The Ring of Gyges

Herodotus tells the story of Gyges, King of Lydia in the 8th century BC. He was the founder of the third Mermnad dynasty of kings of Lydia descendents of the gods, Zeus and Hercules [Herakles] and forefather of Croeseus.

Croeseus was a king of unsurpassed wealth and power, but the last of his line and the one who succumbed to the Persian Empire.

In Herodotus’ tale, Gyges was bodyguard to the king Candaules, who suffered “uxoriousness” or extreme love of his wife, believing her to be the most beautiful woman on earth. The king persuaded Gyges to hide in his bedchamber to observe his wife disrobing, that he too may appreciate her unsurpassed beauty.

Gyges protested but the king insisted.

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The Queen discerned she had been observed when Gyges left the room later that night. She did not say a word to her husband but she summoned Gyges and gave him the ultimatum, that he may suffer execution for what he had seen, or kill her husband and take the throne and herself to wife.

Gyges agreed to assasinate the king and take the throne. With the Queen’s help he succeeded and managed to quash the resultant civil war and hold the thone by sending tribute to the Oracle at Delphi in Greece.

With rich tribute to the oracle he inquired if he were the rightful king of Lydia, to which the Oracle replied he was, but his dynasty would only last for five generations.

By the 6th century, the King Croesue went to battle against the Persian army, believing himself to be invincible but was overpowered. Thus Herodotus accounts for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and accounts for the rise of the Persian Empire and her later assaults on Greece.

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Plato, writing in the 5th century,  recounts the myth of Gyges with a different emphasis. He tells of a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates in which Glaucon poses a moral dilemma.

Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a mere shepherd in the service of the ruler, Candaules of Lydia. After an earthquake, Gyges discovers a cave in a mountainside near where he was feeding his flock. He enters the cave and discovers that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse and the armour of a giant. The giant’s corpse wears a golden ring, which Gyges pockets.

Soon discovering that the ring gives him the power to become invisible, Gyges then arranges to be chosen as one of the messengers who report to the king on the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he uses his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murders the king, and becomes king of Lydia himself.

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In Republic, Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice.

Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate.

Glaucon posits:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
— Plato’s Republic, 360b–d. 

Though his answer to Glaucon’s challenge is delayed, Socrates ultimately argues that justice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy. (Republic 10:612b)

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Glaucon’s story show interesting parallels with Tokein’s epic narrative “Lord of the Rings” taken from Norse and Scandinavian myths. Both accounts pose the question of morality in the presence or posession of great power.

Though Tolkein’s epic shows that humble creatures such as Hobbits can partially resist the seductive powers of the ring, ultimately the ring holds an intractable force that will corrupt any living creature.

 

myth of gyges

In Herodotus’ history, the rise of the Persian Empire and the fall of the Lydian kingdom was due in part to the foolishness of Candaules and the lust of Gyges centuries prior. Though a good king, Gyges usurped the throne immorally, sowing the seeds of the demise of his own Empire generations later.

Moreover, the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, questions whether justice is a social construct and whether humanity can resist enslavement to their appetites and retain a moral compass, Glaucon and Tolkein both disagree.

What do you think? If not, what indeed is the hope for humanity?

Frodo

Tolkein’s narrative closes with Frodo unable to destroy the ring which he has carried into Mordor. Its corrosive powers had consumed him to the point where he no longer posessed his own powers of reason.

It was only another, more lustful than he, so obsessed by the ring that it was willing to throw itself into the flames to possess it, that finally brings about its destruction.

And allow peace and reason to reign again.

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There is another story, one I’m fond of retelling, in which a humble man holds ultimate power in a small vessel – himself. It is only destruction of this power, by those more lustful and obsessed by having it, and the destruction of the vessel and so the man himself, that peace and reason are permitted to reign again.

Ulysses 31

This blog has often touched upon the point that the popularist genre, science fiction, has its roots in high myths and legends. What was once the domain of scholars, philosophers, theologians and literary experts –  is now the domain of geeks and nerds worldwide.

What better illustration of this relationship than the 1980s French-Japanese animation, “Ulysses 31″.

The 26 episodes of the series, describe the struggles of Ulysses and his crew against the divinities that rule the universe, the ancient gods from Greek Mythology.  The gods are angered when Ulysses, commander of the giant space vessel Odyssey, kills the giant Cyclops to save a group of enslaved children, including his son.

Zeus sentences Ulysses to travel the universe with his crew frozen until he finds the Kingdom of Hades, at which point his crew will be revived and he will be able to return to Earth. Along the way they encounter numerous other famous figures from Greek mythology, given a sci-fi twist.

