The Most Precious Possession

The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives

by Eliezer Segal (Author)
©2014 Monographs XII, 191 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 343


Finding a precious object – a gem, a ring or a coin – inside the belly of a fish is a favorite motif in western literatures that can be traced back to the Greek historian Herodotus. In Herodotus’ account of the rise and fall of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, the hero cast his beloved ring, his «most precious possession», into the sea in order to appease or fend off the gods’ envy of his unstoppable successes, but was ultimately disappointed to discover that same ring inside a serving of fish that was placed before him to eat, thereby signaling the beginning of his tragic downfall. The Most Precious Possession: The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives examines variations on this motif as they appear in ancient religious texts, including the Gospel of Matthew, Jewish Midrash and Talmud, and Augustine’s City of God. It explores how the theme functions in relation to the authors’ respective religious outlooks and literary objectives and what we can learn from these examples about the processes of transmission, interaction and cultural adaptation that occurred among the diverse religious communities of the ancient Mediterranean basin.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • The jewel in the fish: literature and folklore
  • Methodologies
  • The investigation
  • The Texts
  • Herodotus: the Ring of Polycrates
  • The father of history
  • Polycrates’ ring
  • Fatalism and envy
  • Not a tragedy
  • Vindicating divine justice
  • Summary observations
  • The Gospel of Matthew: St. Peter’s Fish
  • The character of Matthew’s Gospel
  • The coin in the fish’s mouth
  • Peter, Jesus and the Temple tax
  • The purpose of the story
  • What would Jesus do?
  • Rabbinic Tales
  • The literature of the rabbis
  • 1. The Tailor in Rome
  • Textual and structural questions
  • Medium and message
  • 2. Joseph Who Honored Sabbaths
  • Text and context
  • The lesson of the story
  • Form and content
  • Joseph and the tailor
  • 3. The disinherited son
  • Augustine: City of God
  • The earthly and divine cities
  • The poor tailor of Hippo
  • Latter-day miracles
  • Telling the tale
  • The Textures
  • A Fishing Expedition: The Trail of the Ring
  • Questions of genre
  • Who was reading whom?
  • Gods, Fates and Fish
  • Benevolent and envious deities
  • Why a fish?
  • Between Polycrates and Joseph
  • A Hebrew Herodotus
  • Addendum: From Hellenic Halicarnassus to Jewish Babylonia
  • Negotiating Canons
  • Narrative, meaning and divine emplotment
  • Works Cited
  • Primary Texts
  • Secondary Works
  • Index

← xii | 1 → CHAPTER ONE



“It’s true, is that,” said Nanny Ogg, earnestly. “How many times have you thrown a magic ring into the deepest depths of the ocean and then, when you get home and have a nice bit of turbot for your tea, there it is?”

They considered this in silence.

“Never,” said Granny irritably.1

The jewel in the fish: literature and folklore

Stories that tell us about a person who finds a valuable object inside a fish’s belly constitute a very familiar and widely distributed motif that appears frequently in diverse branches of traditional literatures throughout the world—so frequently, indeed, that it has earned the honor of being treated as a universally recognized cliché that may serve as a target of parody with the expectation that normal audiences will recognize the allusion. The motif’s ubiquity is unlikely to be based on any statistical foundation of frequent discoveries of gems in the bellies of actual fish;2 quite the contrary, in most of the settings in which it appears, it is reasonable to surmise that the story is being invoked precisely because its sheer improbability serves to demonstrate its supernatural or miraculous origins.3 Nevertheless, as a narrative device, the pattern is distinctive enough to warrant the hypothesis that its numerous recurrences are more plausibly to be ascribed to literary copying than to coincidence or to the factual authenticity of the reports.

← 1 | 2 → Furthermore, as will become evident from several of the discussions in this study, the assigning to it of a decimal number in the index of folk tale motifs has been construed as if it were a veritable carte blanche that allows scholars to dismiss it as a topic of serious investigation or research into literature, culture or ideas.4 It seems at times as if that decisive act of labeling was enough to exhaust everything significant that might have been said about the phenomenon.5 Now, even if we were to concede the dubious premise that folk literature is of an inherently inferior artistic quality, and for that reason unworthy of our learned scholarly attentions, the undeniable fact remains that the “finding a precious item in a fish’s belly” motif has found its way into a number of works whose credentials for literary “seriousness” are beyond challenge, writings that are central to the humanistic curriculum and, in most of the examples that are explored in this study, have acquired canonical or quasi-canonical status in major religious traditions. Insofar as the authors of those works have seen fit to incorporate these fish stories into their creations, there is no apparent ← 2 | 3 → justification for glibly ignoring or dismissing them; and we would do well to give careful consideration to understanding the methods and reasons that governed their treatment of those stories in their respective literary contexts.6 I have no doubt that the intensive study and appreciation of the relevant passages will more than justify the efforts that will be invested in that endeavor.

