The Ring of Gyges

I am Dr Tenebris, and I am 1,544 years old. I am writing from deep within the ruins of a castle in Bulgaria – do not go looking, for you will never find it – and I am surrounded by a collection of the most dangerous objects ever to exist. I write now because I am beginning to die, and I do not know what may happen to these objects once I am gone. For many centuries I have kept my silence, as commanded by the Order. But the Order itself is beginning to fail, and the stories of these objects must be told….


Der Ring des Gyges, Ferrara, 16th century


Twenty-seven centuries ago, in the land of what we call Lydia, a simple shepherd stumbled over a rock that was not there. He got up and looked around for the rock that caused him to stumble, but could see nothing. It was only when, not believing his eyes, he reached out on the barren ground and jammed his fingers upon an unforgiving surface, that he found the cause of his stumbling. With his hands as his eyes, he felt around this medium-sized, invisible object, and then grasped it firmly and lifted it up. It was only a little bigger and heavier than a rock one might use in building a church or a wall, but as invisible as the air.

At that time, Gyges – for that was his name – was a superstitious man, and his first impulse was to throw this thing away and walk briskly in the opposite direction. He knew that one is always better off not trifling with magical things. But the sheer contradiction of the thing held him in amazement. This was a heavy nothing, an empty space that weighed down his hands. There was a secret here, a secret that, with some strategy, he might be able to employ.

He carried the stone back to his camp and wrapped it in a cloth – both to hide it, which was ridiculous in itself, but also so that he would not lose it. And that night, under the stars, with his sheep around him, and the stone beside him, he began to think.


A few days later, Gyges abandoned his sheep and walked to a nearby village with his wrapped, invisible rock. In this village he knew there was an old blacksmith named Maches, who had given his shop over to his son, as Machus had become old and weak and was now completely blind from decades of hammering sparks out of metals. Gyges found Machus, and after the usual pleasantries and sharing of stories, he conversed with him in earnest.

“Maches, I have found a stone, and I am wondering if there is any useful ore in it,” said Gyges. “Can you tell me?” And he placed the stone in the old man’s lap.

Maches probed the stone with his fingers, his unseeing eyes gazing into the distance. “But I cannot see it,” he said. “Can you tell me – does it have any brown streaks? Any silver or gold?”

“Not that I can see,” answered Gyges evasively. “Can you tell by its weight?”

Maches hefted the stone. “It is heavy for its size, very much like iron ore,” he said. “It may well have metal in it … but you should take this to my son. He will know right away what it is.”

Gyges let a significant pause lapse. “Maches, I cannot share this stone with anyone other than you. I cannot tell you why. But I think the gods are at work here. I would like something to be fashioned from it – perhaps some jewelry, such as a bracelet or a ring. If you help me with this, I shall give you ample reward. But please, no questions! I am doing what I can only to please the gods.”

Maches, with his ears more attuned than those of sighted people, knew that Gyges was lying, and he suspected mischief. But he longed to be back at the forge, and the challenge of doing his work in the dark, both literally and figuratively, held its own special appeal. So he considered the proposal for a solid minute, Gyges waiting tensely in anticipation, before he finally spoke.

“I will do it, Gyges. Come back in a week.” And with that, the men shook hands, and Maches was left with the stone.


Gyges was accidentally brilliant. In bringing the stone to Maches, his only thought was to keep the invisibility of the stone secret. But Maches, precisely because his eyes could not deceive him, was able to discern not only the metal in the stone, but much of its peculiar nature. I can tell you now that the stone was not of this world, but was a fragment from a meteorite. The strange and rare combination of elements within it allowed light to pass through it so that the metal itself was invisible. But beyond this, the metal also generated a special sort of field, extending its nature to anything it wrapped around. This is what made the non-metallic parts of the rock invisible as well. But anything wrapped around the outside of the metal, such as a cloth, remained visible. And so a ring made from this metal would in fact impart invisibility to the whole of any being whose finger was encircled. Not that Gyges understood any of this, of course. His imagination veered toward rings and bracelets because he thought of them as magic talismans, and he thought the magic of his stone would somehow be preserved in them. It turns out he was right.

