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Tuesday 1 March 2016

The Ring of Polycrates

It would have no doubt come as a bit of a surprise to John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, if he was told, after recounting a story he knew as ‘Am Fàinne anns an Iasg’ (‘The Ring in the Fish’), its origins in all likelihood were to be found in Greek mythology. MacDonald was recorded by Calum Maclean on the 25th August 1951 and his story was committed to paper when transcription took place shortly afterwards. The essence of the story relates how a ring is lost, deliberately or not, in water, and is not expected to found again; but is later discovered inside a fish which has been caught. The classic version of the story maybe more familiar through its rendering by the Greek historian Herodotus. The story may have entered Gaelic tradition from the twelfth-century Scottish hagiography Life of St. Kentigern. Although the saint is not explicitly mentioned in this Lochaber version, it contains all the instances which would place it, in all likelihood, from such a source. Likewise, the version given in the hagiography may indeed stem from an Irish source as the very same tale occurs in the eighth or ninth-century Táin Bó Fraích.


Bha duine ann an seo agus bha e pòsda agus boireannach gasda aige, boireannach laghach, coibhneil, bàidheil. Ach bha gille aig an duine airson a bhith a’ coimhead na dheaghaidh fhèin agus is deaghaidh an taighe. Ach a’ bhean aige nach ann a ghabh i mòr-ghaol air a’ ghille. Cha do chuir e fairidh air dad. Ach bhiodh an gille seo leis a h-uile car a bhiodh e a’ dol. Agus chaidh iad an àirde am monadh agus nuair a chaidh thuit e na chadal na gille. Choimhead an duine mun cuairt agus bha an gille na chadal. Is dè chunnaic e air meur a’ ghille ach am fàinne aig a bhean:
“O, tha rudeigin eadar thusa agus a bhean,” thuirt e ris fhèin.
Ach thug e am fàinne dheth cho fàilidh agus cho sàmhach is a b' urrainn dà. Agus thilg e am fàinne anns an abhainn. Chaidh e dhachaigh. Cha do ghabh e dad air. Thuirt e ris a’ bhean:
“Càite eil am fàinne agad?”
“Och, chuir mi gu taobh an aiteigin e,” thuirt i. “Gheibh mi e.”
“Feumaidh e a bhith agad a-màireach,” thuirt esan, “aig dà uair deug, air no bidh an còrr mu dheidhinn.”
Cha robh e an dùil idir gum b’ urrainn dhith fhaotainn. Nach do dh’innis i dhan ghille a h-uile car:
“Dh’ionndraich mi am fàinne,” thuirt e, “agus shaoil leam gur h-ann a chaill mi e.”
“Ma-tà, tha esa’ an deaghaidh am fàinne fhaotainn agus bidh an rud gu h-olc. Ach tha bana-bhuisdeach thall anns an àite sin. Ruig i feuch dè their i, a tha aice ri ghràitinn.”
’S e seo a rinn an gille is e gu math trom-intinneach agus bruaidleanach gun èireadh gu h-olc don bhean aig an duine eile.
“Dèan thusa mar seo,” thuirt i. “Bi ann an dùrachd glè mhath ris na briathran a their mi agus obair riut fhèin: “Gheibh mi e” agus “Gheibh mi e”. Ach feuma’ tu,” thuirt e, “an dealbh aig a’ bhoireannach fhaotainn, a h-iomhaigh a chuir fos cionn an uisge agus driamlach a thoirt leat agus dubhan. Tilg a-mach an driamlach agus cha bhi thu fad gus an tig iasg. Nuair a thig an t-iasg, fosgail an t-iasg a tha sin agus gheibh thu am fàinne na bhroinn.”
’S ann mar sin a rinn e. Thàinig an t-iasg is ghlac e an dubhan. Shlaod e gu taobh tìre e. Agus dh’fhosgail e an t-iasg. Nuair a dh’fhosgail e an t-iasg fhuair e am fàinne.
“Och,” thuirt e, “faoda’ mi an t-iasg – de is motha orm-sa e, a thilgeil air ais.”
Thilg e an t-iasg air ais don abhainn agus ’s e iasg cho luaineach is a bha san abhainn. Cha do chuir e nitheann air, ged a chaidh fhosgladh agus am fàinne a thoirt a-mach. Chaidh am fàinne a thoirt don bhoireannach agus aig dà uair deug mar a thuirt e.
“Shin agad am fàinne.”
Cha robh fhios aig an duine dè theireadh e. Thuirt an gille an ceann uair a thìm na rudeigin:
“Dh’ionndraidh mi am fàinne agam. Saoil an do chaill mi e nuair a bha mi gu h-àrd air a’ chnoc leat ann an sin?”
“Cha bhi e furasda fhaotainn san fheur ged a rachamaid ga shiubhal,” thuirt esa’.
“Ach tha e cho colta’ ri fàinne a’ bhean agam is a chunna mi riamh,” thuirt e.
“O, faoda’ sin a bhith,” thuirt an gille.
“Ach tha mi a’ tuigsinn gur h-e am fàinne agad a bh’ ann is tha mi glè dhuilich gun do chaill thu e.”
Agus sin mar a bha an t-sìth eadar a’ bhean agus an duine: mar a bha an t-iasg a thug am fàinne chun taobh tìr agus a’ bhana-bhuidseach a chuidich iad.

