The Myth of Pythagoras

The Myth of Pythagoras

Pythagorean Myths: Classical and Contemporary

Pythagoras is one of the most elusive and intriguing figures in the history of Western philosophy. He is the rumored source of many of the core doctrines of Platonism such as the idea that the soul is immortal and reincarnates after death, that our empirical world constitutes a harmonious cosmos grounded in an unseen world of number, and that, as a result, the good life is a one of balance and harmony. Yet, when we try to reconstruct the details of Pythagoras’s life according to the cannons of history, he vanishes in the mists of antiquity.

As with Socrates, we have no writings of Pythagoras upon which to build our historical account. Scholars find it difficult enough to reconstruct the historical Socrates by sifting through the testimonies of his contemporaries such as Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes.  But the situation is even more formidable in the case of Pythagoras, since, for him, we even lack such contemporaneous testimony. Some of our earliest evidence comes from a handful of passages extracted from Plato and Aristotle, both writing about a century after Pythagoras, and speaking more about his followers than about him. This scanty evidence forces the historian to fill in the substantial lacunae in the historical record with an equally substantial amount of personal speculation, reminding one of the situation described by Irenaeus when he noted that the very same stones composing a beautiful mosaic of a king could be arranged to form a crude picture of a dog or fox.[1] Moreover, the details of the legends surrounding Pythagoras present additional difficulties for the modern historian. For Pythagoras is said to have founded a religious order, to have been taken as a sage, or perhaps even a god, by his followers whom he had sworn to secrecy, and to have communicated his teachings to the outside world only through obscure symbols. As a result, many of the teachings preserved for us by later writers are merely exoteric symbols from which it now seems impossible to extract their original esoteric meanings (e.g. that “the sea is a tear of Kronos, the Great and Little Bear the hands of Rhea, the Pleiades the lyre of the Muses, and the planets the dogs of Persephone.”[2] Likewise, our oldest sources for Pythagoras’ life are thoroughly permeated by the miraculous, recounting tales of how he was greeted by a river and possessed a thigh of gold (indicating he was either blessed by, or himself was, the god Apollo). The historian committed to demythologizing Pythagoras, thus has almost nothing to work with.

In light of the paucity and enigmatic nature of the extant evidence, I believe that agnosticism is the most reasonable stance regarding the historical Pythagoras. We simply do not have enough evidence to know what he would have been like as a concrete figure reconstructed according to the cannons of contemporary history.  Both ancient Lives of Pythagoras and contemporary historical reconstructions are forced to, for the most part, rely on the personal speculations of their authors. To this extent, modern accounts of Pythagoras are just as legendary as those of classical antiquity, though the latter may actually have had an advantage in this regard since they had access to a variety of sources which have been lost to us today (such as Aristotle’s treatise On the Pythagoreans). Both classical and contemporary accounts must rely on the dominant worldviews of their day in fashioning what they take to be a plausible narrative. Since these antecedent worldviews set the parameters of plausibility, the differences between the classical and the contemporary outlooks result in two wildly divergent legends of Pythagoras. The traditional mind saw the past as a paradise lost. It was a golden age of gods, heroes, and sages, full of lost wisdom and infused with a salutary nobility. The past serves to measure the height from which we have fallen in the kali yuga, our present age of iron and darkness. In contrast, the modern mind views itself as the pinnacle towards which its brutish ancestors were slowly pushed through a long process of cultural evolution. This ascent was not a result of individuals and their actions, but of broad social, political, and economic forces slowly reshaping man, taking him from a state superstitious savagery to one in which he rules as scientific master of the universe. As one might expect, these two orientations produce radically different legends of Pythagoras.

The one, preserved in ancient texts like Porphyry and Iamblichus’s Lives of Pythagoras tells of a sage sent from heaven, working wonders, and delivering a spiritual philosophy to mankind. The other depicts a charlatan who founded a religious cult and was later idealized by a dying classical world retreating to a fantasy realm where it could pretend to retain its former glory. I won’t argue here about which framework is closer to the truth, but will simply point out that the framework one adopts will have drastic effects on one’s resulting picture of Pythagoras. Will we see him as a great sage, “the divine Pythagoras” of Iamblichus, who was the first to use the term philosophy, revolutionized the West’s understanding of God and the soul, and invented the idea of the cosmos, the universe as a harmonious mathematically and musically ordered whole. The first to perceive the visible world of experience as flowing from an invisible world of number, and the first to challenge geocentrism by making the earth orbit around a central fire? Or will we see him as a religious kook who forbade the touching of white roosters and proscribed the eating of beans, because they caused flatulence, and the escaping gas indicated that a soul was leaving the body through an unworthy orifice?