Maches worked at night, as his son’s family slept, and he explained his nighttime activity to them just as “an old man’s wild hare.” They knew his mind, and trusted his abilities, and so they let him do his work. But as he worked away in the lonely night he became more and more fascinated by this strange metal and its odd nature. Perhaps the gods are at work here, he thought. And in his experiments he ruined a fair portion of the stone, just by not knowing how much to heat it, how hard to pound it, when to cool it, and so on. But at the end of the week he had managed to produced a smooth ring which had a pleasing heft. He presented it to Gyges when he returned, one week later.

“Here it is,” said the old man, as he placed a small, invisible artifact into Gyges’s outstretched hand. Gyges stared for a moment at his seemingly empty palm, and then slipped the invisible ring upon his finger. He noticed immediately that his hand, his arm, his legs, and his other arm disappeared. He looked down at his body and saw only his cloak. He looked inside his cloak, and saw only the inside of his cloak. His vision was no longer framed by the blurred image of his eyebrows and nose. In short, he was invisible. He uttered a small, surprised laugh.

“Do you like it?” asked Maches, who of course had not seen any change. Gyges quickly assured him that it was perfect, just what he had desired, and he promised to be back within the hour with a considerable amount of gold. Maches began to protest – for he had expected payment on the spot – but Gyges was gone.


Gyges left the small house of Maches and immediately let his cloak fall to the ground, now perfectly invisible in his nakedness. He walked with wide-eyed excitement through the village, watching other people failing to see him. Growing ever more confident, he began to pull pranks. He knocked a bucket into a pool of water, he upset a laundry basket, he stole an apple, took a bite, and tossed it to the ground. There were expressions of wonder all around him, and several people made quick motions with their hands to ward off unseen spirits. He found an old woman sitting alone, weaving, and quickly slipped off his ring. She shrieked at the sudden appearance of a naked shepherd with a wild expression, and he slipped the ring back on again as the old woman ran inside.

It did not take him long to gather up a decent sum of electrum coins, stealing them from homes or even from the belts of bewildered merchants. And he was about to take the money back to Maches when he reconsidered. The old blacksmith now had only a story of having made a ring for Gyges. If he had also a sum of money to show for it – more money than anyone would expect Gyges to have – there would be questions. Better, he thought, to simply cheat the old man and get out of town. If his plans worked out, he would soon be untouchable in his power.

The villagers would tell stories for years of the day they saw clothes and other items fly from shops and closets, of when they saw a great pile of goods floating by itself down the streets, with everyone so frightened and shocked that they did nothing to stop the thievery. They blamed the events later upon a Persian demon, which of course was nonsense, but plausible nonsense at the time. Gyges took the goods to a small glade outside the village, outfitted himself with his new belongings, put a pack on his back and the ring in his pocket, and headed off down the road in the direction of Hyde, the great capital city.

No one knew what had really happened. But, later, Maches had his suspicions.


Gyges spent a week in Hyde just observing and getting a thorough understanding of the capital city. He stayed in a comfortable inn and treated himself to good food and drink – all of it quite properly paid for with stolen money. No one knew him, and he told people he was a successful merchant. The ring, of course, allowed him to go wherever he wanted and see people in their most private moments and hear their intimate conversations. It did not take him long to have a better knowledge of the city and its people than anyone else had.

He had already raised his position in life quite considerably, and he could have gone on for the rest of his life enjoying all the comforts money and knowledge can buy. But he sought even greater power. And so his attention turned to the palace, to the king Candaules and his lovely queen Nyssia. For several days nights, he visited the palace in naked invisibility, and came to a just estimation of the complicated relations of all the people wielding power in that place. He found ways to introduce himself to various court officials, and by plying them with drink he learned from them their opinions of the king, and of the queen, and the rules of royal succession that governed that long-lost kingdom. He did all this with great subtlety and tact, keeping his true intentions invisible to the people he conversed with – thus cultivating the more human sort of invisibility with which we are all familiar.

