The Ring of Gyges

The Ring of Gyges was an artifact mentioned by the philosopher, Plato, in Book 2 of his ‘Republic’. Although many readers believe that the ring is a myth, much like the lost city of Atlantis, some researchers have read through every account from that era and have concluded that there is a surprising amount of evidence to suggest that this ring actually existed, based on what Plato has passed down to us from what he knew.

This ring, much like the one ring that Tolkien wrote about in his bestselling books, ‘The Hobbit’ and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, is said to grant its owner the power to become invisible at will. Through the story, ‘Republic’ considers whether an intelligent person would uphold their morality even if they knew they could never be caught or punished for any wicked deeds they commit.

The legend of the ring states that it was revealed to a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia who was on a mountainside feeding his flock. There was a great storm and an earthquake opened the ground near where he stood. A secret cave had been revealed and, amazed, the shepherd entered inside. There he discovered that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse containing a corpse, larger than that of a man, who wore a golden ring. The shepherd took the ring and eventually realizing that he could make himself invisible by twisting it on his finger. He then arranged to be chosen as one of the messengers who reported to the king as to the status of the flocks. This shepherd supposedly used his newfound power to seduce the queen of Lydia, and with her help he conspired to kill the king, slew him, and made himself the ruler of Lydia.

When Plato spoke of the ring, he twisted the story a bit, but keeps the magical properties of the ring intact. Researchers and historians have found many irrefutable correlations between the myth of the ring and the truth of Gyges of Lydia. Gyges of Lydia was a historical king, the founder of the Mermnad dynasty of Lydian kings. Various ancient works—the most well-known being ‘The Histories of Herodotus’—gave different accounts of the circumstances of his rise to power. All of these, however, agree in asserting that he was born a shepherd, originally a subordinate of King Candaules of Lydia, that he killed Candaules and seized the throne. It is unclear whether he had seduced Candaules' Queen before killing the king or married her afterwards, but they did have a relationship.

One theory regards the Oracle at Delphi as being the true source of the ring. Gyges needed to justify his accession to the throne by petitioning for the approval of the Oracle at Delphi, who would convince the Lydians to accept him. This petition consisted of many gifts, including six large golden water bowls, as well as many other gold and silver offerings. Some theorists question whether these gifts were plied after the ascension to the throne, or beforehand. In this proposition, it is believed that the Oracle may have provided Gyges the ring with which to take the throne in the first place.

While the myth serves as a thought-experiment to explore the proposition that humans will only do right under duress and compulsion, the story of Gyges has factual evidence demonstrating that it really did occur. Theorists continue to look for clues which connect the powers of the ring itself, or what may have happened to it after he fell in battle against the Cimmerii, or after the fall of his dynasty with the death of his fourth descendant, Croesus, who died attacking the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great.