Gyges of Lydia  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Gyges (Γύγης) was the founder of the third or Mermnad dynasty of Lydian kings and reigned from 716 BC to 678 BC (or from c. 680-644 BCE), best-known for his connection to candaulism.


Authors throughout history have told differing stories of Gyges rise to power. Gyges was the son of Dascylus. Dascylus was recalled from banishment in Cappadocia by the Lydian king Sadyates, called Candaules, or "the Dog-strangler" by the Greeks, and sent his son back to Lydia instead of himself.

According to Nicolaus of Damascus, Gyges soon became a favourite of Sadyates and was dispatched by him to fetch Tudo, the daughter of Arnossus of Mysia, whom the Lydian king wished to make his queen. On the way Gyges fell in love with Tudo, who complained to Sadyates of his conduct. Forewarned that the king intended to punish him with death, Gyges assassinated Sadyates in the night and seized the throne.

In his turn, the Lydian tyrant (late 8th c. or early 7th c.) took as his paidika Magnes, a handsome youth from Smyrna noted for his elegant clothes and fancy korymbos hairstyle which he bound with a golden band. One day he was singing poetry to the local women, which outraged their male relatives, who grabbed Magnes, stripped him of his clothes and cut off his hair.

According to Plutarch, Gyges seized power with the help of Arselis of Mylasa, the captain of the Carian bodyguard, whom he had won over to his cause.

In the account of Herodotus, which may be traced to the poet Archilochus of Paros, Candaules insisted upon showing Gyges his wife when unrobed, which so enraged her that she gave Gyges the choice of murdering her husband and making himself king, or of being put to death himself.

Finally, in the more allegorical account of Plato (Republic, II), a parallel account may be found. Here, Gyges was a shepherd, who discovered a magic ring by means of which he murdered the King and won the affection of the Queen. This account bears marked similarity to that of Herodotus.

In all cases, civil war ensued on the death of the King, which was only ended when Gyges sought to justify his ascendence to the throne by petitioning for the approval of the Oracle at Delphi.

According to Herodotus, he plied the Oracle with numerous gifts, notably six mixing bowls minted of gold extracted from the Pactolus river weighing thirty talents— an amount which would fetch over US$13 million at 2006 prices. The Oracle confirmed Gyges as the rightful Lydian King, gave moral support to the Lydians over the Asian Greeks, and also claimed that the dynasty of Gyges would be powerful, but due to his usurpation of the throne would fall in the fifth generation. This claim was later proven true, though perhaps by the machination of the Oracle's successor. Gyges 4th descendant, Croesus, lost the kingdom after misunderstanding a prophecy of the later Oracle, and fatefully attacking the Persian armies of Cyrus the Great.

Once established on the throne, Gyges devoted himself to consolidating his kingdom and making it a military power. The Troad was conquered, Colophon captured from the Greeks, Smyrna besieged and alliances entered into with Ephesus and Miletus.

The armies of Gyges beat back the Cimmerii, who had ravaged Asia Minor. An embassy was sent to Assur-bani-pal at Nineveh circa 650 BC in the hope of obtaining his help against the barbarians. The Assyrians were otherwise engaged, and Gyges turned to Egypt, sending his faithful Carian troops along with Ionian mercenaries to assist Psammetichus in shaking off the Assyrian yoke circa 660 BC.

Gyges later fell in battle against the Cimmerii under Dugdamme (called Lygdamis by Strabo i. 3. 21 — who probably mistook the Greek Delta Δ for a Lambda Λ), who took the lower town of Sardis. Gyges was succeeded by his son Ardys.

Many Bible scholars believe that Gyges of Lydia was the Biblical figure of Gog, ruler of Magog, who is mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation.

The mythical Gyges

Like many kings of early antiquity, including Midas of Phrygia and even the more historically documented Alexander III of Macedon ("the Great"), Gyges was subject to mythologizing. The motives for such stories are many; one possibility is that the myths embody religious beliefs or practices.

In the second book of Plato's philosophical work The Republic, Socrates encounters a man named Glaucon who uses a mythological story to prove a point about human nature. Ultimately, Glaucon and Socrates have very different interpretations of the same tale.

The story of Gyges's ring was a well-known myth before Plato used it in his book. It told of a man named Gyges who lived in Lydia, an area in modern Turkey. He was a shepherd for the king of that land. One day, there was an earthquake while Gyges was out in the fields, and he noticed that a new cave had opened up in a rock face. When he went in to see what was there, he noticed a gold ring on the finger of a former king who had been buried in the cave. He took the ring away with him and soon discovered that it allowed the wearer to become invisible. The next time he went to the palace to give the king a report about his sheep, he put the ring on, seduced the queen, killed the king, and took control of the palace.

Plato used the story as a metaphor for the corruption caused by power. In "The Republic" Glaucon recounts the story of the Ring of Gyges to Socrates. Glaucon argues that men are inherently unjust, and are only restrained from unjust behavior by the fetters of law and society. In Glaucon's view, unlimited power blurs the difference between just and unjust men. "Suppose there were two such magic rings," he tells Socrates, "and the just [man] 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 what he liked out of the market or go into houses and lie with anyone 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."

Influence on modern works

  • In the novel The English Patient, and the film made on its basis, Count Almásy (himself a disciple of Herodotus), falls in love with a married woman (Katherine Clifton) as she reads Herodotus' version of the Gyges story aloud around a campfire. The story is harbinger of their own tragic path.
  • One of the chapters in Robertson Davies' novel "Fifth Business" is called "Gyges and King Candaules". The protagonist, scholar Dunstan Ramsay; his lifelong "friend and enemy", the tycoon Percy "Boy" Staunton; and Staunton's wife Leola who had been Ramsay's childhood sweetheart are throughout the book compared with, respectively, Gyges, King Candaules and the Queen of Lydia. In particular, in one scene where Staunton insists upon showing Ramsay nude photos of his wife, Ramsay tells him the ancient story as a warning (which Staunton ignores).
  • Critics such as Steve Bonta consider the magic ring which plays a major role in the books of Tolkien to be considerably inspired by the Ring of Gyges. Gyges' ring had been in the possession of an ancient king, came into the hands of its later holder when he descended into a cave, conferred the power of invisibility on its holder, enabled him to gain great power but also induced him to ruthless and immoral behaviour. The same is true of the magic ring in Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings". Also Plato's use of the Ring of Gyges as a metaphor for the corruption caused by power fully applies to Tolkien's work
  • In 1990 Frederic Raphael published "The Modern I, A Myth Revised", A retelling of the story of Lydia, King Candaules and Gyges [1].

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Gyges of Lydia" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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