Some scholars have preferred to view the Jewish and Christian traditions about the precious contents of a fish’s stomach from a broader cross-cultural perspective, as instances of a venerable and universal literary motif that also embraces oriental tales like the Indian legend of Sakuntala that is preserved in the Mahabharata (1:7.b),7 as well as other more diverse instances of the “predestined wife” motif in world literature in which the success of a marriage is made to depend on the bride’s possession of a ring that is lost and eventually recovered from a fish’s belly.8 I have excluded these tales from the range of the present study, partly because of the unlikelihood of tangible mutual influences between the oriental and occidental traditions; but principally because I did not discern in them evidence of any credible thematic similarity apart from the single formal plot device of the finding of the ring inside the fish. As we shall be observing in the coming pages, the stories that I have selected for be discussion here justify more convincing claims to the possibility that they can be interpreted as points on a genuine and meaningful historical trajectory—though to be sure, we cannot expect to map out those routes with complete certainty or precision.

Herodotus’ use of the “ring in the fish” motif was the earliest documented version to make its appearance in the western literary corpus, and it subsequently achieved a proverbial status in the hands of numerous classical authors.9 It is true that explicit citations of that kind may be consulted (and indeed they will be!) with profit for the sake of the assistance that they provide ← 3 | 4 → in tracking the story’s dissemination and the ways in which it was understood and interpreted in various historical contexts; however, for purposes of my principal investigation I have confined myself to a relatively small number of texts that present themselves as independent works and make no explicit or implicit claims to quoting or being derivative of prior narrative traditions. These sources will be presented and discussed in the closest possible approximation of a rough “chronological order”;10 and after the respective sources have been discussed individually, we will be able to address to each of them the important question of whether it is best understood as a borrowing from one of the earlier versions (particularly, from Herodotus) or as original creation by the author or redactor of the work in which it appears.

There is no automatic or foolproof method for reaching judgments about these questions, though there are objective parameters of chronology and biography that are capable, at the very least, of determining the likely direction of any borrowing or eliminating some hypotheses as unreasonable. As one who is trained in the techniques of manuscript stemmatics, I find that the methods employed in that branch of textual philology can also be very helpful for tracing more general cultural and literary influences.11 Ultimately, an important arbiter in such questions is the frequently undervalued criterion of common sense, which often takes the form of asking simple questions like: is it more likely that author A could have known about author B’s story than the reverse? Which of the hypotheses under consideration leads to a more likely explanation of how this tradition came into existence?


← 4 | 5 → I do not believe in confining myself to a narrow methodological range. On the contrary, I lean toward an eclecticism that is animated by the conviction that the products of human culture are so richly variegated that they cannot be appreciated without resort to a diverse assortment of approaches. Nevertheless, some approaches are undoubtedly more appropriate for the task than others. The methodologies that will be applied to these texts consist largely of traditional philological and historical analysis with a view to establishing a correct text and then to come to the best possible understanding of what its authors intended and how it would have been received by its original audience. I am aware that there some would dismiss such quests as being both futile and unproductive, given that we cannot enter into the authors’ minds and, in any case, cannot avoid reading the texts in accordance with our own subjective values and assumptions.12 I believe that this attitude is, at best, seriously flawed—and if taken too far, fundamentally inimical to any rational discourse. Narrators and writers told their stories in the expectation that they would be correctly understood by a community of listeners or readers who shared a common language and set of assumptions. Although geographic and temporal distances might separate us now from their original universe of discourse, the gap is by no means unbridgeable, and generations of philologists have enjoyed impressive successes in clarifying for us the significance of the artistic creations of bygone and distant ages.13

Most of the texts that form the subject of this inquiry are embedded in larger works that may or may not have been created by the same authors or intended for the same purposes as the units under investigation. Therefore, the units must be addressed from both vantage points: what were they intended to convey when they were originally told, and what purpose do they serve in larger contexts o the collections into which they were ultimately incorporated? In several of the instances, the evidence will appear ambivalent, and I will try to assemble the different interpretative possibilities that suggest themselves, whether they are based on the discussions of previous scholars or on my own assessment of the data.

