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The Ring of Polycrates
By Friedrich Schiller
Polycrates (/pəˈlɪkrəˌtiːz/; Greek: Πολυκράτης), son of Aeaces, was the tyrant of Samos from the 540s BC to 522 BC. He had a reputation as both a fierce warrior and an enlightened tyrant.
He stood on the ancient battlements,
Proudly gazing from the parapets
On Samos, over which he reigned.
“This realm bends under my iron yoke,”
He said to the Egyptian monarch.
“My fortune cannot be contained.”
“Truly, you’ve fared on fortunate seas;
Your foes have been brought down to their knees—
Enemies once beloved by gods.
Yet there remains one who seeks revenge—
I won’t call you blessed until you’ve purged
This final foe, against all odds.”
And while he lent Egypt’s king his ear,
A herald from Miletus appeared—
With tidings for Polycrates.
“Let us rejoice with your many lords
As we listen to these welcomed words
And hail your endless victories.
“Polydore, your faithful general,
Has announced the defeat of the foe.
Their army now retreats in fear.”
The young herald then retrieved a head
From a basket. The guest watched with dread
As the enemy’s face appeared.
The king stepped back from the severed head.
“True joy and fortune are never wed;
Recall your many fleets of ships
Now sailing over the restless seas—
How quickly Fortune’s grace may cease
When orders fall from stern gods’ lips.”
But before he could finish his speech
Jubilant shouts were heard from the beach
Where one saw all the fleets arrive:
The pure white sails and great treasure stores
Were seen glittering upon the shores,
With all the soldiers still alive.
The Egyptian king then spoke with fear,
“You’ve had many a fortunate year,
But one should fear luck’s fickleness.
The Cretan army is approaching.
Ready to unleash death-exacting
Strikes on your realm—and nothing less.”
But as the words issued from his lips,
A vicious gale was seen striking the ships.
A thousand voices screamed, “Victory!
The Cretan legions have been vanquished
By the tempest—by the gods punished—
They’ve sunk our final enemy!”
Egypt’s king spoke with great emotion
“Indeed, you’ve reaped the gifts of Fortune.
“But,” said he, “It appears a sign,
And I fear the fate that waits on you.
Indeed, such fortune belies the true
Intention of those gods divine.”
“All of my endeavors have been blessed
By the hand of mighty gods and graced
With unending fortune and fame,
Although I did once father a son—
He was seized from me without reason.
Thus all I have I’ve rightly gained.”
“If you still wish to then be shielded
From all woes, and be protected,
Pray for misfortune, for your sake.
For no man is endlessly showered
With such luck, or like gods empowered,
Without then answering to fate.”
“If the gods refuse your entreaties,
Still take counsel from your faithful friend—
Seek out misfortune willingly:
What in this kingdom do you prize most?
Offer it to the immortal host.
Find it and throw it in the sea!”
Gripped by the foreboding monarch’s words
The stern tyrant said, “Within this world,
This ring is what I hold most dear.
I will pledge my ring to the Furies
And hope that it quells all my worries.’’
He cast the ringlet to the sea.
But before the morning light appeared
In his royal eyes—by Fortune so endeared—
A fisherman arrived, boasting,
“My king, I have caught the rarest fish,
Beyond the wisest seaman’s wish.
I offer it to you, fair king.’’
As the head cook opened the fish up
He marveled at what he discovered.
He jumped and screamed and loudly cheered.
“Your highness, this is the self-same ring
In the fish, the one I saw you fling
Into the seas—it has appeared!”
His anxious friend turned around and said
“Forgive me, but I can only dread
The fate that waits on you, my friend.
The gods are keen on your destruction—
An end to your fortune is certain.”
The monarch spoke then quickly fled.
Translation © David B. Gosselin
Originally published in New Lyre - Issue I