Photis lovingly consoled Lucius after triple-murder trial farce

multier equitans: the position of Photis riding Lucius

What could be worse than having a rape-hoaxer classmate — who falsely accused you! — receive her college diploma while toting her fake-rape mattress upon the stage at your college graduation ceremony? Less hurtful would be to metamorphose into an ass, a thick-hided cloven-hoofed ass, fully equipped with the equipment many women cherish. But how about being falsely accused of triple murder? You wouldn’t stand a chance at trial. Clothed in black, the mourning wife of one deceased man would bring their baby to the trial and cry for your blood. You’d be as good as sentenced to death, but they would torture you first with fire, wheel, and whips to get you to confess about your accomplice. Amid the supernatural horrors of campus rape tribunals and U.S. mass incarceration, turn to the light. Look to Photis! In Apuleius’s Golden Ass, Photis lovingly consoled Lucius after he endured a triple-murder trial farce.

Photis and Lucius developed a sultry sexual relationship that began with Photis stirring the pot in the kitchen. Photis was a servant in the home of Lucius’s host. Lucius was a learned man from an eminent family. One day he saw Photis cooking in the kitchen:

She was cooking minced pork for stuffing, and slices of meat, and some very spicy sausage of which I had already caught a whiff. She was wearing an elegant linen dress, with a bright-red belt fastened up supporting her breasts. As she turned the casserole-dish round and round with her petal-like fingers, and shook it repeatedly in its circular motion, she simultaneously rotated her body. Her hips moved lightly in rhythm, and as she wiggled her supple spine, her person rippled most attractively. I was spellbound at the sight, and stood there lost in admiration. The parts of me that were asleep before now stood to attention. Finally, I managed to speak to her. “My dear Photis,” I said, “how lusciously and attractively you wiggle that little pot, and your bottom with it! That’s a succulent dish you have in readiness there! How lucky a fellow would be if you let him stick his finger in — he’d be on top of the world!” [1]

Photis the servant wasn’t cowed by Lucius the learned man from an eminent family. Photis was a smart, self-confident woman with strong, independent sexuality. She immediately responded to Lucius:

Keep clear, poor boy, keep clear as far as possible from this stove of mine. If my little flame shoots out once and as much as sears you, you will be all ablaze inside, and I’ll be the only one who can put out your fire. The spices which I incorporate are sweet. I’m an expert at pleasurably shaking a bed as well as a pot.

Photis then looked Lucius in the eyes and grinned. She had beautiful, long hair. Lucius learned over and kissed her on the top of her head. He did that without first asking her for affirmative consent. In short, he sexually assaulted her by the standards of college sex tribunals on U.S. campuses today. But Photis and Lucius lived in a more enlightened time. They kissed each other passionately without pre-negotiation. Photis promised Lucius to be in his bedroom at nightfall.

No flake, that night Photis came to Lucius’s bedroom. She had arranged for food and wine. She kissed Lucius forcefully, put a garland of roses around his neck, and sprinkled rose petals over him. They ate and drank. When Lucius displayed to Photis his manliness erect for action, Photis sprang into action:

She stripped off her clothes, and let her hair flow loose. Then with a show of genial wantonness she adopted the charming pose of Venus treading the ocean waves. She even for a moment covered her hairless pubes with her rosy little hand, a deliberate gesture rather than modest concealment. “Engage,” she said, “and do so bravely. I shall not yield before you, nor turn my back on you. Direct your aim frontally, if you are a man, and at close quarters. Let your onslaught be fierce; kill before you die. Our battle this day allows no respite.” As she spoke she mounted the bed, and eased herself slowly down on top of me. She bounced up and down repeatedly, maneuvering her back in supple movements, and gorged me with the delight of this rhythmical intercourse. Eventually our spirits palled as our bodies lost their zest; we collapsed simultaneously in a state of exhaustion as we breathlessly embraced each other. [2]

Photis took the position on top without becoming manly. She explicitly encouraged Lucius, who had previously spurned the embraces of women, to engage in characteristically heterosexual behavior.[3] Men tend to be disparaged as dogs. Evolutionary scholars have trivialized men’s sexuality. Now more than ever we must look to Photis. Women, especially when they are young and beautiful, must do more to encourage and support men’s heterosexuality.

Women can provide vital consolation to men amid farcical proceedings of criminal justice systems that vastly disproportionately incarcerate men. Returning home one night, Lucius thought he saw three big men attempting to break down the front door of the house in which Photis lived. Lucius was no self-devaluing manlet like Lancelot. Having enjoyed himself at a dinner party, Lucius was drunk. He lacked the wit to save himself like intelligent, truly learned men on a sinking ship. He should have called for women to confront the men breaking into the house, since it’s now women’s turn to do that. Instead, Lucius attacked the three big men himself. With his sword he stabbed and killed all three. He wasn’t proud of what he had done; he didn’t present himself as a brave hero who had saved a damsel in distress. He was weary and went to sleep without having sex with Photis. The next morning, magistrates arrested Lucius for triple murder.

