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In Raphael's fresco The School of Athens, Pythagoras is shown writing in a book as a young man

SCIENCE & TECH: Brotherhood of Pythagoras: Beyond Math, Insights into Ancient Wisdom

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Anyone who so much as glanced at a math book in high school will know the name, Pythagoras. Most will be familiar with the fact that he was a renowned mathematician from ancient Greece, and many will know he’s most famous for his Pythagorean Theorem. But many people don’t realize that Pythagoras was also a philosopher and a cult leader. Not a Charles Manson-style cult, a cult based on the idea that math was sacred and the key to understanding the universe. The Brotherhood of Pythagoras was a peaceful cult defined by a belief in reincarnation and harmony. A lot of the great mathematician’s teachings made a lot of sense, although some were pretty out there. 

The Man Behind The Cult 

When talking about the life of Pythagoras, one has to take the ancient sources with a pinch of salt, as many of them tend to blend fact with fantasy. It’s believed that the great mathematician was born around 570 BC to rich parents. His father, Mnesarchus, was a gem engraver, while his mother, Pythias, came from a rich Geomori family. 

According to Lamblichus, a Syrian philosopher, Pythagoras was destined for greatness. He claimed that Pythias and Mnesarchus traveled to Delphi to see the oracle after discovering the pregnancy. They were told their son would become a wise man who would go on to benefit all of humanity. So, no pressure there. 

 

In Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens, Pythagoras is shown writing in a book as a young man presents him with a tablet showing a diagrammatic representation of a lyre above a drawing of the sacred tetractys. (Public Domain) 

It’s said that the young Pythagoras was trained by a range of legendary pre-Socratic philosophers, including Pherecydes of Syros, Anaximander, and two of the seven sages, Bias of Priene and Thales of Miletus. Less reliable sources say that the legendary Orpheus trained Pythagoras himself. 

Ancient sources claim the young Pythagoras traveled extensively, however, there’s a fair bit of debate as to where he went. Some accounts have him traveling to study in Babylonia and Phoenicia but not everyone agrees. It does seem likely, though, that he traveled to Egypt where he studied with the priests of Thebes. While there he learned the basics of geometry, mathematics, and metempsychosis (reincarnation). 

Founding His Cult 

After completing his travels, Pythagoras returned to Samos, where he established his own school, The Semicircle of Pythagoras (although some sources claim this was in Kroton). While this was ostensibly a school of mathematics, it’s likely that the core philosophical principles of Pythagoreanism developed therein between lessons as Pythagoras debated with some of Greece’s greatest minds. 

It’s also there that Pythagoras developed a taste for leadership. When he was around 60 years old, Pythagoras left Samos, which had been seized by the tyrant Polycrates, and moved to Kroton in southern Italy. Pythagoras had tired of teaching and set up a commune. 

The first Pythagorean commune quickly attracted over 1,000 followers. For around 20 years, the commune lived peacefully alongside its neighbors in Kroton, but it would not last. 

In 510 BC, Kroton, with the help of the wise Pythagoreans, defeated the city of Sybaris in battle. This victory led the locals to decide they wanted to establish a democratic constitution, something Pythagoras disagreed with (he believed the masses were too ill-informed to lead themselves and democracy would lead to mob rule). The people of Kroton took this poorly, and the pro-democrats attempted to assassinate Pythagoras and some of his followers shortly afterward. 

Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise. (1869) By Fyodor Bronnikov 

Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise. (1869) By Fyodor Bronnikov. (Public Domain) 

The Death of Pythagoras 

They did so by setting fire to the home of a prominent Pythagorean, Milo the Olympic athlete, while Pythagoras and some of his followers were inside. What happened next is a matter of speculation. 

Some sources state Pythagoras was in Milo’s home but managed to escape, losing many of his followers in the fire. Following this, he’s said to have taken the rest of his cult members and fled to Metapontum, where they lasted for 40 days before dehydration and starvation killed them. Not a happy ending. 

