The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives
Gods, Fates and Fish
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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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