The contrast between these two pictures is drastic. For those of you who agree with me that agnosticism is the most reasonable stance regarding the historical Pythagoras, what we are left with is a choice between two contrasting myths. In selecting between these two alternatives, I suggest that we proceed as a psychologist would, asking their clients, when faced with situations in which multiple accounts of a situation might, from a subjective vantage point, have equal claims to truth, to adopt the beliefs that are more adaptive and life affirming. We could, for instance, ask which of these myths would encourage us to actually study the works of the past? Which would be more conducive to our own philosophical and spiritual growth? Which to greater cultural health?  For me, the answer is clear. I think much more can be learned from the classical legend of Pythagoras than from those on offer today. I’ll now recount what I take to be some of the central features of this legend.

Life of Pythagoras


Pythagoras was born on the Greek Island of Samos to Mnesarchus, a gem engraver. As was customary, Pythagoras would probably have been trained in this art himself, and one wonders how many of his ideas came from contemplating the beauty of the gemstones upon which he worked. One can imagine him contemplating the orderly geometrical shapes of crystals or pondering the growth of stones deep in the earth.  Likewise, since engravers often produced rings which served as seals in the ancient world, one can imagine him reflecting on the relationship between the carved stone and its waxen imprint, and drawing an analogy to our visible world and the invisible one underlying it. His father’s vocation also calls to mind comparisons to a famous Galilean carpenter. While the one would perhaps make sturdy yokes for cattle to labor effectively, the other would craft objects of beauty for the aristocracy. One is left to wonder about the degree to which their vocations influenced the philosophies they developed. While the one sees a light yoke and an easy burden as the best man can hope for, the other kindles a love for liberty and calls the immortal soul to free itself from all bestial fetters and return to a world of pure beauty.[3]

He is exceptionally studious and goes to Egypt and other foreign countries to learn their wisdom.

The legend continues that Pythagoras was an exceptionally zealous student, gaining the favor of all he worked with, and quickly exhausting the knowledge of his teachers in Samos. He thus went abroad to continue his studies. According to Iamblichus, as a young man, “he dwelt at Samos like some beneficent daemon. Hence, while he was yet a youth, his great renown having reached Thales at Miletus, and Bias at Priene, men illustrious for their wisdom, it also extended to the neighboring cities. To all which we may add, that the youth was everywhere celebrated as the long-haired Samian, and was reverenced by the multitude as one under the influence of divine inspiration.”[4] On Iamblichus’ telling of the story, Pythagoras goes to study with the Presocratic philosopher Anaximander, and, then, Anaximander’s teacher Thales, and, after learning all he could from Thales,  is instructed to go seek the wisdom of Egypt. Iamblichus recounts “and besides this, Thales increased the reputation Pythagoras had already acquired, by communicating to him such disciplines as he was able to impart: and, apologizing for his old age, and the imbecility of his body, he exhorted him to sail into Egypt, and associate with the Memphian and Diospolitan priests. For he confessed that his own reputation for wisdom was derived from the instructions of these priests; but that he was neither naturally, nor by exercise, endued with those excellent prerogatives, which were so visibly displayed in the person of Pythagoras. Thales, therefore, gladly announced to him, from all these circumstances, that he would become the wisest and most divine of all men, if he associated with these Egyptian priests.”[5]  Pythagoras then follows this advice and sets forth in search of wisdom.

On other tellings of the story, Pythagoras is given a letter of introduction to King Amasis of Egypt from Polycrates, ruler of Samos, and Amasis then instructs the priesthood to take on Pythagoras as a student. Porphyry, citing an earlier source Antiphon, recounts that “Pythagoras, desiring to become acquainted with the institutions of the Egyptian priests, and diligently endeavoring to participate therein, requested the Tyrant Polycrates [of Samos] to write to Amasis, the King of Egypt, his friend and former host, to procure him initiation.”[6] And Diogenes Laertius’s recounts that Pythagoras fashioned three silver cups as gifts for the three priests he was to work with, perhaps using some of the skills that he acquired from his father the gem engraver.[7]

Once in Egypt, he studies tirelessly, impressing the priesthood with his perseverance. Porphyry, again citing Antiphon, recounts that: “Coming to Amasis, he was given letters to the priests, but the priests of Heliopolis sent him on those at Memphis, on the pretense that they were the more ancient. On the same pretense, he was sent on from Memphis to Diospolis [or ancient Thebes]. From fear of the king, the latter priests dared not make excuses [to initiate Pythagoras], but thinking that he would desist from his purpose as a result of great difficulties, they enjoined on him very hard precepts, entirely different from the institutions of the Greeks. These he performed so readily that he won their admirations, and they permitted him to sacrifice to the Gods, and to acquaint himself with all their sciences, a favor never previously granted to a foreigner.”[8] Pythagoras is thus portrayed as a man undeterred by the obstacles in his path, willing to devote himself entirely to the pursuit of wisdom.