And the translation may be rendered as follows:


There was a local man and he was married to a fine woman who was nice, friendly and kind. This man also had a servant who looked after him and also after the house. But his wife fell deeply in love with the servant lad. The husband had not noticed anything. Tthe servant lad would go everywhere he went. They went up the hill and then the servant lad fell asleep. The husband looked around and saw the servant lad sleeping and what did he see on the servant lad’s finger but his wife’s ring.
“Oh, there something between you and my wife,” he thought to himself.
He removed the ring as carefully and as silently as he could and threw the ring into the river. He then returned home. He prentended nothing was wrong. He asked his wife:
“Where’s your ring?”
“Oh, I put it to one side or another,” she said. “I’ll go and get it.”
“You must have it by tomorrow,” he said, “by mid-day or there’ll be trouble.”
He didn’t expect that she would be able to find it. She told the servant lad all about it.
“I’m missing the ring,” he said, “and I think that I’ve lost it.”
“Well, then, he’s got the ring and things will turn out badly. But there is a witch over in yonder place. Go over to see what she’s got to say.”
This the servant lad did and he was greatry troubled about what would happen to the man’s wife.
“You’ll do this,” she said. “And you must take what I say seriously so that it’ll work for you: “I’ll get it” and ‘I’ll get it.” But you must,” she said, “get a picture of the woman, and to place her image over the water and to get a rod and line. Throw out the line and it’ll not be long before you catch a fish. Once you’ve caught the fish, open the fish and you’ll find the ring inside.”
This is how it happened. He caught the fish with the hook and pulled it landward. He opened the fish and found the ring.
“Och,” he said,” I may as well throw the fish back in.”
So he threw the fish back in the river and it was a very swift fish. He didn’t give it a second thought he opened up the fish and retrieved the ring. The ring was given to the woman and at mid-day as was said:
“There you have the ring.”
The man didn’t know what to say. The sevant lad said after an hour or two:
“I’ve been missing my ring. Do you think that I lost it when I accompanied you up the hill there?”
“It’ll not be easy to find it in the grass even if we went to look for it,” he said. “But it looks ike my wife’s ring as anything else I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Oh, that may well be,” said the servant lad.
“But I understand that it was your ring and I am very sorry that you’ve lost it.”
And that is how peace came about between the husband and his wife: just as the ring had been taken from the fish that was landed through the help of the witch who came to their aid.

