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The Death of Pythagoras

Bruce Pennington tells us how Pythagoras became a has-bean, while another Bruce Pennington drew the portraits…

Shamanistic shyster or intellectual innovator, creative charlatan or exalted pioneer of philosophy – however one views him, Pythagoras remains the most famous name at the starting gate of Western philosophy. For half a millennium he was a superstar. He is professed to be the founding father of mathematics, music, astronomy and philosophy; he is even alleged to have coined the words ‘mathematics’ and ‘philosophy’.

Pythagoras is found at the cusp dividing written history from the verbal record. It does not help our knowledge of him that he insisted that nothing of his teachings be written down, and that his followers be sworn to secrecy. His life and ideas are shrouded in myths, distortions, exaggerations and outright lies, and it is impossible to know which is which. Yet his intellectual reverberations have persisted for two-and-a-half millennium. Scholars have rallied behind their favorite reconstructions of the historical artifacts and fragmented writings, sometimes passionately.

Many scholars adhere to the belief that Plato usurped and then rearticulated the Pythagorean vision. For instance, in Plato’s Phaedo, just before drinking his hemlock, Socrates explores the possible destinies for the soul, which was one of Pythagoras’ main preoccupations, as we shall see. And in his Timaeus Plato explores and expands the conception of the cosmos as mathematics – the idea upon which much of Pythagoras’ fame still rests in modern times. The most famous tenet of Pythagorean thought is, ‘All is Number’.

Not everyone believes Plato a plagiarist. Another group see Plato and his contemporaries as reinventing a cultish and obscure Pythagoras into a legend, a semi-divine being out of whom all philosophical wisdom sprang. There also exist all shades of gray between these two extremes. As a result, in the centuries that follow the Golden Age of Greece, ‘Neo-Pythagorean’ and ‘Neo-Platonist’ often refer to the same intellectual schools, the name used depending upon one’s perspective.

As the centuries progress, we find medieval curricula divided into the Trivium (‘the three roads’) and the Quadrivium (‘the four roads’). The Quadrivium was based upon the Pythagorean view of the cosmos, and was the study of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.

Later still, the Copernican Revolution echoes the ancient Pythagorean view of the earth’s relationship to the sun. In fact Nicholas Copernicus never refers to his worldview as the ‘Copernican System’; he labels it the Astronomia Pythagorica. Soon afterwards, Johannes Kepler, also a self-conscious Pythagorean, makes his discoveries motivated by the assurance that the universe is constructed in a mathematical form. This idea, embraced and enhanced by Galileo, is from then on a consistent thread throughout the history of science. Science confirms again and again that the Universe has some kind of intimate affection for Number. This is precisely what Pythagoras taught so long ago.

Unfortunately the ideal of the awe-inspiring genius Pythagoras may well be, and probably is, fiction. Pythagoras’ life, too, is composed of romantic tales, and fragments of tales, frequently told and often enhanced. Ironically the one theorem for which most people know his name – the one about the sides of a right-angled triangle – is now believed to have been discovered by the Egyptians, not by Pythagoras. Adjoined to this idea is the story, everywhere told, of his disciples, the ‘Brotherhood’, celebrating this discovery with the slaughter and feasting of an ox: sometimes exaggerated to as many as twenty oxen! But this cannot be true either when one considers Pythagoras’ lifelong devotion to vegetarianism.

The depiction of his death is no exception to the fantasising. In fact, there are as many as ten versions in the ancient literature relating how, when, and where Pythagoras died. For what it’s worth, the story that follows is based on the historical fragments. The pieces, though, are arranged by me to explore new possibilities. This is my story of the death of Pythagoras.


© Bruce Pennington 2010

Although the death of Pythagoras hinges midway between myth and history, it hung on the weightiness of a mere bean. Whether lima, pinto, or fava was never recorded, but Pythagoras died for that bean. It was a bean which contained within it a new view of the cosmos which would infiltrate the crevices of people’s beliefs, insinuating itself into the world and persisting for more than a millennium.

There were many rules to follow if you were to be accepted into the Pythagorean Brotherhood. Fail in any of these and you were likely to be cast out from them with great ceremony. A mock funeral would be performed and you would no longer exist in the minds of the Brotherhood. One rule that could never be broken was the edict to refrain from eating beans. This stemmed partially from the Pythagorean precept that each person should strive for tranquillity and peace, savoring the harmony which mirrored the harmony of the heavens, the outer boundaries of the universe. But eat a plateful of beans and see what this brings you! The gurgling and squeezings of your intestines becomes anything but tranquil. Further, one Pythagorean goal was to purify the body and psyche so that one could return to the sun and rise even beyond the sun to the stars and the Milky Way, for which purification beans were counterproductive. But there was a deeper reason for omitting beans from the diet. It was believed that to eat a bean was akin to eating human flesh.