I find this aspect of the myth to be doubly interesting. First, and perhaps most obviously, it illustrates the fact that learning is difficult and requires much time, energy, and devotion, a fact strangely distasteful to American sensibilities. We treat students fully devoted to their studies as pathological and perhaps even morally perverse. Don’t these students know that if they have paid their tuition, they will receive good grades without having to study so hard? Think of the time wasted in libraries when they could have been enjoying the true college experience of getting wasted! And is there not something unseemly about a student spending all his or her time studying, rather than working full time at an internship? Does it not evince some deep flaw of mind and character? Such is the mad world in which we live. Hearing the story of Pythagoras in which diligent and devoted study is held up as an ideal to be emulated provides us with a much needed alternative framework to our own, in which learning is portrayed as cheap, external, and easily attainable, not something that would deserve a lifetime of devotion. Second, this story refutes a popular stereotype of the history of Western Philosophy. This stereotype presents the Greek philosophical tradition as somehow insular and self-aggrandizing, a mere ideological tool for white supremacy and colonial expansion. The story of Pythagoras’s journeys abroad undermines this familiar trope. For, when seeking out the deepest wisdom, Pythagoras travelled outside of his own culture, evincing a cosmopolitan outlook on life. These stories show us how the Western philosophical tradition has been open to universal wisdom from its very beginnings. Indeed, it is precisely Pythagoras’s broad minded, cross cultural understanding of wisdom that we need today.

Indeed, Pythagoras is said to not only have learned from the Egyptians, but also from other cultures. According to Porphyry, “as to his knowledge, it is said that he learned the mathematical sciences from the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Phoenicians; for of old the Egyptians excelled in geometry, the Phoenicians in numbers and proportions, and the Chaldeans in astronomical theorems, divine rites, and worship of the Gods, and other secrets concerning the course of life he received and learned from the Magi.”[9]  And, going on to cite Diogenes, Porphyry claims that “Pythagoras visited the Egyptians, the Arabians, the Chaldeans and the Hebrews, from whom he acquired expertise in the interpretation of dreams, and acquired the use of frankincense in the worship of divinities.” … “In Babylon he associated with the other Chaldeans, especially attaching himself to Zaratus [=Zoroaster], by whom he was purified from pollutions of his past life, and taught the things from which a virtuous man ought to be free. Likewise he heard lectures about Nature, and the principles of wholes. It was from his stay among these foreigners that Pythagoras acquired the greater part of his wisdom.”[10]

He leaves Samos for Italy knowing the Polycrates tyranny will not allow for the practice of philosophy.

The story continues that once Pythagoras had finished his studies abroad, he returned home, only to find that Polycrates had made himself a tyrant in Samos. Pythagoras, recognizing that philosophy cannot flourish in such a political environment, migrates to Italy. Porphyry recounts the story as follows, “later, when the Samians were oppressed with the tyranny of Polycrates, Pythagoras saw that life in such a state was unsuitable for a philosopher, and so planned to travel to Italy.”[11] Similarly, Diogenes Laertius records, “then he returned again to Samos, and finding his country under the absolute dominion of Polycrates, he set sail, and fled to Croton in Italy.”[12] And Iamblichus notes that upon returning home, “as he easily saw the difficulty of complying with the laws of his country, and at the same time remaining at home and philosophizing, and considered that all philosophers before him had passed their life in foreign countries, he determined to neglect all political occupations; induced to this, according to the testimony of others, by the negligence of the Samians in what relates to education, and went to Italy, conceiving that place to be his proper country, in which men well disposed towards learning were to be found in the greatest abundance.”[13]

            What strikes me here is the early connection between philosophy and freedom. In order to truly learn, one needs the freedom to rationally examine a subject matter. Freedom of thought and speech is thus a necessity. Pythagoras is also said to have inspired a love of liberty wherever he went. Porphyry notes that “by his disciples, some of whom were found in every city, he infused into them an aspiration for liberty.”[14] It is also worth noting how this story highlights the claim that, for the philosopher, one’s home country will be any in which the people are devoted to learning. Again, we have a clear cosmopolitan conception of philosophy that belies the stereotype of the discipline often presented today.