One of the earliest sources or inspirations is, as stated, the Greek tale of Polycrates or Polykrates, ruler of Samos, According to Herodotus (c. 484–424 B.C.), known as “The Father of History”, first coined by Cicero, Polycrates was making a treaty with Amasis, an Egyptian king, when Amasis told Polycrates to dispose of some of his most valued possessions, explaining that even he must experience hardships and sorrow, or his life will end in tragedy. Polycrates, taking to heart the king’s advice, threw away some of his possessions including his most prized, emerald ring. The loss of the ring weighed heavily upon Polycrates. One day a fisherman brought to him a great fish as tribute, and as is the custom, had the fish gutted. When the fish was cut open, Polycrates much to his own surprise and delight found his old emerald ring.
The Sanskrit drama of of Śakuntalā, as written by Kālidāsa, is also a parallel. A king fell in love with Śakuntalā, whom he married and gifted an emerald ring, with his name engraved upon it. On his return to the capital, however, he forgot about Śakuntalā until one day a fisherman was seen selling such a ring in the marketplace and had been arrested. The fisherman told the king that he had found the ring in the belly of a fish. The king thus remembers Sakúntala and they are reunited.
Another early variant, could be the Talmudic tale of the biblical Solomon, who recovers his signet ring in a similar manner. A similar Talmudic tales is one in which a wealthy and irreligious man who heard from an astrologer that all his worldly goods shall one day belong to his neighbour Joseph, a poor and religious man, sold all his wealth and bought a large diamond which he attached onto his turban. One day while trying to cheat the stars again, by leaving his old home he embarked on a ship for a distant port. On the deck a great wind blew, taking his turban and diamond with it into the depth of the sea. Shortly after this event Joseph was preparing his fish for cooking on sabbath eve, when inside the fish’s innards he saw a large diamond, all that remained of the wealthy man’s riches.
An Irish variation is found in Táin Bó Fraích, in which Ailill gives his daughter Findabair a ring, which she then gifts to her lover Fraech, who is hated by Ailill. Ailill discovers the ring among Fraech’s things, and throws it into the river, where it is swallowed by a salmon. Fraech sees this, commands a servant to catch the salmon and cook it. When Ailill demands the ring, Findabair sends a servant to deliver the fish with the ring on top. Ailill demands that Fraech tell where the ring came from, and Fraech lies, saying he found it in the salmon and not before. Despite the lie, Fraech and Findabair are able to depart for their own lands.
As mentioned earlier, in Jocelyn’s Life of St Kentigern, King Rederech of Strathclyde discovers Queen Languueth’s affair with a soldier, to whom she gave a ring. The king steals the ring from the sleeping soldier, and demands that the queen produce the ring in three days or else face death. Languueth confesses her sin to St Kentigern, who then commands a messenger to go fishing in the Clyde; a salmon is caught, gutted, and the ring is found. The queen then produces the ring for the king, and escapes death.

For the sake of comparison, a variation of this tale entitled ‘The Fish and the Ring’ was published by Joseph Jacobs in his famous collection English Fairy Tales. As can be readily seen from the previous discussion, the tales has several parallels from the literature, mythology and folklore of various cultures throughout the world:

Once upon a time, there was a mighty baron in the North Countrie who was a great magician that knew everything that would come to pass. So one day, when his little boy was four years old, he looked into the Book of Fate to see what would happen to him. And to his dismay, he found that his son would wed a lowly maid that had just been born in a house under the shadow of York Minster. Now the Baron knew the father of the little girl was very, very poor, and he had five children already. So he called for his horse, and rode into York; and passed by the father’s house, and saw him sitting by the door, sad and doleful. So he dismounted and went up to him and said: “What is the matter, my good man?” And the man said: “Well, your honour, the fact is, I’ve five children already, and now a sixth’s come, a little lass, and where to get the bread from to fill their mouths, that’s more than I can say.”
“Don’t be downhearted, my man,” said the Baron. “If that’s your trouble, I can help you. I’ll take away the last little one, and you wont have to bother about her.”
“Thank you kindly, sir,” said the man; and he went in and brought out the lass and gave her to the Baron, who mounted his horse and rode away with her. And when he got by the bank of the river Ouse, he threw the little, thing into the river, and rode off to his castle.
But the little lass didn’t sink; her clothes kept her up for a time, and she floated, and she floated, till she was cast ashore just in front of a fisherman’s hut. There the fisherman found her, and took pity on the poor little thing and took her into his house, and she lived there till she was fifteen years old, and a fine handsome girl.
One day it happened that the Baron went out hunting with some companions along the banks of the River Ouse, and stopped at the fisherman’s hut to get a drink, and the girl came out to give it to them. They all noticed her beauty, and one of them said to the Baron: “You can read fates, Baron, whom will she marry, d’ye think?”
“Oh! that’s easy to guess,” said the Baron; “some yokel or other. But I’ll cast her horoscope. Come here girl, and tell me on what day you were born?”
“I don’t know, sir,” said the girl, “I was picked up just here after having been brought down by the river about fifteen years ago.”
Then the Baron knew who she was, and when they went away, he rode back and said to the girl: “Hark ye, girl, I will make your fortune. Take this letter to my brother in Scarborough, and you will be settled for life.” And the girl took the letter and said she would go. Now this was what he had written in the letter:
“Dear Brother,–Take the bearer and put her to death immediately.
“Yours affectionately,
So soon after the girl set out for Scarborough, and slept for the night at a little inn. Now that very night a band of robbers broke into the inn, and searched the girl, who had no money, and only the letter. So they opened this and read it, and thought it a shame. The captain of the robbers took a pen and paper and wrote this letter:
“Dear Brother,–Take the bearer and marry her to my son immediately.
“Yours affectionately,
And then he gave it to the girl, bidding her begone. So she went on to the Baron’s brother at Scarborough, a noble knight, with whom the Baron’s son was staying. When she gave the letter to his brother, he gave orders for the wedding to be prepared at once, and they were married that very day.
Soon after, the Baron himself came to his brother’s castle, and what was his surprise to find that the very thing he had plotted against had come to pass. But he was not to be put off that way; and he took out the girl for a walk, as he said, along the cliffs. And when he got her all alone, he took her by the arms, and was going to throw her over. But she begged hard for her life. “I have not done anything," she said: “if you will only spare me, I will do whatever you wish. I will never see you or your son again till you desire it.” Then the Baron took off his gold ring and threw it into the sea, saying: “Never let me see your face till you can show me that ring;” and he let her go.
The poor girl wandered on and on, till at last she came to a great noble’s castle, and she asked to have some work given to her; and they made her the scullion girl of the castle, for she had been used to such work in the fisherman’s hut.
Now one day, who should she see coming up to the noble’s house but the Baron and his brother and his son, her husband. She didn’t know what to do; but thought they would not see her in the castle kitchen. So she went back to her work with a sigh, and set to cleaning a huge big fish that was to be boiled for their dinner. And, as she was cleaning it, she saw something shine inside it, and what do you think she found? Why, there was the Baron’s ring, the very one he had thrown over the cliff at Scarborough. She was right glad to see it, you may be sure. Then she cooked the fish as nicely as she could, and served it up.
Well, when the fish came on the table, the guests liked it so well that they asked the noble who cooked it. He said he didn’t know, but called to his servants: “Ho, there, send up the cook that cooked that fine fish.” So they went down to the kitchen and told the girl she was wanted in the hall. Then she washed and tidied herself and put the Baron’s gold ring on her thumb and went up into the hall.
When the banqueters saw such a young and beautiful cook they were surprised. But the Baron was in a tower of a temper, and started up as if he would do her some violence. So the girl went up to him with her hand before her with the ring on it; and she put it down before him on the table. Then at last the Baron saw that no one could fight against Fate, and he handed her to a seat and announced to all the company that this was his son’s true wife; and he took her and his son home to his castle; and they all lived as happy as could be ever afterwards.

AT 736A, The Ring of Polycrates. A king throws a ring into the sea. It is found next day in a fish brought to him.
ML 7050, Ring thrown into the Water and recovered in a Fish. 'Polykrates'

N211.1. Lost ring found in fish. (Polycrates.)
H94.0.1. Recognition of wife's ring in friends possession informs husband of her unfaithfulness.

Jackson, Kenneth H. The International Popular Tale and Early Welsh Tradition (Cardiff: University of Wales, 1962), pp. 25–27
ven der Veen, ‘The Lord of the Ring: ‘Narrative Technique in Herodotus’ Story on Polycrates’ Ring’, Mnemosyne, vol. 46 (1993), pp. 433–57
SSS NB 6, pp. 490–92

The King and the Fisherman

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