In this short period of time Gyges matured from a simple shepherd to an exceptionally crafty, clear-eyed strategist. He began to see all human beings as malleable, once one knows their desires and their fears – not unlike sheep, really, though more complicated, and more dangerous. As he learned more, and as he grew more confident of his stealth and his own intelligence, he began to formulate a daring tactic to take the throne for himself.


Queen Nyssia was beautiful, intelligent, and bored. Her husband, King Candaules, was a decent sort of man – reasonable in his decrees and competent in governing, but lacking in any ambition. His chief passion, it seemed, was for a young man named Magnes, a beautiful youth from Smyrna with flowing black hair braided with strands of gold. Candaules spent much of his days and nights with Magnes, leaving Nyssia with little to do but order her servants around and wait for days to pass and for her life to end.

One evening, as she began to drift towards sleep, she felt the cool breezes of the night begin to caress her skin. The sounds of the city at night were a muted buzz, and her thought wandered aimlessly toward the citizens, their laughter and cries, the minor dramas that unfolded around lanterns and taverns. The breeze artfully traced her arm, her shoulders, her neck. She thought of what it would feel like to fly above the palace into the liquid night, engulfed by the cool air and surrounded by stars. The breeze cupped her breast beneath her silken gown, and some part of her mind told her that there was more than breeze at play. Now the breeze was beside her, tracing her breasts, her lips, her thighs. In her mind she was deep into the night, letting the god of the wind take her and bend her to his will. She opened herself to him, and he pressed his body into hers. She gasped in pleasure and began kissing the firm shoulders of the airy night. Before long his lips found hers, and they were flying together beyond the mountains and above the clouds. It was a dream more real and more pleasurable than any she had known.

How surprised she then was in the morning when she opened her eyes and saw beside her in bed a strange man resting his head on his outstretched arm.

“Good morning, my Queen,” smiled Gyges.

Ten questions flooded her mind but she chose the most salient one. “Who are you?” she asked.

“I am Gyges, a prosperous merchant, and I have come to you invisibly in the night to seduce you and become your husband,” Gyges explained, in an economical and thoroughly premeditated explanation.

Nyssia was nothing if not perceptive and her mind worked quickly. “And how are you invisible?” she asked. The man was not strikingly handsome, but neither was he not handsome, and his skill in bed was undeniable.

“I have a magic ring,” he said, and added: “Thus.” And he slipped on his ring, disappearing entirely. She watched the sheets maintain his breathing form and, lower down, a growing interest. He took off the ring, and again reappeared, smiling.

Gyges had thought it best to be plain with Nyssia, since she was too intelligent to be fooled by lies, and smart enough to see the advantage of being a companion to a clever man who could become invisible. Gyges knew this from having watched her and from speaking with others. And so he thought his best strategy was to be straight and direct, and to let Nyssia form her own conclusions. He was right, and she did not have to think long before making her decision.

“Then take me again, invisible husband,” she invited, and Gyges put his ring back on, and they spent the morning together in an investigation of new possibilities.


Gyges and Nyssia knew that, if they were to supplant King Candaules, they would need the support of the royal guard. So they turned to the captain of the guard, Arselis, who, like Nyssia, had become bored under the king’s static rule and yearned for new challenges.

Gyges first found a way to engage Arselis in friendly conversation, and learned that Arselis had the dream of someday governing a city himself, a dream he believed would never be fulfilled. So they knew what he could be bought with. But their worry was that, if they approached him with a plan, he might go straight to the king and accuse them of treason. So they needed to compromise him and trap him in some way.

One night Nyssia took the ring and played Gyges’s own trick upon the captain. When Arselis awoke the next morning and found himself in bed with the queen, he was on the hook. Gyges had secretly entered the captain’s chambers during the night, and now sat on the corner of the bed beside the queen and the astonished captain.

“So, my good captain,” purred Nyssia, tracing her finger upon his chest, “What will it be? Will you join our efforts to bring a new king to Lydia, and bring some new opportunities for yourself?”

“I will go to the king and tell him how I was deceived,” insisted the captain, for a soldier’s loyalty is not stolen without some fight.