Establishing a school in Croton

Once he arrives in Croton, he impresses them by his demeanor and teaching and soon establishes a school. Porphyry recounts that “when he reached Italy, he stopped at Croton. His presence was that of a free man, tall, graceful in speech and in gesture, and in everything else. Dicaearchus relates that the arrival of this great traveler, endowed with all the advantages of nature, and prosperously guided by fortune, produced on the Crotonians so great an impression, that he won the esteem of the older magistrates by his many and excellent discourses. They ordered him to deliver exhortations to the young men, and then to the boys who flocked out of the school to hear him, and then to the women, who came together for this purpose.”[15]

He draws great crowds with his discourses, bringing together both men and women, and both locals and foreigners. Again Porphyry recounts:

“Through this he achieved great reputation, and he drew great audiences from the city, not only of men, but also of women, among whom was a specially illustrious person named Theano. He also drew audiences from among the neighboring barbarians, among whom were magnates and kings.”[16]

He is said to have gathered crowds of over two thousand on a regular basis, resulting in the construction of an auditorium for his lectures. Porphyry, citing Nicomachus, relates:

“His speech was so persuasive that… in one address made on first landing in Italy, he made more than two thousand adherents. Out of desire to live with him, these built a large auditorium, to which both women and boys were admitted. [Foreign visitors were so many that ] they built whole cities, settling that whole region of Italy now known as Magna Graecia. ”[17] The account then goes on to tell of how his disciples went on to influence society by promoting freedom and establishing just laws:

“During his travels in Italy and Sicily he found various cities subjected one to another, both of long standing and recently. By his disciples, some of whom were found in every city, he infused into them an aspiration for liberty, thus restoring to freedom Croton, Sybaris, Catana, Regium, Himera, Agrigentum, Tauromenium, and others, on whom he imposed laws through… [his disciples], which resulted in a long era of good government, emulated by all their neighbors. Simicus the tyrant of Centoripae, on hearing Pythagoras’ discourse, abdicated his rule, and divided his property between his sister and the citizens.”[18]

Note how this tale once more strikes down popular attacks on Western philosophy. Rather than being a practice exclusive to ethnocentric males, these stories demonstrate how the classical mind viewed philosophy as a practice capable of bringing together all different kinds of people. Philosophy is for both men and women, both Greeks and non-Greeks. Rather than dividing people on superficial lines, philosophy was a unifying force drawing together all who were worthy of it, regardless of race, nationality, or gender. Iamblichus, in his account of Pythagoras’s life, even goes so far as to list the 17 the most illustrious Pythagorean women in history.[19] Furthermore, it is also interesting to note that though philosophical inquiry could not be pursued under an unjust tyranny, when it was able to be pursued, it had salutary political consequences. The followers of Pythagoras influenced the cities in which they lived, making them more just and establishing better laws.  Again, far from pitting the forces of social justice against philosophy as is often the case today, philosophy can actually be a potent force for establishing real justice.

Marvelous works

Another key component of the Pythagorean legend is the recounting of his miraculous works. He not only was a dynamic teacher, but also possessed a kind of spiritual power that allowed him to work wonders. To begin with, it is said that he could remember his past lives and helped those around him remember theirs. Porphyry claims “many of his associates he reminded of the lives lived by their souls before they were bound to their present body, and by irrefutable arguments demonstrated that he had been Euphorbus, the son of Panothus.”[20] As a result, he was fond of singing the Homeric lines about himself from his past life. ‘the shining circlets of his golden hair,/ which even the graces might be proud to wear,/ instarred with gems and gold, bestrew the shore, / with dust dishonored, and deformed with gore,/ as the young olive, in some sylvan scene, crowned by fresh fountains with celestial green,/ lifts the gay head in snowy flowerets fair,/ and plays and dances to the gentle air,/ when lo, a whirlwind from high heaven invades,/ the tender plant, and withers all its shades;/ it lies uprooted from its genial head, a lovely ruin, now defaced and dead. Thus young, the beautiful Euphorbus lay, while the fierce Spartan tore his shield away.”[21] (Iliad 17.51-66). (26).

Diogenes Laertius goes into more detail, citing Heraclides of Pontus, claiming that Pythagoras “had formerly been Aethalides, and had been accounted to be the son of Hermes, and that Hermes had desired him to select any gift he pleased except immortality. Accordingly, he had requested that, whether living or dead, he might preserve the memory of what had happened to him. While, therefore, he was alive, he recalled everything, and when he was dead he retained the same memory. At a subsequent period he passed into Euphorbus, and was wounded by Menelaus. While he was Euphorbus, he used to say that he had formerly been Aethalides; and that he had received as a gift from Hermes the perpetual transmigration of his soul, so that it was constantly transmigrating and passing into whatever plants or animals it pleased, and he had also received a gift of knowing and recollecting all that his soul had suffered in Hades, and what sufferings too are endured by the rest of the souls.