Another version of the story tells how Pythagoras escaped the fire by walking over the bodies of his followers, who laid themselves down to save their leader. Pythagoras was then so overwhelmed by grief and guilt that he immediately committed suicide. Making their sacrifice somewhat pointless. 

The least likely story, reported by Diogenes, states that Pythagoras almost escaped, but his path was blocked by a fava bean field. Pythagoreans believed beans were holy, so he refused to run through them. The locals then caught up with the cult leader and executed him. This version of the story is believed to have been an attempt to make Pythagoras and his teachings look bad.  

Whatever the truth, Pythagoras seems to have been killed by the very kind of mob rule he had feared when opposing democracy. 

French manuscript from 1512/1514, showing Pythagoras turning his face away from fava beans in revulsion.  

French manuscript from 1512/1514, showing Pythagoras turning his face away from fava beans in revulsion. (Public Domain) 

Worshiping Pythagoras 

The death of their leader didn’t stop the Pythagoreans. Instead, as is so often the case, he became a martyr. The man became a prophet whom they worshiped, and they began spreading the word of his great accomplishments. Today, some historians doubt whether Pythagoras actually made any important discoveries or if his followers simply attributed other people’s accomplishments to their fallen leader. 

In their worship of him, Pythagoras was portrayed as a divine prophet with supernatural powers. For example, they believed he could see the future, once spoke to a river, and even had a golden thigh. Some Pythagoreans also claimed he had once traveled to the underworld and returned unscathed. 

Reincarnation was a central belief of Pythagoreanism, and his followers claimed their leader could remember all his past lives. Supposedly, he had been Aethalides, son of Hermes, Euphorbus, who died during the Trojan War, Hermontimus, and Pyrrhus- a humble fisherman. These claims painted Pythagoras as not just a wise man, but a divine being who wielded the knowledge of the ancients. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Pythagoras ever claimed to be any of these things.  

Pythagorean Philosophy – Mystic Numbers 

Outside of their worship of Pythagoras himself, Pythagoreans also worshiped numbers. In Pythagorean philosophy, the universe is made up of numbers, and as such, everything can be counted. Through mathematics, all the secrets of the universe could be uncovered. 

It sounds like a nice idea, but the philosophy had some quirks. This was early mathematics, and Pythagoras only believed in natural numbers (positive) and had no idea zero existed as it hadn’t made its way across from India yet. In the world of Pythagorean numerology, negative numbers were considered blasphemy. One story even tells how Pythagoras murdered one of his followers, Hippias, after he discovered irrational numbers. It’s probably not true, but it highlights the zealotry all the same. 

Different numbers had certain divine meanings. For example, one symbolized divine intellect and unity, while two represented thought and earthly matter. Three was particularly important. A divine number, three was attached to the god Apollo, and it was believed to be the sum of reality- the beginning, middle, and end all add up to three. The number three also represented the perfect person- prudence, drive, and luck. 

Most important of all was the number ten, which was deemed perfect. Pythagoreans only ever met in groups of ten and worshiped the tetrad, a triangular shape whose rows added up to ten.  

Harmony- Even and Odd 

The idea of harmony was another important pillar of Pythagorean beliefs, and once again, it was represented by numbers. Pythagoras taught that harmony was achieved through the balance of opposites, represented by even and odd numbers. All dualities in the universe were presented by the numbers- men and women, right and left, light and dark, up and down, etc. The only exception was one, deemed both an even and an odd number. 

Music and Cosmology 

Pythagoreans claimed that Pythagoras was the one to discover that music could be translated into intervals and octaves using math. Pythagoras and his disciples experimented almost endlessly with early musical instruments, trying to find the most harmonious music intervals. 

It fascinated Pythagoras and his followers that something that could be measured with math could also cause such strong psychological and aesthetic feelings in humans. It was this that drove him to create Pythagorean tuning, the measurement of music in intervals, ratios, and octaves.  