As a young man Pythagoras was influenced by three great teachers, the first a man not much older than he, whose name was Pherekydes of Syros. The two had similar outlooks on life, and both were mystically inclined. Having traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and into India, Pherekydes learned the doctrines of reincarnation and the immortality of the soul, and brought these new-found beliefs home to the Greek isles to teach those willing to listen.

Pherekydes was quite taken with Pythagoras’ energetic inquiries and quickness of mind. Entranced, he told Pythagoras that he recognized him as the reincarnation of Aithalides, son of the playful yet mischievous god Hermes. Aithalides was considered the first human to walk the earth – a Greek Adam. As a result of such high praise and esteem from his teacher, Pythagoras accepted every facet of reincarnation, even expanding on the concept, adding that there were 216 years between each reincarnation. 216 was a number of great power within the Pythagorean Brotherhood. It equals six cubed. Six represented the number of marriage, being the product of the first even or female number, and the first odd or male number. It was also believed that human gestation takes 63 days. Furthermore, like reincarnation, six is ‘circular’, because all powers of six end in six. And what do you think the cubes of a Pythagorean 3-4-5 right-angled triangle sum to?

Hermes so loved his son that he gave him the gift of recollection or anamnesis, whereby Aithalides would remember all the details of his prior lives as he passed from one body to another. With some thought, and perhaps a little imagination, Pythagoras was able to remember all his previous lives. He recalled that prior to being the first human he was a series of plants and animals. Following his life as Aithalides, Pythagoras was reborn as the great warrior Euphorbus of Homeric fame. As recorded in Homer’s Iliad, Book 17, Euphorbus was mortally wounded in battle by Melenlaus during the Trojan War.

Two hundred and sixteen years after Euphorbus died on the battlefield, Hermotimus was born. He wanted to prove to all that he possessed the gift of Hermes, and ventured upon a quest to the city of Branchidae. There he sought out the Temple of Apollo, where Melenlaus had hidden the shield of Euphorbus after dedicating it to the god. Hermotimus eventually found the decayed shield. The only part that remained was the ivory embossing.

Next, and immediately prior to Pythagoras’ life, was the life of the simple Delian fisherman Pyrrhus. He too was reported to have remembered everything. Finally it was time for Pythagoras to spend his time among men as Pythagoras. Thus Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, which rests in the Aegean Sea along the coast of what is now Turkey. The island was considered the birthplace of the beautiful yet temperamental and vengeful goddess Hera, who was both sister and wife to Zeus. Many stories are told about her, such as her wrath towards the innocent Hercules, due to Zeus’ infidelity with Hercules’ mother.

Pythagoras’ father was Mnesarchus, a Tyrrhen who earned his living as a merchant and shipowner. His livelihood took him throughout the islands of the Mediterranean, often with young Pythagoras aboard. Originally, Pythagoras’ mother was called Parthenis, the Virgin. Reminiscent of another story, the Delphic oracle informed Mnesarchus that his wife was about to give birth to a wonderful and important child. As it turns out, while Mnesarchus was off on one of his long voyages, Parthenis was secretly seduced by Apollo. Afterwards she was renamed Pythais, in honor of Apollo, who had destroyed the python guarding the oracle at Delphi, making the place his own.

Pythagoras had proof of his Heroic birth, and revealed this proof whenever it was to his advantage: upon his left thigh was a vast golden birthmark. Birthmarks were believed by the Greeks of the time to be a sign of divinity. Gold was associated with Apollo and thus the golden birthmark was accepted as proof of Pythagoras’ relationship to this radiant god.

Not surprisingly, Pythagoras formed a lasting attachment to his flattering mentor Pherekydes. Many years later, upon hearing that Pherekydes lay dying on the island of Delos (made famous by the gods’ request to double the size of their cubic temple), Pythagoras rushed to care for him. As Pythagoras knocked at his door, Pherekydes hesitantly pushed out a fleshless finger to warn Pythagoras of the seriousness of his disease. Pherekydes was dying of phthiriasis – he was being eaten alive by lice.


© Bruce Pennington 2010

Another early teacher who enormously influenced Pythagoras’ life and ideas was Thales, one of the Seven Sages of Antiquity. Thales was an old man when Pythagoras sought him out, and his advice was for Pythagoras to follow in his footsteps and travel to Egypt to learn all he could from the priests there. Young and impetuous, Pythagoras was quick to follow this advice. He looked like a freak as he departed for Egypt with long flowing hair and beard he never cut or shaped. He wore an oriental turban, and Persian trousers made of linen – neither ordinarily seen on the island of Samos, or elsewhere in Greece. In Egypt he was quick to learn to cover his feet in papyrus for shoes. No animal skins were ever used. He spent the next 22 years there, and was a witness to the Persian conquest of Egypt. Greek visitors to Egypt, including Pythagoras, were collected into slavery by the conquering army and transported into Babylon. There Pythagoras’ adventures and occult studies were allowed to continue, probably due to his charisma and talents. He was never mutilated to prevent his fleeing, as were so many slaves, for he had little inclination to depart, and instead assimilated himself into this strange culture and continued to grow. Six years later he was able to buy his freedom. For Pythagoras, it was finally time to journey home to the island of Samos.

