Damon and Pythias
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In Greek mythology, the legend of Damon and Pythias (or Phintias) symbolizes trust and loyalty in a true friendship.
As told by Aristoxenus, and after him Cicero (De Offic. 3.45), Diodorus Siculus (10.4), and others, around the 5th century BC, Pythias and his friend Damon, both followers of the philosopher Pythagoras, traveled to Syracuse. Pythias was accused of plotting against the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I. As punishment for this crime, Pythias was sentenced to death.
Accepting his sentence, Pythias asked to be allowed to return home one last time, to settle his affairs and bid his family farewell. Not wanting to be taken for a fool, the king refused, believing that once released, Pythias would flee and never return.
Damon offered to take his spot while he was gone. The king agreed, on the condition that, should Pythias not return when promised, Damon would be put to death in his place. Damon agreed, and Pythias was released.
Dionysius was convinced that Pythias would never return, and as the day Pythias promised to return came and went, Dionysius prepared to execute Damon. But just as the executioner was about to kill Damon, Pythias returned.
Apologizing to his friend for his delay, Pythias told of how pirates had captured his ship on the passage back to Syracuse and thrown him overboard. Dionysius listened to Pythias as he described how he swam to shore and made his way back to Syracuse as quickly as possible, arriving just in time to save his friend.
Dionysius was so pleased and astonished with their friendship that he pardoned them both. It was also said that Dionysius then sought to become their third friend, but was denied.
Another version says that it was a test planned out by Dionysius and his courtiers. The Pythagoreans were known for their claimed moral strength and superiority. Courtiers of Syracuse believed that they were fakes while others disagreed. The plan was devised to test the Pythagoreans moral strength in a time of crises.
Works based on the legend
- In 1564, the material was made into a tragicomic play by the English poet Richard Edwardes (Damon and Pythias).
- The best-known modern treatment of the legend is the German ballad Die Bürgschaft, written in 1799 by Friedrich Schiller, based on the Gesta Romanorum version. (In this work, Damon is sentenced to death, not Pythias.)
- In Japan, the short story "Run, Melos!" by Osamu Dazai and a nursery tale by Miekichi Suzuki were based on the legend, and in 1992 Toei Company, Ltd. adapted it into an anime.
- In a 1959 Leave It to Beaver episode, Beaver's father relates the Damon and Pythias story and Beaver donates his homework to friend Larry to prove their friendship. Larry confesses moments before Beaver loses a week of recesses.
- In 1821, the Irish poet John Banim wrote a play based on the legend (Damon and Pythias). Familiarity with this play led Justus H. Rathbone to found the fraternal order Knights of Pythias.
- The short story Pythias by Frederik Pohl, published in 1955, entwines the mythic elements with modern political & psychokenetic concerns.
- The film The Delicate Delinquent (1957) featured characters "Mike Damon" (Darren McGavin, but imagined for Dean Martin) and "Sidney Pythias" (Jerry Lewis). As released, the film only vaguely resembled the legend – Pythias avoids jail – but it originated as a testament to the Martin & Lewis friendship.
- The 1962 MGM film Damon and Pythias remained true to the ancient story; it starred Guy Williams as Damon, and Don Burnett as Pythias.
"Damon and Pythias" came to be an idiomatic expression for "true friendship". Thus, Denis Diderot's short story, "The Two Friends from Bourbonne" (1770), begins "There used to be two men here who might be called the Damon and Pythias of Bourbonne." Bummer and Lazarus at Bummer's death (1865) were eulogized as "the Damon and Pythias of San Francisco".
In Robert Louis Stevenson's novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Henry Jekyll's two oldest friends, Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Utterson (a lawyer), have the following exchange while discussing Dr. Jekyll's apparent self-imposed isolation:
...said Utterson. “I thought you had a common bond of interest.”
“We had,” was the reply. “But it is more than ten years since Henry Jekyll became too fanciful for me. He began to go wrong, wrong in the mind… Such unscientific balderdash,” said the doctor, flushing suddenly purple, “would have estranged Damon and Pythias.”This little spirit of temper was somewhat of a relief to Mr. Utterson. “They have only differed on some point of science,” he thought…
The use of the Damon-and-Pythias idiom would seem to indicate that, whether the difference was on a point of science or something else, it was not "only" some trivial difference.
Much gay interest has been ascribed to the ancient couple. The 1889 novel A Marriage Below Zero by Alfred J. Cohen (pen name: Alan Dale) has the young male couple continually referring to themselves as Damon and Pythias. Soon the upscale social world that they try pass in begins to refer to them with the same term, but as derogatory codeword for 'gay couple.'
In A Bell for Adano, Captain Purvis's and Mayor Joppolo's friendship is compared to the friendship of Damon and Pythias because they dated sisters.
In 1895 Jack London used Damon and Pythias as the nicknames of the two main characters in "Who Believes in Ghosts!" .
In a 1997 episode of the TV series Highlander entitled "A Modern Prometheus", a character portraying Lord Byron references the dynamic duo of Damon and Pythias before he jumps with another man to their "death."
In the 1950 Bowery Boys movie Blonde Dynamite the boys establish a male escort service out of their foil Louie's ice cream parlor while they have conveniently sent him to Coney Island on vacation, Slip Mahoney (Leo Gorcey) tells the other boys to "Let Damon and Pythias fight it out!" referring to Sach and Whitey (Huntz Hall and Billy Benedict) as to which of the two will be included in a group date with a bevy of femmes fatale.
In Episode 8, Season 1 of Peter Gunn, a character describes his friendship for the murder victim by saying that people referred to them as "Damon and what's-his-name."
In popular culture
- The Knights of Pythias fraternal organization in 1864 took their name from Pythias to symbolize qualities such as loyalty and friendship.
- In 1966, Episode 20, Season 1 of the television series "Batman", Catwoman says "It's time to separate Damon and Pythias" just before enclosing Robin in a cylinder and vacuuming him up.
- An episode of the HBO series The Wire, "Know Your Place", interweaves several story lines that allude to the Damon & Pythias myth's topic of loyalty and honor between friends.
- Damon and Pythias were featured in the Adventures from the Book of Virtues episode "Friendship" with Damon voiced by George Newbern and Pythias voiced by Jim Cummings.
- Damon and Pythias were featured in their self-titled episode of Mythic Warriors with Damon voiced by David Klar and Pythias voiced by Lyon Smith.
- Part of the plot of the 2003 animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas is based on Damon and Pythias.
- Ferguson, Kitty (2008). Pythagoras His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe. Walker. p. 119.
- (German) Die Bürgschaft – Wikisource. De.wikisource.org. Retrieved on 2012-02-16.