The Great Goddess and the Golden Asse

The Metamorphosis of Apeluis, dubbed the Golden Ass by Augustine, written in the 2nd century AD, details Lucius Apeluis’ encounter with the Goddess,

“When I had ended this orison, and discovered my plaints to the Goddesse, I fortuned to fall asleepe, and by and by appeared unto me a divine and venerable face, worshipped even of the Gods themselves. Then by little and little I seemed to see the whole figure of her body, mounting out of the sea and standing before mee, wherefore I purpose to describe her divine semblance, if the poverty of my humane speech will suffer me, or her divine power give me eloquence thereto. First shee had a great abundance of haire, dispersed and scattered about her neck, on the crowne of her head she bare many garlands enterlaced with floures, in the middle of her forehead was a compasse in fashion of a glasse, or resembling the light of the Moone, in one of her hands she bare serpents, in the other, blades of corne, her vestiment was of fine silke yeelding divers colours, sometime yellow, sometime rosie, sometime flamy, and sometime (which troubled my spirit sore) darke and obscure, covered with a blacke robe in manner of a shield, and pleated in most subtill fashion at the skirts of her garments, the welts appeared comely, whereas here and there the starres glimpsed, and in the middle of them was placed the Moone, which shone like a flame of fire, round about the robe was a coronet or garland made with flowers and fruits. In her right hand shee had a timbrell of brasse, which gave a pleasant sound, in her left hand shee bare a cup of gold, out of the mouth whereof the serpent Aspis lifted up his head, with a swelling throat, her odoriferous feete were covered with shoes interlaced and wrought with victorious palme. Thus the divine shape breathing out the pleasant spice of fertill Arabia, disdained not with her divine voyce to utter these words unto me: Behold Lucius I am come, thy weeping and prayers hath mooved mee to succour thee. I am she that is the naturall mother of all things, mistresse and governesse of all the Elements, the initiall progeny of worlds, chiefe of powers divine, Queene of heaven! the principall of the Gods celestiall, the light of the goddesses: at my will the planets of the ayre, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell be diposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customes and in many names, for the Phrygians call me the mother of the Gods: the Athenians, Minerva: the Cyprians, Venus: the Candians, Diana: the Sicilians Proserpina: the Eleusians, Ceres: some Juno, other Bellona, other Hecate: and principally the Aethiopians which dwell in the Orient, and the Aegyptians which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustome to worship mee, doe call mee Queene Isis. Behold I am come to take pitty of thy fortune and tribulation, behold I am present to favour and ayd thee, leave off thy weeping and lamentation, put away all thy sorrow, for behold the healthfull day which is ordained by my providence, therefore be ready to attend to my commandement.”

Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Asse, trans. William Adlington (Apple Books, 1566), 433.

Though a work of fiction, the goddess theology apparent in this text remains germane today. Compare this with the theology of the Devī Māhātmya of the Indian subcontinent. The great goddess multiplies Her forms when slaying a host of demons, and encountering the demon Śumbha, He declares,

“10.3 ‘O Durgā, who are corrupt with the arrogance of power, do not show your pride here, for though you are haughty, you fight depending on the strength of others.’

Kali, Devadatta. Devimahatmyam: In Praise of the Goddess. Berwick, ME: Nicolas-Hays, Inc., 2003.

To which the Great Goddess responds,

“10.5 ‘I am alone here in the world. Who else is there besides me? Behold, O vile one! These are but projections of my own power, now entering back into me.’”

Kali, Devadatta. Devimahatmyam: In Praise of the Goddess. Berwick, ME: Nicolas-Hays, Inc., 2003.

Although we cannot necessarily come to the conclusion that there was a comprehensive and global goddess cult in the ancient world simply from this comparative theology here, we can at least note that goddess theology has a recurring theme: (1) The goddess has a singular great form, and (2) the goddess multiplies her names and forms across time and place. This establishes a sacred cultural window by which the goddess touches the mundane world and reaches to Her devotees in the form that they understand best. Or as Ramakrishna said so beautifully,

“The mother cooks different dishes to suit the stomachs of her different children. Suppose she has five children. If there is a fish to cook, she prepares various dishes from it—pilau, pickled fish, fried fish, and so on—to suit their different tastes and powers of digestion.”

Mahendranath Gupta, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Nikhilananda (New York, NY: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 2007), 127.

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