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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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Gods, Fates and Fish

← 98 | 99 →CHAPTER SEVEN


Before moving on to an examinations of these subtle issues, we should point out clearly the most blatant difference that distinguishes Polycrates’ ring from any of the other valuables that turn up in the fishes’ bellies in the later texts: his was the only case in which the discovery of the precious item functioned as a curse rather than as a blessing or reward.1 This simple fact can perhaps be described on a relatively straightforward narrative plane, but it might also have more profound implications with regard to the religious or philosophical world-views within which the stories were told.

Of course, any cogent explanation of this fact must take into consideration the conflicting possibilities that have been proposed as to how to grasp the moral and theological rationale of Herodotus’ story. Are we intended to understand that Polycrates’ doom was sealed by the gods’ indiscriminate begrudging of any un-diluted success enjoyed by a mortal? Was he subject to the eternally cyclic nature of human happiness and misery? Or was the flawed tyrant actually responsible for accelerating his own demise in accordance with the system of fixed laws that underlies the religious logic of Greek tragedy?

The notion that God or the cosmos are determined to prescribe limits to human success and happiness is one that seems to be at odds with the familiar portrayals of the benevolent deity in rabbinic Judaism or in Christianity, or with the impersonal absolute being of the Greek ← 99...

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