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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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“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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