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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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Negotiating Canons

← 138 | 139 → CHAPTER NINE


At any rate, the role of the “ring of Polycrates” in this constellation of sources suggests some intriguing comparisons that we might consider drawing with more straightforward instances of canonical texts, and with the hermeneutical processes by means of which religious communities continue to grapple with those texts in order to uphold their relevance for subsequent generations. Historical religions often strive to imbue their present versions1 with a sense of authenticity that draws nourishment from the connection to their formative documents (or other foundational entities).2 When discussing the rabbis’ use of an episode from Herodotus, we are clearly dealing with a different kind of process. It cannot be classified as an example of a canonical text that was revered by Jewish tradition, let alone one that was sanctified or deemed to be the product of a supernatural revelation. Nevertheless, it is not inconceivable that for the circles that produced the tale of Joseph the Sabbath-honorer, familiarity with certain elements from the “great books of world literature” might have been regarded as a desirable distinguishing mark of a cultured individual, and one that could be expected to exist among the audience to which they were directing the narration.3 As far as I can tell, we have no way of determining whether or not the authors of the respective rabbinic adaptations expected their audiences to be familiar with the original passages from Herodotus or Philostratus or with the versions of those texts that were in circulation in ← 139 | 140...

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