But after Euphorbus died, he said that his soul passed into Hermotimus, and when he wished to convince people of this, he went into the territory of the Branchidae, and going into the temple of Apollo, he showed his shield which Menealus had dedicated there as an offering. For he said that he, when he sailed from Troy, had offered up his shield which was already getting worn out, to Apollo, and that nothing remained but the ivory face which was on it. He said that when Hermotimus died he had become Pyrrhus, a fisherman of Delos, and that he still recollected everything, how he had formerly been Aethalides, then Euphorbus, then Hermotimus, and then Pyrrus. When Pyrrhus died, he became Pythagoras, and still recollected all the circumstances I have been mentioning.”[22]

These stories link philosophy to memory in a way that will continue throughout the philosophical tradition. We see it in Plato’s doctrine of recollection, in which knowledge is said to be the soul’s memory of its prior acquaintance with the forms before it fell into the forgetfulness of the material world. We see it in Freud’s view that catharsis is achieved by consciously remembering contents previously repressed in the unconscious. And we see it in Heidegger’s later identification of the thinking of Being with Andenken (a German word for memory). These various flowerings of the doctrine of memory can, in this manner, trace their roots back to Pythagorean myth.  Of all the possible gifts to choose from divinity, the sage will choose to remember.

Power over animals.

Another cluster of legends recounts Pythagoras’ power of animals. I personally find these stories to be quite touching, as they highlight the sage’s compassion and connection to the cosmos. Rather than using his powers to dominate or harm other creatures (as other famous sages do, for instance, by casting demons into pigs and causing them to run off cliffs), Pythagoras manifests a concern for all living beings.

For example, there is the story of the Daunian bear. According to this tale, a certain bear had been terrorizing a region, mauling people and attacking other animals. Pythagoras hears of it, finds the bear, pets it and feeds it “barley and fruits” (Porphyry) or “maze and acorns” (Iamblichus). He then makes it swear never again to harm another living creature. And, afterwards, this bear “immediately took herself into the woods and the hills, and from that time on never attacked any irrational animal.”[23]

Another story is that of the bean eating ox at Tarentum. According to this story, Pythagoras is passing by and sees an ox eating beans. He finds the farmer who owns the ox, and advises him against letting the Ox do so. In response, the farmer sarcastically says “I don’t know Ox language”. Pythagoras then goes over to the Ox and whispers in its ear, and from then on it never ate beans again. In fact, it went to live at Hera’s temple at Tarentum, as a sacred ox fed with offerings.[24]

Or again, it is said that while discoursing on the importance of auguries at the Olympic games, he called down an eagle, who flew down to him and allowed him to pet her before he released her back into the sky.[25]

He is also said to have picked up and removed poisonous snakes without harm. “In Sybaris, too, he caught a deadly serpent and dismissed it. In a similar manner likewise in Tyrrhenia, he caught a small serpent, whose bite was fatal.”[26]

I personally find these stories of Pythagoras to be some of the most magical. They speak to something deep in the human heart that wants to commune with the rest of nature. I remember owning books about Koko the gorilla as a child. They told of a gorilla who had been taught sign language and could speak with her trainer Penny. I would read those books over and over, imagining what it would be like to communicate with such a majestic creature. The stories of Pythagoras speak to such desires. The sage is one who can see the order underlying reality that connects us all, and, because he is aware of this connection, he has compassion on and can commune with all sentient beings. Such stories contrast sharply with the more violent and domineering Bible stories I heard growing up in Evangelical Christianity. Contrast, for example, Pythagoras’s encounter with the Daunian bear, where the sage convinces it to no longer hurt other animals, and Elisha’s summoning of a bear to kill the children who taunted him for being bald (2 Kings 2:23-25). It appears we have a completely different worldview here, one that values compassion and connection, rather than violence and obedience to external authority.

