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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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Herodotus: the Ring of Polycrates

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Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484 BC–c. 425 BCE), justly regarded as the founder of the western discipline of historical writing,1 is credited with introducing the motif of the gem-laden fish into the western literary vocabulary. The Histories were composed between 431 and 425 BCE. In them, Herodotus was concerned chiefly with trying to arrive at an understanding of the complex background to the recent devastating war between Persia and Greece. Towards that end he labored to assemble a vast collection of reports and traditions that were somehow related, even if it was in a very indirect manner, to his main question. Even in the days of antiquity, Herodotus was criticized and lambasted for assorted shortcomings in his critical evaluation of the information he presented (though some of his claims that were once deemed questionable have subsequently been vindicated by archeological findings). For purposes of the present project, which is devoted principally to the literary study of a specific legendary episode, there may not be any pressing urgency to establishing the factual accuracy of his account; though it would have been useful if we could determine whether Herodotus recorded his narrative of Polycrates’ ring exactly as he had heard or read it, or whether he took an active role in reworking it and adapting it to the ideological and literary purposes of his Histories.

The protagonist of this episode, Polycrates son of Aeaces, ruled over the Aegean island of Samos from around 535 BCE, when...

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