The trial of Lucius for triple murder was the now-common criminal justice spectacle of a sensational case. In those days before mass media, the trial was moved to a theater to cater to public interest. The prosecutor was an elderly man, the commander of the night-patrol. He claimed to be a direct witness of the murders. This prosecutor concluded his appeal to the magistrates by strongly condemning the foreigner Lucius:

Here, then, you have a defendant sullied by numerous murders, a defendant caught in the act, a defendant who is a stranger to our city. So cast your votes responsibly against this foreigner, who is charged with an offense for which you would heavily punish even a fellow citizen.

Lucius, in turn, strongly defended his actions:

The robbers were plotting with each other the murder of those within. Then one of them, more eager for action and of more imposing physique than the others, began to rouse them to the same pitch with exhortations like these: “Come on, lads, let’s attack them, while they sleep, with all our manly spirit and ready vigor. Away with all feelings of hesitation and cowardice! Let slaughter stalk with drawn sword throughout the house. Let’s cut down those who lie sleeping and run through those who try to resist. We shall make good our retreat unscathed only if we leave no one in the house unscathed.”

I freely confess, citizens, that I sought to frighten off and rout these desperadoes. I was armed with a short sword which accompanied me in case of dangers of this kind, and I thought such action the duty of a good citizen. I was also extremely apprehensive for the safety of my hosts and myself. But those utterly savage and monstrous men did not take to their heels. Though they saw that I was armed, they nonetheless boldly confronted me.

Their battle-line was now assembled. The leader and standard-bearer of the gang promptly assailed me with brute force. He seized me by the hair with both hands, bent my head backward, and intended to batter me with a stone. But while he was urging that one be handed to him, my sword-thrust was true, and I successfully laid him low. A second robber was hanging on to my legs with his teeth. I killed him with a well-directed blow between the shoulder-blades. A third who rushed blindly at me I finished off with a thrust to the heart.

Lucius tearfully appealed to the audience to recognize the justness of his conduct. He reached out his hands in supplication to them and called on the gods to help him. When Lucius allowed his consciousness to move beyond his performance, he realized that everyone in the audience was laughing loudly at him.

The magistrates ordered Lucius to uncover the bodies of his murder victims on the bier. He reluctantly did. He saw three goat wineskins pierced in the places where he had stabbed the men. Drunk that night, he had killed three inflated goat wineskins, not three men.[4] All the events had been staged for a public festival of laughter. In similar circumstances today, no one laughs. No one even cares about the outcome of the case.

Photis cared about Lucius. After his triple murder trial farce, she came to him regretfully. She was somber. She spoke hesitantly and timidly:

I have to confess,” she said, “that I caused this discomfiture of yours.” As she spoke, she produced a strap from under her dress, and handed it to me. “Take your revenge, I beg you,” she said, “on a woman who has betrayed you, or exact some punishment even greater than this. But I implore you not to imagine that I deliberately planned this painful treatment of you. God forbid that you should suffer even the slightest vexation on my account. If anything untoward threatens you, I pray that my life-blood will avert it. It was because of a mischance that befell me, when ordered to perform a different task, that the damage was inflicted on you.”

Not satisfied with her husband, Pamphile, the lady whom Photis served, sought to cast a love spell on another man. Pamphile ordered Photis to secure some of that man’s hair for love sorcery. After suffering sexual harassment attempting to get the hair surreptitiously at a barber shop, Photis substituted hair that another man was clipping from three inflated wineskins made from goat skin. Pamphile’s mis-sourced love sorcery animated those wineskins and drove them ecstatically to her house. Lucius had killed those goat wineskins. Photis was only indirectly at fault.

With her loving concern for Lucius and her personal generosity, Photis received forgiveness from Lucius for the triple murder trial farce he had endured. Like most men, Lucius had no interest in beating a woman. He rejected the strap that Photis offered him for that purpose:

This is a wicked and most presumptuous strap, since you have allotted it the task of beating you. I shall destroy it by cutting it up or by slashing it to pieces rather than have it touch your skin, which is soft as down and white as milk.

Photis sought to please Lucius in other ways. She discussed with him how to help him learn more about marvelous magic of metamorphoses:

As we chatted away, our desire for each other roused the minds and bodies of both of us. We threw off the clothes we wore until we were wholly naked and enjoyed a wild love-orgy. When I was wearied with her feminine generosity, Photis offered me a boy’s pleasure. [5]

Amid the horrors of mass incarceration of men and deeply rooted anti-men gender bigotry, women must work harder to provide men with deserved consolation. Look to Photis and Lucius for enlightenment.