“When you do, be sure to tell him about being seduced by an invisible queen,” prompted Gyges. “He will like that part of the story best of all.”

Arselis knew he was defeated. And some part within himself admitted he was not completely disappointed. “What do you want me to do?”

Nyssia answered, “Just support us when we make our move. Your soldiers will join you. And when Gyges becomes king, he will leave Hyde under your own control, to govern as you please.”

“I will move the capital to Sardis,” Gyges explained. “And if you are interested in further conquest, I would gladly make use of your abilities to extend our realm into Colophon and Magnesia, cities which would benefit under Lydian rule. Or, if you wish merely to govern and leave conquest to another, that can be your choice. I will not forget your aid, and I promise to pave the road to any advance you wish.”

“I will support you,” answered Arselis. “When do we move?”

“Now,” said Nyssia. “Let us visit the king.”


The king was bathing in his private chambers, enjoying a large pool of warm, clear water. The beautiful Magnes was in attendance, aimlessly plucking out a song on a lyre and making light conversation. The sun was just now coming in through the windows, and the jeweled furnishings and lush plants surrounding the pool made the room into a gentle paradise. For Candaules, it was only the beginning of another perfect day, with its familiar rhythms, and with no surprises.

But that is just when Gyges, Nyssia, and Arselis entered the chambers without announcement, utterly disrupting the king’s peaceful bath and upsetting his close friend. The king, startled and perplexed, took in his queen, his captain, and this strange commoner. “What is the trouble?” he demanded.

By way of answer, Arselis grasped Magnes by the hair, pulled him upright, and swiftly drew his knife across the youth’s throat, spilling a gush of blood into the pool. He then let go, and the dying body fell into the pool, its last spasms churning the bath into a bloody froth. “I have been waiting to do that for some time,” the captain confessed.

The king stood and in horror looked upon Magnes’s dying form, and then at each of the assassins, and back to dead Magnes. His mouth opened and closed, but no words came. Gyges then stepped into the pool, took hold of the king’s head, and pushed it into the red waters. The waters churned with the king’s struggling efforts, but Gyges’s strength was firm, and the king’s life left his body as the waters became still. Gyges climbed out of the pool and began shedding his blood-stained clothes while the bodies of Candaules and Mages bobbed lifelessly in the bloody bath.

“Cleanly done,” observed Nyssia. She looked over Gyges, now naked, and said in mock surprise, “You are not wearing your crown, my king.” She glided over to the king’s wardrobe, took the crown from the uppermost shelf, returned to Gyges, and placed it on his head. “Long life to you, king,” she said, and Arselis repeated the phrase and performed a low bow. And thus did Gyges the shepherd become king of Lydia.


King Gyges kept his promises. He moved the palace to Sardis, entrusting Hyde to Arselis, who now served as its governor. He mobilized the Lydian army and quickly conquered both Colophon and Magnesia. He made a generous contribution of heavy golden urns to the oracle of Delphi, and gained the oracle’s blessing, which helped other powers in the region to recognize him as a legitimate ruler. He became a man of such power that he seldom needed his ring of invisibility, for he could do whatever he wanted out in the open. And just as he made mischief in the village when he first slipped on the ring, he became brash and openly offensive as king. He said whatever he thought, and ridiculed and humiliated weaker people, flicking his finger into their faces and ordering them to kiss his feet. The people around him who could not challenge his power nervously applauded his obnoxious actions.

In a sense, his plan with the ring had been to raise himself to such a position that the ring was no longer needed. He kept it hidden in a secret compartment in a table next to his bed. But the Queen knew where it was.

Queen Nyssia was his most important advisor, and she helped smooth his rise to power at every step. She also made frequent use of the ring for her own purposes, without the king’s knowledge, when the king was abroad with his army. For her position as queen allowed her influence only through advising the king, and her hunger for power led her to take actions she could take only under the ring’s magic. She played out her bodily lusts with surprised and gratified members of the royal guard, gathered intelligence around the court and among the rich families of Sardis, and even arranged for several fatal accidents to befall those working against the king’s interests. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Mermnad dynasty, said to be founded by Gyges, in truth had more to do with Nyssia’s invisible efforts at empire building than with Gyges’s own designs. But she undertook these efforts not for him, but because she herself was thrilled by having power and taking action.

