Lucius's Parents, Theseus and Salvia, in 'The Golden Ass.'

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Early on in Apuleius's The Golden Ass before Lucius, the non-hero of the first ten books, has changed into an ass, the reader learns from two ignoble citizens of the witching city of Thessalian Hypata that Lucius's parents' names are Theseus and Salvia.

Milo, a miserly banker, welcoming Lucius to his "humble abode," as he euphemistically speaks of it, hopes Lucius will be content with slender fare and will thus emulate the virtues of his father's namesake, the Attic hero, Theseus, who did not spurn the small hospitality of the old, impoverished, but noble Hecale (1.24).(1)

Later, while strolling through the forum of Hypata, Lucius meets up with a wealthy matron, Byrrhena by name, who, he learns, is closely related to him. Remarking on how much he resembles the nobility of his most blessed (sanctissima) mother Salvia, she then explains that she had helped to nurture him (2.2). In fact, she continues, the two women were close kin, descended from Plutarch, and, reared as sisters, had even shared the same nursemaid.(2)

This information about Lucius's parents is so meager that one wonders why it was given at all, but on close inspection one finds that Theseus and Salvia are important insights into Apuleius's major Platonic theme--the sacredness of love, human and devine.

Not Platonic, however, is Apuleius's emphasis in book 11 that it is married love which holds the cosmos together. Isis, her husband Osiris (or Osirapis), and their son Horus, into whom the asinine non-hero Lucius of the first ten books is ultimately transformed, ever battle the disintegrating irruptions of Seth, god of chaos, one of whose theriomorphs is the flame-red ass. Other noble marriages in the Metamorphoses are those of Cupid and Psyche, who becomes divinized by married love; of Plotina, who fights off brigands and has her husband restored to his high post at Rome; of Grace (Charite) and Tlepolemus, both of whom the Sethian Thrasyllus, whose name means Great Despoiler, ultimately destroys.

It is unseemly that the usurious Milo should be talking of the great-hearted Attic hero, Theseus, or that Byrrhena, Lucius's Bad Mother of folklore, should allude to sanctissima Salvia as her sister. For, as I hope to show, Salvia is Isis sospitrix (11.9, 15, 25) and sanctissima (11.25).(3) She is also Ariadne Aphrodite, ineffable, not to be spoken of, arrete, specially by such as Byrrhena.

But the reader is not yet fully aware of Apuleius's startling ironies. For instance, not known is that Lucius is on the verge of becoming an ass, sacred to Seth, god of confusion.

Because Plutarch is mentioned twice in The Golden Ass, as Lucius's forbear on his mother's side (1.2, 2.3) and because Milo specifically alludes to Theseus and Hecale, it is in order first to see what relevant material Plutarch has given in his biography of Theseus.

Plutarch (14) tells us that while Theseus is on his way to slay the bull of Marathon, he is provided with shelter and hospitality during a storm by the aged, noble, but very poor Hecale. She vows to Zeus that she will offer sacrifice to him if Theseus comes back safely with his mission successfully fulfilled. But she dies before his return. Hence Theseus dedicates a sanctuary to Zeus Hecaleios and institutes a festival for the god and Hecale. Plutarch reports that the diminutive of her name, Hecaline, is also used because she addressed Theseus with endearing baby-talk.

While this account seems to be straightforward heroic saga, pure and simple, it is not. It is an account of a rite--both words (mythoi) and actions (dromena)--which was enacted by the people of the Attic deme, Hecale, supposedly established by Theseus. Hecale looks suspiciously like apocope for Hekebolos, or the longer form Hecatebolos, Hecate, the far-shooting moon, or even Heca-lene, a melding of Hecate-Selene.

If so, old Hecale, the eponymous heroine of the Attic deme Hecale, dies, symbolizing the waning and then the dark of the moon. …