Food, Drink, and Magic in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (Book One)

Ancient History & Classics Editor Davide Scarpignato explores the use of food, drink and magic within the first book of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. 

In this essay I will demonstrate that desire for food or drink is a major driving force in Book One of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. In order to do so, I will engage in a close reading of passages in which desire for food or drink is specifically involved, and enrich my analysis by referring to examples from other ancient authors as well as relevant scholarship. Furthermore, I will show that this kind of desire is also related in some way to magic, thus proving its importance within the plot of Apuleius’ work.

Book One of the Metamorphoses is characterised by several instances in which desire for food or drink is linked with magic. A good example of this is when Lucius, on his arrival to Milo’s house in Hypata, decides to head to the marketplace in order to buy his dinner. 1 Here the name of the destination is significant, since the marketplace is referred to as forum cupidinis, which means ‘Greed Market’ (from cupido, ‘desire’). Varro explains that this is a play on words on the forum cuppedinis, the Luxury Market (from cuppedium, ‘delicacy’), a real place in Rome. 2 The joke is stressed by van Mar-Maeder, who claims that for a Lucius seeking to satisfy his own desires, the forum cupidinis seems indeed the best place to start. 3 Furthermore, the pun cuppedinis/cupidinis is particularly fitting if we consider what is just about to happen in the story. Once in the marketplace, Lucius sees some elegant fish (piscatum opiparem) and resolves to buy it. 4 May comments that there is something comic in Lucius’ choice to purchase fish in Hypata, as this kind of food is rather unusual for a city which is located far away from the coast. 5 So, when Lucius sets himself on buying fish, he is indeed going for a cuppedium, a luxury food, which hints precisely at his cupido, or food-greed. Yet there is another interesting aspect about fish, the fact that it is evocative of magic. Apuleius was aware of this, since in his Apology the cutting of fish is mentioned as part of the charge against him of using love magic to win over his wife Pudentilla. 6 In his defence speech Apuleius dismisses the accusation, saying that magicians and fish have nothing in common. 7 But Bradley shows that in antiquity fish was actually used in magic, even love magic, and that Apuleius most likely knew it. 8 Nelson believes that in the defence speech Apuleius is deliberately lying when he says that fish has nothing to do with magic, as there is evidence that he had wide knowledge of its use in such practices. 9 So, it is quite possible that in the marketplace scene of the Metamorphoses Lucius’ greed for fish is also associated with his desire for magic. The fact that his meal ends up being destroyed by the ‘justice’ of his friend Pythias might confirm this. 10 Magic is a key element for plot-development within Apuleius’ work, since it is Lucius’ desire to learn magic that causes him to be turned into an ass and sets him on his adventure. It is understandable, therefore, that even here Lucius’ interest in magic, and magical food in particular, should lead him to a bad decision, and so to a bad ending.

Keulen argues that cheese is also often involved with unfortunate events happening in the narrative, and gives various examples to show its known magical use. 11 When Lucius is talking to Aristomenes’ companion during their journey towards Hypata, he tells him that the previous night he had choked and almost died whilst dining with polenta caesata, a cheese and corn porridge dish. 12 The act of eating is here rendered through the expression gestio contruncare. The verb gestio implies the idea of desiring or longing for something, which suggests greed. The same applies to contruncare, ‘to gobble down’, which according to May refers back to Plautine comedy, as it is used in the Stichus to describe the devouring of food. 13 So, greed for ill-omened food appears to be the reason behind Lucius’ accident. The most unfortunate case is however that of Socrates, who dies right after having breakfast with cheese. 14 Here the language of greed reaches its peak in the use of desidero, which means literally ‘I desire’, and avide, ‘avidly’, which is referred first to esitantem (‘to be willing to eat’) and then to devoraverat (‘to devour’). After eating enough food (detruncaverat satis cibum), Socrates begins to feel impatiently thirsty (impatienter sitire coeperat). 15 Detruncare has the same root as contruncare and conveys the same sense of haste, which is suppressed with satis (‘enough’) only for a moment before being eventually resumed by impatienter. As Socrates’ hunger is replaced by thirst, Aristomenes points to him the river, so that he may satisfy his new desire for drink. Yet there is something strange in the words of Aristomenes, since he refers to the spring water as lacteo, ‘milky’. Milk indeed is also famous for its role in magical practices. Keulen notes that later in the Metamorphoses Pamphile uses milk for a ritual aimed at bringing empty wineskins to life. 16 Even in the Odyssey milk is included as part of the libation to the dead in the Underworld, 17 which is performed by Odysseus following the instructions of Circe the sorceress. 18 There seems to be an interesting parallel between the behaviour of the dead in the Underworld and that of soon-to-be-dead Socrates. They are both eager to quench their thirst: just like the dead gather around the pit where the libation is poured, so Socrates draws himself close to the milky river. Furthermore, in the Odyssey the dead are actually striving for the blood which has been spilled from the slaughtering of animals; and the same type of bloodshed is just about to happen for Socrates, who had been also been previously likened to a sacrificial victim (victimae religione). 19 In fact as soon as he tries to touch the water’s surface with his lips, the wound in his throat opens wide and the sponge placed there by Panthia the witch comes out together with a final spurt of blood. 20 It is significant that even here Socrates’ act of bending forward to drink is characterised by greed (avidus). Therefore, this proves that desire for food or drink linked with magic has a key role in causing events to take a turn for the worse in the novel.

The analysis of the passages considered above shows that desire for food or drink is widely employed in order to produce a development of the plot in Apuleius’ work. This is because this kind of desire is always also connected with magic, which is a main cause for unfortunate events occurring in the novel. Therefore, desire for food or drink is indeed a major driving force in Book One of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses.


1. Apul. Met. 1.24.

2. Varr. L.L. 5.146.

3. van Mar-Maeder (1998), 76.

4. Apul. Met. 1.24.

5. May (2006), 152.

6. Apul. Apol. 40.5; 42.2.

7. Ibid. Apol. 32.1.

8. Bradley (1997), 208.

9. Nelson (2001), 85.

10. Apul. Met. 1.25.

11. Keulen (2000), 315-16.

12. Apul. Met. 1.2.

13. May (2006), 149; Pl. Stich. 554.

14. Apul. Met. 1.18-19.

15. Ibid. Met. 1.19.

16. Keulen (2000), 319; Apul. Met. 3.18.

17. Hom. Od. 11.20-50.

18. Ibid. 10.504-25.

19. Apul. Met. 1.13.

20. Ibid., 1.19.



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Harrison, S.J. (2001) Apuleius: Rhetorical Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kent, R.G. (1967) Varro on the Latin Language. London: Heinemann.

Lattimore, R. (1967) The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Harper & Row.

Ruebel, J.S. (2000) Apuleius: The Metamorphoses, Book 1. Wauconda, Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers.



Bradley, K. (1997) ‘Law, Magic, and Culture in the “Apologia” of Apuleius’, Phoenix 51, 203-223.

Keulen, W.H. (2000) ‘Significant Names in Apuleius: A ‘Good Contriver’ and His Rival in the Cheese Trade (Met. 1.5) (Apuleiana Groningana X)’, Mnemosyne 53, 310-321.

May, R. (2006) Apuleius and Drama: The Ass on Stage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, M. (2001) ‘A Note on Apuleius’s Magical Fish’, Mnemosyne 54, 85-86.

van Mal-Maeder, D.K. (1998) Apulée. Les Métamorphoses. Livre II, 1-20. Groningen.