis, Lucius goes on to explain how Photis is “dressed in an elegant tunic” and her “hair’s enticing color and brilliant shine is a sort of internal light and gives an active flash in answer to a sunbeam.”[15] Lucius places an emphasis on Photis’s hair, as this feature is commonly associated with divine beauty. This replacement of a goddess with a human character creates a first subversion of epiphany.

However, there is a further level of subversion, as Photis is looked upon as almost a prostitute. In ancient Greek and Roman texts, the women compared to goddesses were traditionally pure and innocent, while Photis’s portrait is all about lust, as we read in her following words to Lucius: “Your will is mine, so now I’m your slave. It won't be long at all until we can have the time of our lives. As soon as the torches are lit, I’ll come to your bedroom.”[16] Immediately after, Photis adds to Lucius: “better watch it, because my honey is so tasty you could eat too much and get heartburn.”

Finally, Apuleius also subverts the traditional approach towards epiphanies through Lucius’s lustful reaction towards Photis. As one may expect, from the moment he sees her, Lucius does not have any religious response, but he rather gazes at her appearance, inspects her bodily features, and then he asks himself: “What can I say about the rest, given that I’ve always been preoccupied with hair?”[17] Lucius then goes on to say that he must “give it an exhaustive gaze in public and savor the memory afterward at home.” Finally, after a little while, Lucius adds: “I threw myself onto her, and right at the peak, on the topmost part of her coiffure, I placed a kiss— extremely delicious.”[18]

This reaction by Lucius further proves how in his novel Apuleius deliberately subverts traditional epiphanies in order to entertain readers, and keeps them intrigued by what is going on. In traditional epiphanies the receivers typically interact with and learn from the gods, while here Lucius experiences pleasure from contemplating the beauty of Photis, a prostitute.

III. Subversion of Zoomorphic Epiphany: Lucius’s Metamorphosis into an Ass

Shortly after Photis’s enacted epiphany, Apuleius narrates Lucius’s metamorphosis into an ass. By having a human character transformed into an ass, Apuleius subverts the traditional zoomorphic type of epiphany and adds further entertainment for the readers.

Lucius’s metamorphosis into an ass is the result of the dangerous curiosity which he possesses throughout the novel. His transformation includes two different phases: first, Lucius observes Pamphile’s zoomorphic epiphany as an owl, and then he undergoes his own transformation into an ass.

One day, Photis tells Lucius that her master Pamphile has the ability to turn herself into an owl. Moved by his characteristic wonder and curiosity, Lucius expresses to Photis his desire to become a spectator of this intriguing act. Later that night, Photis brings Lucius to Pamphile’s chamber to witness her transformation, which Lucius thus describes: “a soft down sprouted, string feather grew, her nose bent back and hardened, and hooked claws solidified on her feet. Pamphile became an owl.”[19] Lucius is stunned by what he sees: “I started to wonder whether I was in fact conscious.”[20] Once Lucius realizes that Pamphile has indeed become an owl, he begs Photis to let him have a dab of the same ointment so that he may become an owl too. Photis eventually agrees to help Lucius, and reassures him that she knows the exact way to turn him back into a human. Shortly after, Photis retrieves the ointment and Lucius rubs it all over his body.

A few moments afterwards, however, Lucius begins to notice that something is off:
I extended my arms, executed some practice flaps, and did my best to make like a bird.

But fluff there was none, and feathers nowhere. Instead, my hair thickened into bristles, and my tender skin into hide. On the edges of my palms, I saw the countable digits disappearing and melding into solid hooves. At the end of my spine, a big tail came forth. My face was already huge, with an elongated mouth, gaping nostrils, and dangling lips.[21]

Soon after, Lucius realizes that he was “not a bird but a donkey,” and both human voice and gesture had been taken from him. Photis is shocked at Lucius’s appearance, and ultimately is not able to turn him back into a human.

In my reading, this transformation can be considered a zoomorphic epiphany for various reasons. As I said in the introduction, a zoomorphic epiphany is simply the “divine manifestations in animal form,”[22] within which gods maintain the awareness of who they are. Similarly, when Lucius is transformed into a donkey, he still maintains his active mind. Additionally, when Apuleius describes Lucius’s transformation, we have just read that his face “was already huge, with an elongated mouth.”[23] This is a subtle but outstanding example of “superbody,” the large body that gods or goddesses may take when they appear in epiphanies. Finally, Photis’s reaction to Lucius’s transformation exhibits the main features of the spectators of epiphany, since she is taken back and cannot believe what she sees.

While being a zoomorphic epiphany, Lucius’s transformation subtly subverts the traditional model. First of all, as in Photis’s case, Lucius is not a god but a human character. In addition, his transformation is unexpected, since readers could not anticipate this outcome, and it is humorous, as Lucius turns into a donkey, an animal that is typically not looked upon very highly. Finally, Lucius’s first-person narration of his transformation enables the readers to experience all that he is going through. Because of this, readers soon realize that Lucius still thinks as a human while having the donkey’s body, leading to a very funny contrast.

