Damon and Pithiest

2012-06-29 14:02



Damon and Pithiest

Reader question:

Please explain “Damon and Pithiest” in this sentence: After that, they have become Damon and Pithiest.

My comments:

In other words, they’ve become good friends.

And not just any pair of good friends, but one whose friendship rivals that between the legendary Damon and Pithiest.

Damon and Pithiest, you see, are two characters from Greek mythology. They grew up together and were always close.

A friend indeed, as they say, is a friend in need.

It is the other way around – a friend in need is a friend indeed – but you know what I mean.

I mean, sure enough, Damon and Pithiest indeed, one day, found themselves mightily in need of one other.

According to legend, Pithead’s father lost his life (and fortune) while at sea when pirates ransacked his boat. Fellow traders who had invested money in his business now turned to Pithiest en masse, demanding all their money back from the son. The King ruled in favor of the traders, ordering Pithiest to either pay up or face death as a penalty.

Pithiest did not have the money. He therefore asked the King to give him 30 days so that he could go out into the countryside – to collect gold coins from people who he said owed him money.

Neither the traders nor the King would believe him, of course. It is a ruse, the traders said to each other. He’ll simply flee the city and never come back.

This is when Damon came to the fore in defense of the honor of his long time friend. Damon volunteered to be imprisoned for 30 days during his friend’s absence. If Pithiest did not return after a month, Damon would die in his place.

The long and short of it is, after 30 days, Pithiest was nowhere to be found.

“Oh, no,” I hear you gasp. “How could it be?”

Exactly. But, anyways, on the 31st day, Damon was taken out to be hung. And just as they tied the noose round Damon’s neck, Pythias returned.

It turned out that Pythias had merely been delayed as he was hindered by all sorts of difficulties he ran into, as one can imagine. One can easily imagine, of course, given the commercial situation today, how it is far easier for banks and people to lend out money than it is to ask the money back.

Anyways, in the end, the king, moved by the friendship of Damon and Pythias, set both free.

Damon and Pythias, hence, has been a symbol of trust and friendship, a bond so strong that even the threat of death cannot break.

I, incidentally, first came across “Damon and Pythias” many years ago in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a book by Robert Louis Stevenson. In that book “Damon and Pythias” was mentioned to describe the relationship between Dr Jekyll and Dr Lanyon, or rather the former relationship between the two colleagues. Now, the two hardly talked to each other because of Dr. Jekyll’s scientific heresies, his strange unorthodox medical experiments. “Such unscientific balderdash”, said Lanyon, “flushing suddenly purple” as he described the end of their friendship to Mr Utterson, the lawyer, “would’ve estranged Damon and Pythias.”

You know the rest.

At least I hope that you know the rest of the story. I expect you to. I expect all of my readers, in fact, to have read The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s a real classic and a must-read for anyone who’s in love of the English language, native or foreign.

So, if you haven’t, grab a copy and read it now. It’ll be a wonderful adventure. You’ll enjoy it.

And, here, I can send perhaps you off on that reading expedition by pasting the passages that contain “Damon and Pythias”, and, in the process, further piquing your interest in the book:

That evening Mr Utterson came home to his bachelor house in sombre spirits, and sat down to dinner without relish. It was his custom of a Sunday, when this meal was over, to sit close by the fire, a volume of some dry divinity on his reading-desk, until the clock of the neighbouring church rang out the hour of twelve, when he would go soberly and gratefully to bed. On this night, however, as soon as the cloth was taken away, he took up a candle and went into his business room. There he opened his safe, took from the most private part of it a document endorsed on the envelope as Dr Jekyll’s Will, and sat down with a clouded brow to study its contents. The will was holograph; for Mr Utterson, though he took charge of it now that it was made, had refused to lend the least assistance in the making of it; it provided not only that, in case of the decease of Henry Jekyll, M.D., D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S., & c., all his possessions were to pass into the hands of his ‘friend and benefactor Edward Hyde’; but that in case of Dr Jekyll’s ‘disappearance or unexplained absence for any period exceeding three calendar months’, the said Edward Hyde should step into the said Henry Jekyll’s shoes without further delay, and free from any burden or obligation, beyond the payment of a few small sums to the members of the doctor’s household. This document had long been the lawyer’s eyesore. It offended him both as a lawyer and as a lover of the sane and customary sides of life, to whom the fanciful was the immodest. And hitherto it was his ignorance of Mr Hyde that had swelled his indignation; now, by a sudden turn, it was his knowledge. It was already bad enough when the name was but a name of which he could learn no more. It was worse when it began to be clothed upon with detestable attributes; and out of the shifting, insubstantial mists that had so long baffled his eye, there leaped up the sudden, definite presentment of a fiend.

‘I thought it was madness,’ he said, as he replaced the obnoxious paper in the safe; ‘and now I begin to fear it is disgrace.

With that he blew out his candle, put on a great coat, and set forth in the direction of Cavendish Square, that citadel of medicine, where his friend, the great Dr Lanyon, had his house and received his crowding patients. ‘If any one knows, it will be Lanyon,’ he had thought.

The solemn butler knew and welcomed him; he was subjected to no stage of delay, but ushered direct from the door to the dining room, where Dr Lanyon sat alone over his wine. This was a hearty, healthy, dapper, red-faced gentleman, with a shock of hair prematurely white, and a boisterous and decided manner. At sight of Mr Utterson, he sprang up from his chair and welcomed him with both hands. The geniality, as was the way of the man, was somewhat theatrical to the eye; but it reposed on genuine feeling. For these two were old friends, old mates both at school and college, both thorough respecters of themselves and of each other, and, what does not always follow, men who thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.

Alter a little rambling talk, the lawyer led up to the subject which so disagreeably preoccupied his mind.

‘I suppose, Lanyon,’ he said, ‘you and I must be the two oldest friends that Henry Jekyll has?’ ‘I wish the friends were younger,’ chuckled Dr Lanyon. ‘But I suppose we are. And what of that? I see little of him now.’

‘Indeed!’ said Utterson. ‘I thought you had a bond of common interest.’ ‘We had,’ was his reply. ‘But it is more than ten years since Henry Jekyll became too fanciful for me. He began to go wrong, wrong in mind; and though, of course, I continue to take an interest in him for old sake’s sake as they say, I see and I have seen devilish little of the man. Such unscientific balderdash,’ added the doctor, flushing suddenly purple, ‘would have estranged Damon and Pithiest.’



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Pulling her leg?

A no-brainer?

Ahead of the curve?

Do you second-guess?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)

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