Later Pythagoreans took these teachings and expanded on them. They believed in universal music, which was the idea that the stars themselves produced a harmonic sound and moved in proportion to one another. The Pythagorean Philolaus was the precursor to Copernicus in that he believed the planets moved around a central flame, rather than Earth being the center of the universe. While he was ahead of his time, there is no evidence that the Pythagoreans thought the earth was round, and they did not believe it rotated. 

Woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells 

Woodcut showing Pythagoras with bells, a kind of glass harmonica, a monochord and (organ?) pipes in Pythagorean tuning. From Theorica musicae by Franchino Gaffurio, 1492 (1480?) (Bibliothèque nationale de France/Public Domain) 

Metempsychosis and Reincarnation 

The Pythagoreans believed in a unique form of reincarnation that was devoid of most of the moral teachings usually attributed to reincarnation in other religions. In Pythagorean reincarnation, our actions in life have no impact on how we are reincarnated. A good, moral person could lead a “perfect” life and be reincarnated as a worm, while the worst kind of person could get lucky and come back as a king. 

Rather than gaming the system by living a good life, the emphasis was on escaping the cycle altogether. Those who devoted themselves to the Pythagorean lifestyle and followed its strict rules and rituals could cleanse their soul. This would release them from the cycle, and they could join the gods and their beloved Pythagoras in the afterlife.  

Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld (1662) painting by Salvator Rosa 

Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld (1662) painting by Salvator Rosa. (Public Domain) 

No Meat, No Beans 

The Pythagoreans abstained from eating any form of meat, fish, or beans. They were also incredibly forward-thinking when it came to animal welfare. Pythagoras believed any being capable of pain or suffering should not have pain inflicted on it unnecessarily. Since there’s always some degree of animal suffering from eating meat, meat was automatically off the menu. 

They also believed in a version of a healthy body and a healthy mind. Not eating meat wasn’t about abstinence; it was about building a healthy body and achieving Arete (the Greek term for excellence). Eating a healthy diet was a large part of a Pythagorean’s day-to-day life. 

They believed that killing an animal for anything other than self-defense diminished a person’s morality. Furthermore, as far as they were concerned, humans were basically the same as animals, just smarter. As far as they were concerned, every living thing is sentient and at least minimally rational.  

This argument was so convincing that many contemporary philosophers chose to become vegetarians, an impressive feat in a predominantly meat-eating culture. This isn’t to say all Pythagorean beliefs made sense when it came to food. 

‘Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism’ (1618–1630) by Peter Paul Rubens. 

‘Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism’(1618–1630) by Peter Paul Rubens. (Public Domain) 

Something else was off the menu for the disciples of Pythagoras- fava beans. Supposedly, Pythagoras either believed beans contained the souls of the dead or that the wind caused by eating beans took away “the breath of life.” It’s unclear whether he actually believed this or if it was another attempt by his rivals to make his cult look stupid. Maybe he just thought a communal lifestyle and beans would make for a rather odorous situation. 

Joining The Commune 

On paper joining the Brotherhood of Pythagoras looks a lot like joining a modern cult or hippy commune. Many Pythagoreans lived together in communes where they lived an ascetic lifestyle, bound by rules laid down by Pythagoras. While they claimed to have an egalitarian system where everyone was equal, there was always a leader above everyone else. 

Most troublingly, new initiates were expected to hand over all their earthly possessions when joining. These possessions were then shared amongst the commune. While this sounds like a con, it must be said that if someone left the commune or failed its initiation period their goods were returned, with interest.  

Each new member went through a five-year initiation. They had to take a vow of silence and were not allowed to meet Pythagoras or his successors until this period was over. While their commune is often referred to, it seems some members continued to live in their own homes. It was a true brotherhood and members looked out for each other, sharing whatever was needed between members during times of peace and trouble. 

True Equality 

Perhaps most impressively, while ancient Greek society was deeply patriarchal, the Pythagoreans were not. They were truly egalitarian and let women not just join the cult but study too. According to tradition Pythagoras’ mother, wife, and daughters were all prominent members and a vital part of his inner circle. 