IV. Kanye West’s Self-Portrait: Contemporary Use of Enacted Epiphany

Apuleius’s subversion of epiphany is a phenomenon that is not merely limited to the ancient world, but also extends to our times. This extension specifically concerns the model of enacted epiphany, which I have introduced and discussed (in section II) as an instance of subversion of anthropomorphic epiphanies. Through the example of Kanye West, I will now argue that some of the contemporary celebrities adopt enacted epiphanies as part of their own self-presentation, and, by doing so, they subvert traditional epiphanies even more than what the ancient did, since they overtly construct this pattern for themselves rather than leaving their spectators to do so.

Contemporary celebrities often try to find new ways to increase their popularity. Kanye West is one of these celebrities, who has managed to be very successful and most well-known for his work in the music and fashion industries. Throughout his career, Kanye West has paid special attention to his own self-representation, and he has done and still does so in a way that is very attractive to us: through his use of the subversive model of enacted epiphany.

Some people may potentially see Kanye West as a god or godlike figure, but what is certain is that he views himself as such. A few years ago, Kanye was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, in an image titled “The Passion of Kanye,” which represented him “attempting to embody a crucified Christ, showing blood and facial scars and wearing a crown of thorns.”[24] By choosing this image for himself, Kanye shows that he thinks extremely highly of himself, since not everyone would wish to be compared to Jesus Christ. A few years later, after he produced the platinum-selling collaborative album Watch the Throne, Kayne explicitly began to declare himself “a God” to celebrate his success. Furthermore, in Yeezus, Kayne frequently introduces comparisons with Jesus. Finally, Kanye titled one of his songs, “I Am a God,” which clearly states what he thinks of himself.

In light of this evidence, Kanye indeed constructs his own celebrity by adopting for himself the subversive model of enacted epiphany. His attempt to look divine while being human is indeed subversive, and this deviation is reinforced by the fact that, while in ancient enacted epiphanies—as we saw with Photis and Lucius—the comparison with the gods was established by the spectators, Kayne attributes this pattern to himself. Even more, many other singers and songwriters do not compare him to a god as frequently as he does. This further subverts the usual approach to epiphany, because traditionally spectators and other individuals would be the ones recognizing the epiphany, not the artist himself. Kanye’s example is indeed powerful, and suggests that subversion of ancient epiphanies is still present in our contemporary world.

V. Conclusion

It is apparent that, in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, the approach towards epiphanies differs from the way in which Greek and Roman epiphanies were typically communicated. Apuleius takes the traditional elements of epiphanies, namely the presence of real gods, straightforwardness, and religious responses, and subverts all of them greatly. Through this subversion, Apuleius is able to entertain readers and keep them intrigued in the plot of his novel.

On closer examination, this subversion performs additional functions. First, it helps to introduce the key theme of the entire novel, namely the metamorphosis that Lucius eventually undergoes. Additionally, the epiphanies play a crucial role in the construction of Lucius’s character throughout the narrative. Scholars of this ancient narrative frequently debate the extent to which this character should be condemned for his lust, or at least considered to be responsible for all the dangers and difficult situations he experiences throughout the story, with the exception of Book 11. Through this frequent subversion of epiphanies, which highlights Lucius’s erotic and non-religious response to both Photis and Diana, readers can clearly see that the protagonist is indeed responsible for his curiosity, wonder, and lust, all of which lead to his transformation into a donkey. Without this subversion of epiphanies, and the reader’s ability to see Lucius’s reactions to them, it would be more difficult to appreciate the protagonist of the Golden Ass throughout.

Finally, Apuleius’s subversion of epiphanies is at the origin of a tradition which still impacts our times. Within this tradition, Kayne West’s use of enacted epiphanies for his own self-presentation as celebrity further highlights how any subversion of epiphanies, from Apuleius to our day’s entertainment, has lain and still lies at the center of our cultural landscape.


[1] Georgia Petridou, Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 2.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] Homer, Iliad, 1.207-08.

[5] Ibid., 1.210-11.

[6] Homeric Hymn to Dionysius, 44-48.

[7] Ibid., 50.

[8] Ibid., 52-56.

[9] Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans. Sarah Ruden (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 2.4.

[10] Julia Kindt, Rethinking Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 158.

[11] Apuleius, Golden Ass, 2.4.

[12] Ibid., 2.5.

[13] Petridou, Divine Epiphany, 43.

[14] Apulieus, Golden Ass, 2.8.

[15] Ibid., 2.9.

[16] Ibid., 2.10.

[17] Ibid., 2.8.

[18] Ibid., 2.10.

[19] Ibid., 3.21.

[20] Ibid., 3.22.

[21] Ibid., 3.24.

[22] Petridou, Divine Epiphany, 87.

[23] Apulieus, Golden Ass, 3.24.

[24] Lesli White, “Celebrities with a God Complex,” Beliefnet, 21 May 2018, www.beliefnet.com/wellness/galleries/celebrities-with-a-god-complex.aspx.