As many years passed, the growth of Gyges’s domination hit a limit, as his borders ran up against those of the Assyrians and the Cimmerians, whom he was in no position to confront. So his attention turned to the ever-complicated internal tasks of managing a large kingdom – while inflicting his powers on those around him. He found himself to be once again a shepherd, though now over a flock of cities. He promoted trading routes (fattening his flock) and kept his army in fighting condition (to fight against wolves). Everything he had foreseen after stumbling over an invisible stone had come to pass. And, looking back on everything, he felt he had nothing to regret, not even the murder of the king. For it was undeniable that Lydia had flourished under his reign, and he deserved his position.

And then came the day he saw the face of Maches in the crowd.


It wasn’t Maches, as Maches had died some years earlier. But it was the son of Maches, Tyron, who had grown a gray beard and resembled his father. As Gyges gained power, Maches told his son what had happened – the magical stone, the ring, and the true explanation for that day when (people thought) a Persian demon had upset the village. Maches then died, full of days, and Tyron simmered over the way his father had been deceived and cheated, and over Gyges’s crimes in taking the throne. But there was little Tyron could do – for a village blacksmith has no right to challenge a king, at least not without magical aid.

He resolved at last to look upon Gyges, and to cast a nasty expression at him. This may sound comically small – for Tyron resolved only to frown at the king. But Tyron felt he had to confront Gyges in some way, and anything more than a glare would have been suicidal. Indeed, Tyron knew that Gyges might spot him and have him killed on the spot, even just for looking at him in the wrong way. Gyges’s power as king was unchecked. But, on the other hand, Tyron could not live with himself if he did nothing. So, against his wife’s anxious counsel, he resolved to go to Sardis and glare at the king.

Gyges was on a routine parade through the city, waving to well-wishers and humiliating the odd beggar, to rounds of laughter and applause. Nyssia was at his side. At one point Gyges and Tyron locked eyes, and Tyron willed his face to express condemnation. His heart was racing with both excitement and fear, but he kept his expression as fixed as a stone. Gyges – who believed he was seeing the face of Maches, the one outsider who might know his secrets – was rattled to his bones. Tyron’s fixed stare seemed to him a penetrating gaze of a man whose unseeing eyes cut him to his core.

He did not think to have the man apprehended. He staggered one step backward, and then looked to the ground and hurried forward along his route. Nyssia observed the change in the king immediately, and looked out to see what Gyges had seen. She saw Tyron and made mental note of him. She then assisted the king in his hurried escape, trying to comfort him in all the ways one might expect. Gyges would not say what he had seen, and sought only to become invisible once again, leaving the public streets and hastening back to the palace.


It did not take long for Queen Nyssia to find Tyron in the city and to arrange a secret meeting with him. She heard from him the full story of Gyges employing Maches to make the ring, and she heard Tyron’s outrage at his father being so mistreated. Not that she really cared, of course. But she had seen Gyges’s terror at seeing Tyron – and, knowing her husband, and doing the math, she strongly suspected that Gyges thought Tyron was Maches. She saw an opportunity for action and her own advantage. For Gyges was at the peak of his ascent, and Nyssia loathed stagnation more than anything else. Her own appetite for power had shifted into the center of her heart since she and Gyges murdered Candaules, and now she was ready to assume the throne herself.

Her plan was very simple: to arrange for Tyron to appear briefly within Gyges’s view in the streets, and even at banquets and councils, and then to disappear. She knew this would eventually unhinge Gyges’s mind and make him unfit to rule. Tyron readily agreed – both because it was greater revenge than he could exact on his own, and because Nyssia promised him and his family ample recompense for the ring his father made.

