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Friday, June 23, 2023

Damon and Pythias - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

Summer Reading Programs are beginning, including my

The stewpot is loaded with 37 stories from all over the globe and ethnic groups.  It will be up to the audience to select the stories.  (The titles are on colorful strips of paper, but nobody -- including me -- can tell what the story is until it is selected.)

Today's story of the friendship of Damon and Pythias is legendary.  Wikipedia gives a bit of background to this tale placing its telling firmly in the hands of such classical authors as Cicero and happening at the time when Dionysius I (r. 405–367 BC) ruled Syracuse.  While the story, if told with sufficient suspense, will interest them, children will not care about the principles of the Pythagorean ideal of friendship.  Some say a test of that ideal was the reason this story actually happened.  Similarly I may have been told in school that Geometry owed many of its principles to Pythagoras.  I had enough problems with Geometry and certainly couldn't have told you about his philosophy.  As for Damon & Pythias, I'd heard the names, but never really heard the story.  It's time to correct at least knowledge of the story -- we'll continue muddling along on mathematics.  The fact that this is a story said to have actually happened may be why it continues to fascinate people over the many centuries.


Once a young man who had done something that displeased the King, was dragged to prison, and the day set for his death. His home was far away. “Let me go and bid good-bye to my father and mother and friends,” he said to the King, “and I will return and die.” The King laughed and said, “Ah! ah! he wishes to save himself! He would never return!” A young man stepped forward from the crowd, and said: “O King, put me in prison until he returns. I know he will do as he has promised, for he is a man who has never broken his word. If he does not return, I will die for him.”

The King, surprised at such an offer of friendship, agreed. So Pythias went to bid his friends good-bye, and Damon was put in prison. Many days passed. By and by the day arrived for the death of Pythias, and he had not returned. Damon said, “I know something has prevented, or he would be here to keep his word. I am ready to die for him!” The jailer led him out, and was just about to put him to death, when suddenly, far away on the distant road, a cloud of dust was seen growing larger and larger.


It was Pythias running, swift as the wind, to keep his promise. He told them how he had been hindered by storm and shipwreck. He thanked his friend again and again for his faith in him. And then giving himself for death into the hands of the jailer, he was led out for execution. “Stop! Stop!” cried the King, “such friends must not suffer unjustly. Pythias shall be free! And I could give all that I possess to have one such true friend!”

Still from Universal's film Damon and Pythias (1914)

That particular version came from the General Historical Stories section of World Stories Retold by William James Sly.  While we may look at the 1914 copyright and scoff at how the inside title continues as "For Modern Boys and Girls",  the editor's explanation of why Historical Stories should be told is still true.


Idealistic stories—fairy tales, folk-lore, myths, legends, fables, and allegories—have their place. They add to the poetry, imagery, enjoyment, spirituality, and enrichment of a life that would often be wholly prosaic without them. But after all, the growing boy and girl who pleads “Tell me a true story,” at approximately the age of six, reveals the truth that the mind cannot be satisfied without the solid, hard, real ground of historical and scientific fact. For this reason by far the larger number of stories that must be told, and that are demanded by advancing childhood and youth, are realistic stories. These are stories from national or world history, biography, personal reminiscences and adventures, true stories of animals, and all others that recount actual happenings. “These have a special value because, besides suggesting a principle, they also indicate how it may receive specific application in life. The deeds of the Christian martyrs and of the modest heroes of every-day life have a certain power which is beyond that of the most beautiful myth. The story of what Jesus did means more than all the visions of all the prophets.”[4]

[Pg 32]Stories of national history impress the mind of the young with patriotism. Historical world stories inspire the heart of the young with a broader human sympathy for all the nations of the earth. The hunger for the heroic, which is native to the imagination and emotion of every growing boy and girl, may be fed by these classic stories of heroic action, endurance, decision, courage, faith, and self-sacrifice.

I'm often asked by young audience members "Is that story true?"  There is plenty of truth in this legend.

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