The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives
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“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
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.
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