The legends of Pythagoras extend his communion from the animal world to the rest of nature. For example, he is said to have been greeted by a river. Porphyry observes that “it is said that the river Caucasus, while he, with many of his associates was passing over it, said to him very clearly, ‘Hail, Pythagoras!’”[27] And there are many stories of Pythagoras predicting earthquakes, calming storms, and banishing plagues. Iamblichus, for instance, claims that “ten thousand other more divine and more admirable particulars likewise are uniformly and unanimously related of the man: such as infallible predictions of earthquakes, rapid expulsions of pestilence and violent winds, instantaneous cessations of the effusion of hail, and tranquilization of the waves of rivers and seas, in order that his disciples might easily pass over them.”[28]

Moreover, some of his other famous wonders transcend the sphere of nature entirely and suggest a direct connection to the gods. For example, he is said to have been able to bilocate, teaching in two cities at the same time. Porphyry recounts that: “almost unanimous is the report that on one and the same day he was present at Metapontum in Italy, and at Tauromenium in Sicily, in each place conversing with his friends, though the places are separated by many miles, both at sea and land, demanding a journey of many days.”[29] And Iamblichus similarly attests that “nearly all historians of his life confidently assert, that in one and the same day he was present at Metapontum in Italy, and Tauromenium in Sicily, and discoursed in common with his disciples in both places, though these cities are separated from each other by many stadia both by land and sea, and cannot be passed through in a great number of days.”[30]

Finally, there is the famous story of Pythagoras’s golden thigh, which was taken as a sign that he was either particularly blessed by Apollo, or himself was Apollo. Porphyry, for example, claims that “it is well known that he showed his golden thigh to Abaris the Hyperborean, to confirm him in the opinion that he was the Hyperborean Apollo, whose priest Abaris was.”[31] Likewise, Diogenes Laertius claims that “he is said to have been a man of the most dignified appearance, and his disciples adopted an opinion that he was Apollo who had come from the Hyperboreans. It is also said that once when he was stripped naked he was seen to have a golden thigh.”[32] And Iamblichus tells a more elaborate version of the tale, claiming that Abaris was an old priest of Apollo, returning to his homeland in Hyperborea, after having traveled to Greece to collect donations of gold to be consecrated in Apollo’s Hyperborean temple. But, upon seeing Pythagoras, he perceived him as the God Apollo himself and offered him his magic dart by which he traveled through the air and cured diseases. Iamblichus recounts that “Pythagoras, however, receiving the dart, and neither being astonished at the novelty of the thing, nor asking the reason why it was given to him, but as if he was in reality a God himself, taking Abaris aside, he showed him his golden thigh, as an indication that he was not [wholly] deceived [in the opinion he had formed of him;] and having enumerated to him the several particulars that were deposited in the temple, he gave him sufficient reason to believe that he had not badly conjectured [in assimilating him to Apollo]. Pythagoras also added, that he came [into the regions of mortality] for the purpose of remedying and benefiting the condition of mankind, and that on this account he had assumed a human form, lest men being disturbed by the novelty of his transcendency, should avoid the discipline which he possessed….Thus, Pythagoras unfolded to Abaris….physiology and theology in a compendious way; and instead of divination by the entrails of beasts, he delivered to him the art of prognosticating through numbers, conceiving that this was purer, more divine, and more adapted to the celestial numbers of the gods.”[33]

This story is intriguing in several respects. First, it is worth noting the compassionate end towards which Iamblichus directs this tale. Pythagoras, being recognized as a god, had authority to speak on what the gods desired, and he instructs his followers to give up the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice and divination through the inspection of their entrails, and to instead seek the divine through number. Here again we see the emphasis Pythagoreans placed on communion with and compassion for other living beings. Rather than simply laughing off these stories as remnants of an ignorant and barbarous past, perhaps, upon viewing the moral end towards which they were employed, it is we participants in the late capitalist world order who will be revealed to be the true barbarians. If Pythagoras was appalled by the practice of animal sacrifice, what would he say to our world of deforestation, factory farming, and animal experimentation? Second, it is interesting to compare the story of Pythagoras’s golden thigh with other shamanic legends. For these stories draw a connection between the shaman’s spiritual insight and the ritual dismemberment and reconstitution that he or she must undergo.[34]  Mircea Eliade, for example,  in his famous book on Shamanism, observes that  among the Wotojobaluk, a supernatural being consecrates the shaman by opening “his belly” and inserting “rock crystals that confer magical power.”And again, among the Euahlayi, the potential shaman is carried to the cemetery and tied up. “As soon as he is alone, several animals appear and touch and lick him. Then comes a man with a stick; he thrusts the stick into the neophyte’s head and puts a magical stone the size of a lemon into the wound. Then the spirits appear and intone magical and initiatory songs to teach him the art of healing.” And among the Warburton Ranges aborigines “the aspirant enters a cave, and two totemic heroes (wildcat and emu) kill him, open his body, remove the organs, and replace them with magical substances.” In contemporary culture, we have a similar folklore surrounding the experiences of those who claim to have been abducted by aliens. Their bodies are cut apart and reassembled with implants connecting them to another dimension of reality. I wonder whether this same tradition may be at play in the erstwhile bizarre story of Pythagoras’ golden thigh. Finally, it is worth considering why the element in question was said to be gold, and why it was said to be his thigh that was made of it. Eliade observes that in the early Alchemical tradition, gold was associated with the sun and was considered to be the perfected element towards which all others grow.[35] So, perhaps gold was chosen in these stories to indicate the solar nature of Pythagoras’s spirituality and as a sign of his maturity and perfection in the sacred arts. Similarly, it is worth considering why it was said to be his thigh that was golden. The thigh appears to be connected to generative powers in certain myths. For example, in the story of Dionysius, Zeus is said to have rescued the abandoned fetus of his child and stitched it in his thigh, where the young god gestated until he was born. And, in the Hebrew Bible the thigh may have been used as a euphemism for male genitalia. If this is the case, then Pythagoras’s golden thigh may have been an indication of perfected spiritual virility, perhaps something like iron shirt techniques in martial arts. It is worth noting that, if this is true, it once more undermines the stereotype of philosophy as somehow in the service of toxic masculinity. Instead, it presents a model of masculinity that identifies virility not with violence but with understanding and compassion.