Over the next few weeks Gyges did indeed become unhinged. He would be residing at a social affair, and suddenly flee in terror. He would be laughing over his wine at a banquet before suddenly widening his eyes in terror and hiding under the table. He soon was looking around himself anxiously on all occasions, waiting for the apparition of Maches. He could not sleep – and when he did, he awoke screaming with terrible nightmares. In his own mind he reasoned that Maches must be dead by now, and that even if he weren’t, he could not threaten Gyges in any way. But this reasoning did nothing to settle Gyges’s soul. To him, the appearance of the old blind blacksmith was a complete undoing of all he had become, of all he had gained through not being seen. He felt exposed in a way even his ring could not hide.

He finally took advice from a man who played roles of both doctor and priest. This doctor listened carefully to Gyges’s story, and understood that the root of the problem was Gyges’s fear of the judgment of the gods. He advised Gyges to climb alone to the summit of Tmolus, the mountain whose base touched the edge of Sardis, and the mountain where, according to legend, judgment was made between the songs of Pan and those of Apollo. He instructed the king to find his judgment there. Gyges, desperate for any solution, once again packed a bag, slipped the ring into his pocket, and began his journey.


Gyges’s ascent of the mountain was arduous, but he was untroubled by visions of Maches, and so he found the climb nourishing to his mind. He had not realized how the duties of rulership had blocked from his mind the pleasures of shepherd life – the small flowers along the mountain’s slopes, the deep blue sky, the innocent clouds. Along the way he even sang to himself some of the songs he was surprised to remember. He tried not to think of what judgment he might find at the top of the mountain, and, for now, enjoyed the simple rhythms of his journey.

Traveling unseen behind him were Nyssia, Tyron, and one of Nyssia’s trusted soldiers. For Nyssia had seized this opportunity to bring about the king’s final undoing. Tyron, for his part, had found enough revenge in the damage they had already brought to Gyges’s mind; but the queen was not to be disobeyed, and she commanded him to follow the plan through to the end. The queen brought along the soldier because she could not predict what Gyges might do – nor what Tyron might do, once the king was dead.

The path became steeper, the plants more scarce, and the air thinner as they climbed the mountain. Gyges’s thoughts turned inward, and the conspirators climbed on in silence. They began to sense the presence of a mountain god as they entered into a zone not friendly to any human habitation. Gyges wept silent tears, and even Nyssia – as dedicated as she was to her own power – felt herself to be in a realm where her powers counted for very little. They pressed onward and upward, and a thin veil of clouds enshrouded them. The air grew cold and wet. Nyssia could just barely make out Gyges’s form on the path ahead. At several points they all felt the summit was near, only to discover a twist in the path and more mountain above them.

But at last Gyges came to a place leading to no higher place. He circled around the borders of the narrow summit, looking down far below into rocks and cloud. Satisfied that he had found the god’s court, and not knowing exactly what to do next, he stood in the middle of the space and raised his hands in supplication, closing his eyes and willing the god to come forth. Nyssia nudged Tyron in his ribs, who silently moved onto the edge of the summit, barely within view of Gyges. Tyron stood still and waited, fixing Gyges with his unflinching stare.

Gyges waited for a hundred heartbeats, waiting for something to happen, though he knew not what. He finally risked opening his eyes, and looked about him, and immediately saw the form of Maches, gazing upon him without the slightest trace of forgiveness. Some small part of his mind had come to believe that the climb had cured him, and had returned him to the clarity of his mind as a shepherd – but the appearance of the blind blacksmith told him of his guilt before the gods. He stumbled backward, took the ring from his pocket and slipped it on, before stumbling yet again and falling headlong off the mountain and into the abyss below.

Nyssia and the others only saw Gyges begin to stumble and then disappear, but nevertheless, they could see what had happened. They searched with their hands the last spot they had seen the king, and looked fruitlessly over the edge of the cliff, hoping to see signs of an invisible body. But Gyges was lost, and the ring with him. The three stood at the edge, listening to the silence of the mountain. At some point Nyssia said simply “Well!” and with a decisive motion drew the short sword from the soldier’s belt, stabbed him through, and turned to Tyron and ran him through as well. She then threw the sword over the edge, and began her descent down to her kingdom.