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The Most Precious Possession

The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives


Eliezer Segal

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.
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About the author

About the author


ELIEZER SEGAL holds degrees from McGill University (B.A. in philosophy and Jewish studies) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (M.A. in Talmud; Ph.D. 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 Judaism. 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.

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