Persecution and death

Finally, the legends of Pythagoras go on to tell of his persecution and death. Most of these stories claim that he died as the result of the envy of Croton’s baser citizenry. This mob was led by Cylon, whom Porphyry describes as, “a Crotonian, who in race, nobility and wealth was the most preeminent, was of a severe, violent and tyrannical disposition, and did not hesitate to use the multitude of his followers to achieve his ends.” Cylon, believing himself to deserve the best in everything and to be admitted to all fellowships, attempted to join the Pythagorians. “Pythagoras, however, who was accustomed to read in the nature and manners of human bodies the disposition of the man, bade him depart, and go about his business. Cylon, being of a rough and violent disposition, took it as a great affront, and became furious.”[36] He summoned his followers and roused them against Pythagoras and the Pythagorean fellowship. They surrounded the house of Milo the athlete where the Pythagoreans had gathered and burned it down, stoning those who tried to flee. Porphyry, citing Neanthes, claims that only two escaped: Archippus and Lysis, the latter fleeing to Greece and eventually settling in Thebes.[37]

There are various conflicting stories about Pythagoras’s own death.

Some say he was away at Delos while the attack happened to attend to his old teacher Pherecydes who was ill.[38] Others like Dicaearchus and those whom Porphyry calls the more accurate historians claim that Pythagoras was present in Croton during the attack of Cylon’s mob. “Of his friends, forty who were gathered together in a house were slain; while others were gradually slain as they came to the city.”[39] Pythagoras flees first to Caulonia, and then to Locri, but the people of Locri turn him away. Porphyry notes that “everywhere arose great mobs against him, of which even now the inhabitants make mention, calling them the Pythagorean riots, as his followers were called Pythagoreans.”[40] He then sails to Tartenum where he is attacked by mobs just as he was at Croton, until finally travelling to Metapontum, where he takes refuge in the Temple of the Muses, but eventually starves to death after 40 days. Others recount that he died of grief rather than starvation on account of seeing his disciples killed in the house fire. According to this story, his disciples are said to have quenched the flames with their bodies and to open a path of escape for him.[41] Yet other stories claim he died immediately after fleeing Milo’s house, being pursued by the mob, and coming across a field full of beans, “he stopped there, saying it was better to be caught than to trample on the beans, and better to be slain than to speak; and so he was murdered by those who were pursuing him.”[42]