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Any lover of science fiction and fantasy can recognise many of the themes explored throughout the episodes:
  • The ship passes a moon that brings Numinor back to life, since it’s from his home planet of Zotra. When they investigate, the children disappear and Numinor suspects they’ve been kidnapped by a legendary witch.
  • Ulysses meets an old scholar named Heratos and his assistant, a young Zotrian woman named Atina. Heratos gives Ulysses a map that he says is to the Kingdom of Hades, but is actually to the Graveyard of Wrecks and Hulks which no-one has ever left alive, because the gods threatened Atina’s life if he did not deceive Ulysses. While there, Telemachus finds the black sphere which contains a map of Olympus.
  • Aeolus, King of the winds, kidnaps Ulysses to provide entertainment for his daughter’s birthday party. Unable to watch her father’s cruel sport, she frees the captives and helps them escape.
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  • Ulysses encounters Sisyphus a king condemned to fill a crater with boulders for all eternity for having dared to want the secret of immortality. Zeus has promised Sisyphus he can leave if he makes Ulysses take his place.
  • The Odyssey comes across a lifeless city world. On hearing that its people had the technology to bring the dead back to life, Yumi takes Numinor to the planet to revive him. However, she learns why there is no life in the city.
  • A space storm revives the companions as crazed automatons who take over the ship and try to crash it into space glaciers.
  • Passing through the domain of the great Sphinx, Ulysses must answer his riddle to leave safely. His treacherous daughter kidnaps the children and plots to make Ulysses her slave.
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  • Ulysses is saved from a Trident attack by Chronos, the god of time, who wants to use him as leverage to be allowed to reenter the home of the gods.
  • The Odyssey arrives on a tropical planet, where the ruling tyrant uses a magic prism to shrink them.
  • Ulysses follows a Trident carrier in hopes of learning more about the way out of Olympus, and finds himself trapped in bizarre worlds. To save the children, he will have to give up his memories.
  • Trying to help a stranded astronaut, Ulysses tries to find a hidden base on one of the deadly twin planets Scylla or Charydbis.
  • Coming across a piece of Zotra that could bring Numinor back to life, Ulysses and Yumi pursue it to a swamp planet where they are ambushed by monsters who can copy their forms.
  • Pirates kidnap the children to force Ulysses and No-No to brave the danger of the Sirens, said to guard a map of the Olympus universe.
  • Ulysses and the crew land on a planet similar to prehistoric earth. They encounter a winged female named Sauria, whose people are under attack from mutant vultures called Keconopters.
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  • The crew of the Odyssey are enslaved by the magic of the enchantress Circe and turned into pig-people to build a tower that will house all the knowledge of the universe.
  • Princess Ariadne comes upon the Odyssey, and asks for Ulysses’ help in saving her lover Theseus, who has been exiled to her father’s labyrinth to be killed by the fearsome Minotaur.
  • Mercurius, the bubble-dwelling “grandson of the gods,” enlists Ulysses’ help in taking a jewel from the brow of the giant Atlas under the promise that it will give him the power to send Ulysses home.
  • The shapechanger Nereus calls Ulysses for help when Shark Men, servants of the gods, take over his planet.
  • Ulysses is saved from an attack by the most powerful magician in the universe who breaks the gods’ curse on his crew; however, as payment for his services, demands to hunt Ulysses’s best men.
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  • Princess Hypsipile of the planet Lemnos is found by Ulysses; she tells them that the women of her planet are being forced by the Shark Men to build ships for the gods.
  • The Odyssey is dragged to a planet populated by machines, and governed by the tyrannical computer Cortex. One of its inhabitants, a “female” robot named Nanette, falls in love with No-No.
  • The Odyssey responds to a distress call from Queen Calypso, who tells him that if he saves her planet she will tell him the way back to earth. Calypso has been ordered by Zeus to betray Ulysses, but she falls in love with him and cannot carry out the gods’ orders.
  • Ulysses and the children are sent back in time and meet the original Ulysses, Telemachus and Penelope of Homer’s epic.
  • Needing raw materials to repair the Odyssey, Ulysses travels to a world where the inhabitants are addicted to eating seeds which induce amnesia.
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  • In the final episode, Ulysses and his companions reach the Kingdom of Hades. They meet Orpheus, who seeks Ulysses’ help to find his love, Euridyce, who has been taken to the Kingdom of Hades by Charon. Hades the god of death, tells Ulysses that he must leave his companions behind if he wishes to return to Earth. He rejects the offer, which was a final test, and they all return home.