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Myth Monday - The First Tyrant

By May 14, 2012

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Candaules, His Wife, and Gyges by William Etty 1820
Candaules, His Wife, and Gyges by William Etty 1820
PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

Today's Myth Monday features a story about the first tyrant known to the Greeks. It could be based on history, since the main male character is, but the actual coup is very unlikely to have happened in this way. It is alluded to throughout Greek literature, from Archilochus to Plutarch, including Plato, but its main source is Herodotus. It contains the following proverbs: "Together with her clothes a woman casts off her shame," "Eyes are more trustworthy than ears," and "Fine things were discovered by men long ago from which it is necessary to learn; among them is this: Let each one look to his own." See if you can see their application in the story. If not, you'll find them in their original context in the passage of Herodotus towards the end.

The story goes that in c. 685 B.C., a Heraclid (descendant of Hercules) king of Lydia named Candaules was infatuated with his wife. Herodotus doesn't list her name (perhaps as a sign that she was worthy of respect as a married, honorable woman). What's wrong with being enamored of your wife, you might ask? Perhaps nothing even in a time when royal weddings were arranged for political reasons, although I imagine the wife would have resented his constant ogling, drooling, and pawing. There was another man, about a century later, in Italy, who boasted about the virtue of his wife. This legendary woman, Lucretia, suffered for her husband's boasting because one of the men to whom he itemized her perfect traits, agreed she was extraordinary, and set about to rape her. But that's another story. This one is basically Greek and the outcome for the woman was favorable, although in both cases, the dishonored women took control of the situation and made death the solution. In the Roman case, it was suicide. In the Lydian, regicide -- king-killing. [See -cide words.]

Candaules had a body guard (or some sort of retainer) named Gyges to whom Candaules raved about his wife's looks constantly: She is as beautiful as a goddess, he might have said. Her limbs the color of Parian marble. As was appropriate to someone close to the king, Gyges appeared emotionless. Candaules began to grow frustrated by his inability to make Gyges share his joy in his wife. Gyges perceived the edge in his master's voice and so he wisely agreed that yes, the queen was beautiful. It was too little, too late. The lover's eyes could see that Gyges spoke words, but was devoid of fire in the eyes and gut-clenching emotions. Candaules wanted his comrade to share his passion for, but not the body of his wife; yet, he realized that it wasn't going to happen unless Gyges could drink in the hidden splendor that Candaules alone enjoyed. Simply removing the veil from her face might have been enough, but Candaules revelled in her whole body and was now so bent on making Gyges agree with him that he decided he had to prove it once and for all.

If Candaules had been paying attention to his Greek mythology, he would have known that not all goddesses liked having stray men seeing their naked bodies. Artemis, for instance, turned Actaeon into a stag for seeing her when she was about to take a bath. Actaeon was a hunter and had come to the woods with his hunting dogs to catch a stag. The hounds found their prey and tore their former master to pieces.

But Candaules had nothing but his goddess-like wife and the necessity of proof on his mind, so he told Gyges that he could see his wife naked if he hid in the bedroom that night. Gyges, obligated to do what the king ordered, stationed himself behind a door. He peered out when his master and mistress entered the room and did indeed enjoy the lovely vision that was the queen.

The next day, the queen summoned Gyges to her room. Completely clothed now, she was surrounded by her retainers -- brandishing weapons. She told Gyges that she knew he had seen her naked and that that was intolerable. Only one man could do so, and that man was her husband.

Gyges, thinking he was done for, is not credited with saying anything at this point, but he must have been relieved when he noticed the attendants staying put.

The queen continued. She said that while it was iron-clad custom that only one man could see the queen in her nakedness, and that man was the king, the identity of the king wasn't etched in stone. It could be Candaules, her current husband, or it could be Gyges. Gyges had to make a choice: kill or be killed.

Gyges saved his own neck. He killed the king, married the queen and reportedly spent less time ogling his wife and more making a name for himself in the annals of economic history, supposedly being the first to make coins. He is also known as the first tyrant, a usurper who became king. The very word tyrant may be of Lydian origin. This etymology is based on the idea that Gyges is said to have come from Tyrrhas. His first name is said to mean "dog-strangler."


The licence that I mean would be most nearly such as would result from supposing them to have the power [359d] which men say once came to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian. They relate that he was a shepherd in the service of the ruler at that time of Lydia, and that after a great deluge of rain and an earthquake the ground opened and a chasm appeared in the place where he was pasturing; and they say that he saw and wondered and went down into the chasm; and the story goes that he beheld other marvels there and a hollow bronze horse with little doors, and that he peeped in and saw a corpse within, as it seemed, of more than mortal stature, [359e] and that there was nothing else but a gold ring on its hand, which he took off and went forth. And when the shepherds held their customary assembly to make their monthly report to the king about the flocks, he also attended wearing the ring. So as he sat there it chanced that he turned the collet of the ring towards himself, towards the inner part of his hand, and when this took place they say that he became invisible1[360a] to those who sat by him and they spoke of him as absent and that he was amazed, and again fumbling with the ring turned the collet outwards and so became visible. On noting this he experimented with the ring to see if it possessed this virtue, and he found the result to be that when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, and when outwards visible; and becoming aware of this, he immediately managed things so that he became one of the messengers [360b] who went up to the king, and on coming there he seduced the king's wife and with her aid set upon the king and slew him and possessed his kingdom.
Plato Rep II.359c-360b