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[1] Apuleius, The Golden Ass / Metamorphoses 2.7, from Latin trans. Walsh (1994) p. 22. Apuleius wrote the Golden Ass probably late in the second-century GC. All quotations in this post are from Walsh’s translation, with some minor, non-substantial changes. Subsequent quotes, cited by book.section and page in Walsh’s translation, are id. 2.7, pp. 22-3 (Keep clear…); 2.17, pp. 28-9 (She stripped…); 3.3., p. 41 (Here, then,…); 3.5-6, p. 42 (The robbers…); 3.13, p. 47 (I have to confess…); 3.14, p. 47 (This is a wicked…); 3.20, p. 51 (As we chatted…).

Photis is a character apparently adapted from Palaistra in an earlier Greek story Onos. Palaistra, which means wrestling ground, engaged in non-literary bedroom sport with Lucius. Photis, in contrast, evokes the Greek word for light (phos) and also suggests the Latin word for a device containing and distributing fire (foculus). May (2015) pp. 60-1. The sexual interaction of Photis and Lucius invokes figures from Latin comedy and elegy associated with the soldier of love (militia amoris), but in a way that doesn’t devalue and frustrate the man.

The academic cant term “gaze” has tended to desiccate scholarly imagination in thinking about the importance of seeing in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses. One ambitious student declared of Photis and Lucius:

Here the artifice entices Lucius, who is thoroughly entranced by Photis’ dominance of the power of the gaze between them. … Lucius’ visual engagement with Photis is paradigmatic for his engagement with women throughout the novel. In an attempt to exercise control over Photis, Lucius finds himself on the defensive—penetrated and set ablaze.

McGar (2008) pp. 51, 52. Dominance, power, gaze, control, penetrated — imaginative literature deserves more imaginative response. Scholarship that begins with binary “power of the gaze” tends to perpetuate it unintentionally:

I believe rather that Apuleius is using it to make us as readers imagine a third, independent viewpoint — neither as voyeuristic males, gazing on female beauty for our own gratification, nor as objects of an equally if not more powerful female gaze that threatens to consume us.

Slater (1998) p. 46.

[2] Photis taking the position of Venus pendula (“swinging Venus,” meaning woman on top), also called mulier equitans, was a change from the Greek version Onos. After being transformed into a donkey, Lucius was ridden more literally. May (2015) p. 66.

[3] Lucius later commented, “previously I always spurned the embraces of matrons.” Golden Ass 3.19, p. 50.

[4] Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest denounced women’s betrayal of men’s secrets. In a story that celebrates the dog as man’s best friend, a man pretended to conspire with his wife to murder a pilgrim staying at their home. The husband slaughtered a calf, cut it into pieces, and put those pieces into a sack. He then gave his wife the sack to conceal. He told her that the sack contained the pilgrim’s dead body. Later, before the king, the man abused his wife. She, furious at her husband, told the king that her husband had killed a pilgrim. She declared that she could show where the body was hidden. Officials went with her, opened the sack, and found the dead calf parts. This story highlights that Photis would be regarded as highly virtuous among medieval men. Gesta Romanorum includes a version of this story: Tale 124, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 223-5.

[5] Cf. Athenaeus, Dneipnosophistae 13.580f. A woman behaving sexually in such a way was rare, at least in surviving representations. May (2015) p. 65, n. 19. A surviving Roman graffito describes a different sexual re-orientation.

In a judicious and learned review of the characterization of Photis, May describes Photis as a “delightful, charming, and witty girl”:

She is more than a mere means to an end: Photis is an important foil for Lucius and a credible love interest, an equal and challenging partner for someone with literary interests.

May (2015) pp. 71, 74. Photis deserves additional credit for her loving concern for Lucius’s suffering from the mockery of criminal justice that he endured and that men likewise endure today.

[image] Couple in the position of Venus pendula (mulier equitans), like Photis and Lucius. Fresco from Pompeii. c. 50 GC. Thanks to Okc and Wikimedia Commons. Photis also invoked Venus Pudica (modest Venus) and Venus Anadyomene (Venus Rising from the Sea).


May, Regine. 2015. “Photis (Metamorphoses Books 1-3).” Ch. 4 (pp. 59-74) in Stephen Harrison, ed. 2015. Characterisation in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses: nine studies. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

McGar, Zachary. 2008. Viewers and viewed in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Master of Arts Thesis. Graduate Faculty of the University of Georgia.

Slater, Niall W. 1998. “Passion and Petrifaction: The Gaze in Apuleius.” Classical Philology. 93 (1): 18-48.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Walsh, P.G., trans. 1994. Apuleius. The golden ass. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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