Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE 11 (the Clever Thief Story)
Herodotus Tells Tales From Egypt’s Hoary Past! Today’s installment: the Cleverest Man Who Ever Lived (Part 1: the Master Mason)
This bit is a good bit.
Once upon a time (during the reign of Proteus’s successor Remphis, also called Rhampsinitus, says Herodotus, but it’s not important) the king of Egypt had a problem. He had too much money!
There was too much for him to keep track of: people were all the time wandering into his palace and helping themselves to a handful of silver off the pile. He tried stationing guards around it, but the guards just stole from him themselves. The king had some guards killed and brought in new guards, but the temptation of the money just sitting there in the open proved to be too much.
So the king went to the house of the smartest man he knew, a stonemason, and made him an offer.
“Build me a vault where my money will be safe,” he said, “and I won’t have you and your entire family killed!”
That sounded like a great deal to the mason. He accepted the commission, and got to work. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months and months to years as the mason planned the vault out, and built it brick by painstaking brick. He had to do almost all the labor himself, working alone, because the king demanded absolute secrecy.
“If anyone knows the secrets of this vault, and robs it, then you will have failed,” said the king. “And you know what they say about failed masons,” he added, fingering his sword meaningfully.
So the mason was careful and diligent in his work, constructing a whole series of secret doors and traps and hidden deadfalls, such that there was only one safe way in and out of the treasury, and only the king knew all the secret ways and possessed the special keys for passing the various locked gates.
“Excellent,” said the king, when the mason had showed him all the secrets of the treasury. “Now all that remains is to kill you, to keep safe the secrets!”
As the king raised his sword, the mason cried out. “Wait! No!” Thinking desperately, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “If I were to steal from you, you’d know, right? I mean, I’m the only guy who could possibly steal from you, because I know the way through the traps, right? But if I stole you’d know it was me, right? And my life would be forfeit.”
“Indeed,” said the king.
“So you don’t need to actually kill me!” cried the mason. “So long as no one steals from your vault, you’ll know that I haven’t stolen anything, so I don’t need to be killed!”
The king considered.
“Plus you have the keys and things. Can’t get in without the keys and things,” added the mason. “I couldn’t steal from you if I wanted to.”
“Very well,” said the king. “I grant you your life, on the condition that my treasury remains unsullied by thieves.”
Cunning as he was, the mason couldn’t resist including a back door: a secret way that bypassed all the gates and traps and led directly from the outside of the treasury to the hidden center of the vault. It was masterfully hidden and no one could ever have found or used it, who didn’t know it existed.
But the mason knew that the king would make good on his threats, if the mason actually stole anything. And so he never used his secret way into the vault, and instead pursued the simple life of a master mason, with a wife and two sons, until at an advanced age he lay on his deathbed.
He called his family in. “Sons,” he said. “For longer than you have been alive I have kept a great secret.” And he told them of the secret way into the king’s treasure-vault.
“Though I am old and weak, the king remains alive and healthy, because he is wicked and the wicked prosper. When I have passed at last, use my secret passage and make yourselves masters of the royal treasury.”
The sons vowed to do this, and the mason died.
Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE 11 (the Clever Thief Story) — No Comments
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