8. This Candaules then of whom I speak had become passionately in love with his own wife; and having become so, he deemed that his wife was fairer by far than all other women; and thus deeming, to Gyges the son of Daskylos (for he of all his spearmen was the most pleasing to him), to this Gyges, I say, he used to impart as well the more weighty of his affairs as also the beauty of his wife, praising it above measure: and after no long time, since it was destined that evil should happen to Candaules, he said to Gyges as follows: "Gyges, I think that thou dost not believe me when I tell thee of the beauty of my wife, for it happens that men's ears are less apt of belief than their eyes: contrive therefore means by which thou mayest look upon her naked." But he cried aloud and said: "Master, what word of unwisdom is this which thou dost utter, bidding me look upon my mistress naked? When a woman puts off her tunic she puts off her modesty also. Moreover of old time those fair sayings have been found out by men, from which we ought to learn wisdom; and of these one is this,--that each man should look on his own: but I believe indeed that she is of all women the fairest and I entreat thee not to ask of me that which it is not lawful for me to do." 9. With such words as these he resisted, fearing lest some evil might come to him from this; but the king answered him thus: "Be of good courage, Gyges, and have no fear, either of me, that I am saying these words to try thee, or of my wife, lest any harm may happen to thee from her. For I will contrive it so from the first that she shall not even perceive that she has been seen by thee. I will place thee in the room where we sleep, behind the open door;[7] and after I have gone in, my wife also will come to lie down. Now there is a seat near the entrance of the room, and upon this she will lay her garments as she takes them off one by one; and so thou wilt be able to gaze upon her at full leisure. And when she goes from the chair to the bed and thou shalt be behind her back, then let it be thy part to take care that she sees thee not as thou goest through the door." 10. He then, since he might not avoid it, gave consent: and Candaules, when he considered that it was time to rest, led Gyges to the chamber; and straightway after this the woman also appeared: and Gyges looked upon her after she came in and as she laid down her garments; and when she had her back turned towards him, as she went to the bed, then he slipped away from his hiding-place and was going forth. And as he went out, the woman caught sight of him, and perceiving that which had been done by her husband she did not cry out, though struck with shame,[8] but she made as though she had not perceived the matter, meaning to avenge herself upon Candaules: for among the Lydians as also among most other Barbarians it is a shame even for a man to be seen naked. 11. At the time then she kept silence, as I say, and made no outward sign; but as soon as day had dawned, and she made ready those of the servants whom she perceived to be the most attached to herself, and after that she sent to summon Gyges. He then, not supposing that anything of that which had been done was known to her, came upon her summons; for he had been accustomed before to go[9] whenever the queen summoned him. And when Gyges was come, the woman said to him these words: "There are now two ways open to thee, Gyges, and I give thee the choice which of the two thou wilt prefer to take. Either thou must slay Candaules and possess both me and the kingdom of Lydia, or thou must thyself here on the spot be slain, so that thou mayest not in future, by obeying Candaules in all things, see that which thou shouldest not. Either he must die who formed this design, or thou who hast looked upon me naked and done that which is not accounted lawful." For a time then Gyges was amazed at these words, and afterwards he began to entreat her that she would not bind him by necessity to make such a choice: then however, as he could not prevail with her, but saw that necessity was in truth set before him either to slay his master or to be himself slain by others, he made the choice to live himself; and he inquired further as follows: "Since thou dost compel me to take my master's life against my own will, let me hear from thee also what is the manner in which we shall lay hands upon him." And she answering said: "From that same place shall the attempt be, where he displayed me naked; and we will lay hands upon him as he sleeps." 12. So after they had prepared the plot, when night came on, (for Gyges was not let go nor was there any way of escape for him, but he must either be slain himself or slay Candaules), he followed the woman to the bedchamber; and she gave him a dagger and concealed him behind that very same door. Then afterwards, while Candaules was sleeping, Gyges came privily up to him[10] and slew him, and he obtained both his wife and his kingdom: of him moreover Archilochos the Parian, who lived about that time, made mention in a trimeter iambic verse.[11] 13. He obtained the kingdom however and was strengthened in it by means of the Oracle at Delphi; for when the Lydians were angry because of the fate of Candaules, and had risen in arms, a treaty was made between the followers of Gyges and the other Lydians to this effect, that if the Oracle should give answer that he was to be king of the Lydians, he should be king, and if not, he should give back the power to the sons of Heracles. So the Oracle gave answer, and Gyges accordingly became king: yet the Pythian prophetess said this also, that vengeance for the Heracleidai should come upon the descendants of Gyges in the fifth generation. Of this oracle the Lydians and their kings made no account until it was in fact fulfilled.

14. Thus the Mermnadai obtained the government having driven out from it the Heracleidai:....
Herodotus Book I

  • "Archilochus and Gyges: An Interpretation of Fr. 23 West," by Jenny Strauss Clay; Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 3 (1986), pp. 7-17.
  • "Educating Croesus: Talking and Learning in Herodotus' Lydian Logos," Christopher Pelling; Classical Antiquity, Vol. 25, No. 1 (April 2006), pp. 141-177.
  • "Proverbial Wisdom in Herodotus," Susan O. Shapiro; Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 130 (2000), pp. 89-118.
  • "The Poetics of the Ancient Greek Proverb," Joseph Russo; Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 20, No. 2/3, Special Dual Theme Issue: VerbalFolklore of Ancient Greece and French Studies in Oral Literature (Jun. - Dec., 1983), pp. 121-130.
  • "The First Tyrants in Greece," Robert Drews; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 21, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1972), pp. 129-144.
  • "The Werewolf Figure and Its Adoption into the Greek Political Vocabulary," Barton Kunstler; The Classical World, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Jan. - Feb., 1991), pp. 189-205.
  • "Kandaules' Wife, Masistes' Wife: Herodotus' Narrative Strategy in Suppressing Names of Women: (Hdt. 1.8-12 and 9.108-13)," by Stephanie Larson; The Classical Journal Vol. 101, No. 3 (Feb. - Mar., 2006), pp. 225-244.

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans
  26. The Death of Pentheus


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