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The Most Precious Possession

The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives

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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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A Fishing Expedition: The Trail of the Ring

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← 92 | 93 → In each of the texts that we examined in the previous chapters, the “ring of Polycrates” motif was utilized in order to advance values that were central to the world-views of the respective authors and their cultural environments. Herodotus was illustrating how history subjects human success to inevitable limitations. Matthew was struggling with issues related to the validity of Jewish observance in a redeemed age. The rabbis were motivating their communities to make sacrifices or take risks, if necessary, in their devoted performance of the precepts of the Torah. Augustine was demonstrating that the ongoing phenomenon of miracles furnishes irrefutable proof of God’s involvement in human society and of the providential guidance that is leading humanity towards the imminent realization of the final redemption.

For purposes of this study it was necessary to deal rather loosely with questions of genre. Certainly, the borderlines between history and fiction would have emerged as very porous and blurred had we attempted to define them with reference to these texts. Evidently, Herodotus’ uncritical ear accepted at face value both the historical authenticity and the theological accuracy of the legend about Polycrates’ ring, as we may infer from the precision with which he identifies its localities and historical personalities.1 This probably holds true for the passage in Matthew about Jesus and Peter in Capernaum, as well as for Augustine’s tale that he presents as a true event that occurred in recent memory to named persons in a specific shrine,...

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