Illustration from 1913 showing Pythagoras teaching a class of women. Many prominent members of his school were women. 

Illustration from 1913 showing Pythagoras teaching a class of women. Many prominent members of his school were women. (Public Domain) 

His wife, Theano of Crotone, was a major influence on early Pythagoreanism and a respected philosopher in her own right. She even took over the cult for a time after her husband’s death. Other female members of the cult were some of the earliest recorded female philosophers.  

Living The Pythagorean Lifestyle 

We weren’t joking when we said members of the cult lived by a strict set of rules. In the quest for maintaining a pure soul Pythagoreans had to follow their leader’s teachings, even if some of them didn’t make a whole lot of sense. 

These teachings and rules were a collection of oral sayings called symbola or acusmata. While many of these have been lost to time, those that have survived can be pretty strange. Members of the cult were forbidden to step over a yoke, stir a fire with a knife, or pick up food that had fallen off the table. Apparently, Pythagoras hadn’t heard of the five-second rule. Other rules included not wearing wool (maybe Pythagoras deemed it cruel) and members always wore their right sandals first.  

Other rules made a touch more sense. Followers took a lonely walk of introspection every morning before breakfast and were expected to exercise daily. Breakfast was always bread and honey. Members worked in the daytime followed by a group walk and a communal dinner of ten. After they were done eating, the Pythagoreans discussed their leader’s teachings and debated moral virtue before bed.  

The Divergence 

Not long after their leader’s death, the Pythagoreans began to fall out among themselves, and a split began to form. Soon they had split into two distinct groups, the Akousmatikoi (the listeners) and the mathēmatikoi (the learners). 

The Akousmatikoi were the more conservative of the two. They obsessed over the religious and ritualistic aspects of their beliefs. Dogmatic in nature, they shot down any attempt to move Pythagorean thought forward or reinterpret aspects of it. They also believed Pythagoras had perfected mathematics and ignored any breakthroughs. Essentially, they remained stuck in the past. 

The mathēmatikoi were the opposite. They still respected their founder’s philosophical teachings but wished to continue his mission. It was they who developed new theories on the cosmos, including the idea that the planets orbited around a central flame and that the galaxy was untied by a form of universal music. They were also open to other thinkers and began following the teachings of Hippasus, who had studied under Pythagoras. 

The more open-minded mathēmatikoi continued to recognize the akousmatikoi as fellow Pythagoreans, but it was a one-way street. The akousmatikoi saw the others as heretics and refused to acknowledge them. To the outside world, they were all weirdos, and outsiders considered all Pythagoreans as one group.  

Conclusion 

Despite this split, both groups lasted for over a century, spreading Pythagoras’ teachings to those willing to listen. Over time, however, the belief system fell into obscurity. The akousmatikoi seem to have been swallowed up by the Cynics, while the mathēmatikoi ended up joining the Platonic school of philosophy. 

However, that’s not the end of the story. In the 1st century BC, after being dormant for two hundred years, a new form of Pythagorean philosophy arose, Neopythagoreans. This new school of thought combined Pythagoreanism with the teachings of other great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Stoic philosophers. Their ascetic doctrines went on to heavily influence early Christian theologians.  

The Brotherhood of Pythagoras may have eventually disappeared completely, but the impact of his teachings can still be felt today. Their mark can be felt in Christianity, modern mathematics, numerology, and even musical theory. Many of the great minds of the scientific revolution were inspired by early-Pythagoreanism, blending philosophy with science.  

Top image: Pythagoras founded the Brotherhood of Pythagoras. Source: jambulart/Adobe Stock 

References 

Nel. A. 2023. What Was Pythagoreanism? The Cult of Pythagoras Explored. Available at: 

Hurt. A. 2022. The Origin Story of Pythagoras and His Cult Followers. Available at: 

Khan. F. 2019. Pythagoreanism: The story of Pythagoras and his “irrational” cult. Available at: 

Editor. 2021. What Happened To The Pythagorean Brotherhood? Available at: 





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