Thus perished a great sage. I found Iamblichus’ more detailed account of the strategies used by Croton to rile his lethal mob to be timely. Iamblichus credits the story to Apollonius. He notes that Cylon, one of the nobility, partnered with Ninon, one of the lower classes, to turn the city against Pythagoras. Two erstwhile political rivals thus join forces to attack philosophy from both flanks. Ninon, speaking to the lower classes, claims to have discovered Pythagoras’s secret teachings and alleges that they reveal the Pythagoreans to be an elite cabal conspiring against the masses. According to Ninon, Pythagoras taught that “he is like the blessed Gods his friends rever’d, but reckon’d other men of no account. Homer, too, especially deserves to be praised for calling a king the shepherd of the people. For being a friend to that government in which the rulers are few, he evinced by this epithet that the rest of men are cattle. To beans it is requisite to be hostile, as being the leaders of decision by lot; for by these men were allotted the administration of affairs.”[43] Iamblichus continues, “in one word, Ninon showed that their philosophy was a conspiracy against the multitude, and therefore exhorted them not to hear the counsellors, but to consider that they would never have been admitted into the assembly, if the council of the Pythagoreans had been approved by the session of a thousand men, so that it was not fit to suffer those to speak, who prevented to the utmost their power other from being heard.”[44] A great man and his philosophical legacy were thus undone by this two fronted assault from both ends of the social strata. One wonders whether we see a similar situation today as philosophy is harangued from both sides of American politics. In one media ecosystem, philosophy is derided as at best useless, equated with an imagined lesbian dance theory, and at worst, brainwashing by liberal elites corrupting young minds to carry out their nefarious agendas. Young adults are thus encouraged to go to trade school rather than college, being told that society needs more welders than philosophers, and that the only doctors worthy of the name are medical doctors, the rest being idiots or frauds. Yet, in the opposing echo-chamber, we hear a similar refrain. Philosophy is a tool of patriarchal oppression and colonial expansion. Only those guilty of white male privilege would spend their time thinking through the value systems of the past, rather than devoting themselves entirely to the social causes currently deemed urgent by the party. Philosophy, as traditionally practiced, must be torn down and replaced with a new form of theory, one which claims to invert, if not eliminate, all past hierarchies of value. In light of these kinds of parallels, Iamblichus’s description of the surviving Pythagoreans takes on a haunting character.

“At that time, therefore, it happened that science failed together with those who possessed scientific knowledge, because till that period, it was preserved by them in their breasts as something arcane and ineffable. But such things only as were difficult to be understood, and which were not unfolded, were preserved in the memory of those who did not belong to the Pythagorean sect; a few things excepted, which certain Pythagoreans, who happened at that time to be in foreign lands, preserved as certain sparks of science very obscure and of difficult investigation. These also, being left by themselves, and not moderately dejected by the calamity, were scattered in different places, and no longer endured to have any communion with the rest of mankind. But they lived alone in solitary, wherever they happened to meet with them and each greatly preferred an association with himself to that with any other person.”[45]

If you find yourself in this position, please take heart and know you are not alone. You are not the only one to recognize the traces of the ancient flame. Hold it fast in your heart, feed it, and let its light guide you till fortune’s wheel turns and the sun once more shines upon our age.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.8.1

[2] Porphyry (citing Aristotle), Life of Pythagoras, § 41. Trans. Gutherie.

[3] See Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, § 21 and Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, § 7.

[4] Iamblichus, Life, § 2 trans. Taylor.

[5] Iamblichus, Life, § 2.

[6] Porphyry, Life, § 7.

[7] Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras, § 2. Trans. Gutherie.

[8] Porphyry, Life, § 7-8.

[9] Porphyry, Life, § 6.

[10] Diogenes, Life, § 12.

[11] Porphyry, Life, § 16.

[12] Diogenes, Life, § 3.

[13] Iamblichus, Life, § 5.

[14] Porphyry, Life, § 21.

[15] Porphyry, Life, § 18.

[16] Porphyry, Life, § 19.

[17] Porphyry, Life, § 20.

[18] Porphyry, Life, § 21.

[19] Iamblichus, Life, § 34.

[20] Porphyry, Life, § 26.

[21] Iliad, 17.51-66, loc. cit. Porphyry, Life, § 26

[22] Diogenes Laertius, Life, § 4.

[23] Porphyry, Life, § 23.

[24] Porphyry, Life, § 24.

[25] Porphyry, Life, § 25.

[26] Iamblichus, Life, § 28.

[27] Porphyry, Life, § 27. It is interesting to note that this legend may also be drawing a contrast to the demigod Achilles, who in the Iliad, was opposed by the river Scamander (XXI).

[28] Iamblichus, Life, § 28.

[29] Porphyry, Life, § 27.

[30] Iamblichus, Life, § 28.

[31] Porphyry, Life, § 28.

[32] Diogenes, Life, § 9.

[33] Iamblichus, Life, § 19.

[34] The material on Shamanism that follows comes from my previous essay on Shamanism.

[35] See my essay on Alchemy.

[36] Porphyry, Life, § 54.

[37] Porphyry, Life, § 55.

[38] Porphyry, Life, § 55.

[39] Porphyry, Life, § 56.

[40] Porphyry, Life, § 56.

[41] Porphyry, Life, § 57.

[42] Diogenes, Life, § 21.

[43] Iamblichus, Life, § 35.

[44] Iamblichus, Life, § 35.

[45] Iamblichus, Life, § 35. The image of the thumbnail of this post is a statue of Pythagoras at Chartres Cathedral. It is in the public domain and can be found here:

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