One day my wife Pam and my son Sam went out to a vide grenier – where people sell old things from their houses that they don’t want any more. In English you’d call these “car boot sales”. Often you can find a bargain at them, though there’s usually a lot of old stuff that’s really not interesting at all!
Anyway, this time she came back and she said, “I’ve got a present for you!” Everyone likes presents, so of course I was pleased. When I got it out of the bag I was even more pleased. It was a beautiful box, made of wood, but painted and shiny, black on the sides and bottom, red on the inside, with a picture on top. It was the kind of “lacquer box” they make in Russia. Then, when I really looked at the picture I was even more delighted: the picture was of a story I knew and really loved!
I’m not completely sure it is the story I think it is, but if it is then it is a very old story. It comes from about 530 BC in Ancient Greece. On the Greek island of Samos (where I’ve been!) there was a king called Polycrates. He had a fleet of very powerful ships, and he behaved a bit like a pirate, taking money and treasure and slaves from all the other islands and the mainland nearby. He became one of the most powerful kings in Greece, if not the most powerful at that time. Even the Pharaoh of Egypt (called Amasis) wanted to be his ally and sent him lots of silver.
The Pharaoh wrote Polycrates a letter:
“Amasis to Polycrates: It is gratifying to learn that a friend and an ally is doing well, but these great successes of yours do not please me. For I know that the gods are jealous, and I wish for myself and those connected with me success in some things and failure in others — a life of ups and downs rather than one of unbroken fortune — for no one, to my knowledge, ever experienced unbroken good fortune without coming to a bad end. If you will listen to me, you will take steps to meet the danger in the following way. Decide what it is that is most precious to you and would cause you the greatest pain if you were to lose it, and throw it away, so that it will never again be seen among men. And if you do not find, after doing this, that your successes alternate with failures, continue to do as I have suggested.”
Polycrates followed the advice and threw a very precious ring into the sea. Now, here is where the picture on the box comes in. Much later, some fishermen found a huge fish. So huge that they thought they should take it to the king. When the fish was cooked, brought before the king and cut open, there inside was… you guessed it, the ring!