← 5 | 6 → My explanations will, I hope, be based on considerations that would have been meaningful to the stories’ original authors. In keeping with the established methods of historical philology, I recognize that this demands familiarity with the realia of material culture and social life as they found expression in the ancient Mediterranean basin and in the Hellenized Middle East. In these matters my expertise is limited, and uneven at best, and therefore I am especially indebted to the thorough scholarship of specialists in diverse aspects of antique civilization. Wherever possible, I strove to supplement the words of the texts under investigation with comparable material taken from contemporary writings or other vehicles of cultural expression. In this connection, I found myself referring frequently to more popular kinds of works, such as the comedies of Plautus or Terence that, I imagine, occupied a cultural position comparable to that of a present-day television situation comedy and, as such, were likely to furnish us with a more accurate picture of popular attitudes and tastes than the more respectable artistic genres.

Within the diverse disciplinary context of Religious Studies, I would suppose that my approach can best be classified as “phenomenology of religion,” according to the characterization proposed by Walter H. Capps:

...it denotes an intention to concentrate on phenomena—that is, on the perceptible, manifest, empirical, and sometimes visible features or characteristics of religion. Again, instead of trying to identify the single and definitive core elements, or providing an account of religion’s origin and development, phenomenologists have worked to describe the manner and form in which religious phenomena appear in human experience. Rather than searching for underlying causes, essences, or comprehensive and exhaustive explanations, they have focused on those components that can be perceived and portrayed.14

← 6 | 7 → Essentially, this means that I will be taking my cues from the observable evidence—in this case, these are mainly written documents—without worrying too much about how the empirical facts fit into more ambitious theories about the nature of origins of religion.15 For that matter, I will be taking no principled stance as regards the relative centrality of religion vis à vis other areas of human experience, such as societal interaction or psychology (to mention just a few of the prominent instances of phenomena to which pioneering Religious Studies scholars tried to reduce the essence of religion). In these matters as well, I find it most prudent and productive to let the texts speak for themselves about how the religious elements fit into the broader concerns of the authors and their audiences. Though I am committed in the main to the premise that clear definitions of concepts are a valuable component of rational discourse, I find that the specific characteristics of the texts under examination here, and of the works in which they reside, allow me to sidestep the touchy problem of proposing a strict essentialist definition of “religion.” After all, I cannot envisage any definition that would invite doubts as to its applicability to these texts, all of which accept the existence of supernatural deities whose interactions with the world have implications for human behavior. Any attempt to arrive at a more precise or universally valid definition of religion would, I expect, lead to unnecessary and fruitless conceptual complications.16 As with most phenomenological research, the present modest investigation could be utilized as data for more ambitious comparative studies to be carried out by others.

← 7 | 8 → My unease at proposing a definition of generic “religion” extends as well to definitions of the specific religions that are represented here. Although certain phenomena, values or ideas that underlie a text may well be common to all flavors of Greek religion, to Judaism or to Christianity, this is not an assumption that can be taken for granted; and until proven otherwise, we can do no more than accept the texts as expression of their authors’ particular versions of the religions in question.

As regards the literary evaluation of the sources, I have not found much useful guidance in the theoretical approaches that are now current in literary studies, especially those that originate from continental Europe. The texts that are relevant to my topic take the form of relatively brief, schematic prose narratives, some of them barely more than anecdotes. Several of them were undoubtedly transmitted orally before being put into writing, and it is not always obvious how, if at all, the distinction between oral and written traditions affects the literary character of the text.17 Works of formal literary criticism, even those composed by ancient authors, tended to focus on more “elevated” genres such as epic poetry or tragedy18; whereas modern and post-modern critics prefer to devote their attentions to the complexities and polyphonies of the novel19 or of multitiered lyric poetry. As will be evident in some of my concluding observations, Paul Ricoeur’s profound and sweeping investigations of the roles of narrative in human culture did provide me with precious insights that, I believe, enriched my understanding and appreciation of the traditions I was studying.20


XII, 191
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
Herodotus motif cultural adaptation
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 191 pp.

Biographical notes

Eliezer Segal (Author)

Eliezer Segal holds degrees from McGill University (BA in philosophy and Jewish studies) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (MA in Talmud; PhD in Talmud). Since 1986 he has been a member of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Calgary where he holds the rank of Full Professor, teaching courses in Western religions, especially Juda¬ism. His principal research interests are in Rabbinic Judaism and Jewish scriptural interpretation. He was awarded the Helen and Stan Vine Annual Canadian Jewish Book Award for 2005. Eliezer Segal is the author of seventeen published volumes, including scholarly monographs such as The Babylonian Esther Midrash (1994) and From Sermon to Commentary: Expounding the Bible in Talmudic Babylonia (2005), textbooks such as Introducing Judaism (2008) and Reading Jewish Religious Texts (2012), as well as collections of articles for non-specialist audiences and a children’s book. He has also contributed dozens of articles and book reviews to scholarly journals and collections in addition to numerous oral presentations.


Title: The Most Precious Possession
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