Due to his ever-strengthening belief in the transmigration of souls, Pythagoras was obliged to become a vegetarian, to avoid the chance of accidentally eating a friend or relative. It’s reported that one day Pythagoras encountered a man beating his dog. As the dog whimpered and yelped in fear and in pain, Pythagoras recognized the noises as the voice of a recently departed friend. He physically intervened upon the man to release the dog, thus allowing his reincarnated friend to escape a life of misery.

Pythagoras the vegetarian did not only abstain from meat, he didn’t eat beans either. This was because he believed that humans and beans were spawned from the same source, and he conducted a scientific experiment to prove it. He buried a quantity of beans in mud, let them remain there for a few weeks, and then retrieved them. He noted their resemblance to human fetuses, thus convincing himself of the intimate relationship between beans and humans. To eat a bean would therefore be akin to eating human flesh. Equally, to crush, smash, or dirty a bean would be to harm a human. Thus the very strict rule to abstain from beans.

One bright day a vigorous Pythagoras came upon an ox which was feeding upon beans in a pasture in the region of Tarentum in the south of Italy. Pythagoras informed the startled herdsmen that this must be stopped. He strode across a muddy field and began to speak to the ox in a quiet voice, murmuring into its ear for a long time. Observing all this, the herdsmen broke into fits of laughter. Yet they reported later their startled observation that Pythagoras had convinced the ox to never again desire beans. The locals and visitors to the area thereafter considered the ox to be sacred. The ox, persisting with his new beanless diet, lived to a very old age, well past the lifetime of an ordinary ox.

It took a while for Pythagoras’ career to take hold, and he only found true success when he brought his ideas and his ardent followers to the east coast of Italy, taking residence in the welcoming Greek colony of Croton. There the Pythagorean Brotherhood was able to obtain a strong footing, and its influence soon became widespread. Before long, Pythagoras’ name became known throughout Greece and beyond.

Kylon was the son of a wealthy Crotonate nobleman. Born into nobility, he was used to getting anything he desired. When denied, he could become violent, tyrannical and demanding. Although Kylon had access to all levels of schooling, he proved to be something of a dullard. Nevertheless there came a time when he desired to become a part of the Brotherhood. Because he was a young man of privilege, he believed that he should be allowed to bypass the years of training, silence and deep contemplation which preceded entrance to the inner sanctum of the Brotherhood. Pythagoras bluntly turned him down: and not only was Kylon sent away, but Pythagoras refused a conference with him. Like Hera, Kylon grew angry and vengeful. He was soon giving mock discourses on Pythagorean ideas and beliefs – discourses that characterized the people of Croton as cattle being manipulated and controlled by the Pythagorean leaders. Kylon himself manipulated the emotions of his friends and townspeople, until, as a mob, they descended upon the cluster of houses in which the Brotherhood lived, studied and slept. The angry mob torched the buildings, forcing members of the Brotherhood to flee the terrifying flames. As the members exited the conflagration, many were stabbed to death. Those who escaped both fire and knife fled to the surrounding countryside. Pythagoras was one of the lucky ones: his followers formed a human bridge to help him to clamber out of one of the blazing buildings. But his escape did not go undetected. Soon several of Kylon’s angry friends were in pursuit, yet as he had a significant lead, it looked as if the aging Pythagoras would make it to safety.

Suddenly Pythagoras came to a stop. A vast bean field stretched before him. He stood frozen, uncertain what to do. His eyes focused on a single bean dangling inches from his papyrus- covered feet. So true was he to his ideals that, even at the risk of losing his own life, he was unwilling to trample upon even a single bean. Staring down upon that vibrant bean, the sun low in the sky, he imagined it to be blossoming into a divine ripeness before him. And as he stood there, hesitating, contemplating his next move, his pursuers caught up with him. They lifted their weapons, and bringing the knifes down hard, spilled Pythagoras’ blood on the plants – ending his life for the sake of a bean, and for the deep wisdom immersed in that diminutive cosmic object.

© Bruce Pennington 2010

Bruce Pennington, the author of this article, is a math teacher living in upstate New York. The portraits of Pythagoras are by another Bruce Pennington (unrelated!) who is a renowned sci-fi illustrator living in Britain.

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