In Ancient Greece, vegetarianism belongs to a secretive subculture – amongst the mystery religions of Orpheus and the musical mathematical cult of Pythagoras.

Episode 3: Pythagoreans

The Greek philosophers knew about vegetarians. But they were part of cults associated with the mythical figure of Orpheus, and the guru of harmony and number – Pythagoras. The people who introduced the concept of reincarnation into Greece.

In the British Museum, Ian talks to Hugh Bowden, the head of the classics department of King’s College London and mystery religion specialist. There, Prof Bowden examines what its artefacts of Greek life and death tell us about attitudes to animals. Including – some suspect – an Orphic pocket guide to Hades.

Play, download (43MB MP3) (via iTunes) or read transcript



The translations used in the show aren’t necessarily the ones linked to here; for example, I used “animate” as a consistent translation of “ἔμψυχος” (empsychos), to help communicate that they all used the same phrase to mean abstaining from flesh.

Recreating Ancient Greek Music

It was extremely tempting to go on a long tangent about efforts to record ancient Greek music. There are two extant compositions – the Delphic Hymn (which far from being Pythagorean relates to an animal sacrifice), and the haunting Epitaph of Seikilos.

Historians go to great length to try to recreate lost instruments.

Academics like Armand d’Angour endeavour to infer melodies based on the rhythm and accents. His current project to recreate ancient Greek music will bear fruit in the shape of a CD and radio broadcast later this year.

Meanwhile, dedicated amateurs like Michael Levy simulate a range of ancient music.


Music by Robb Masters, Michael Levy, and Stefan Hagel. The actors were Jeremy Hancock, Sandeep Garcha, Orna Klement and Vinay Varma as Ashoka Maurya. Additional sound engineering by Mathieu Gillon.

The track played under discussion of musical harmony is the “First Delphic Hymn to Apollo”, performed by Michael Levy on his album “The Ancient Greek Lyre”. The track played under the Orphic totenpass is “The Epitaph of Seikilos”, performed by Stefan Hagel.

Special thanks to the British Museum, and to Elizabeth Alexandra Fisher for assistance and photography.


Nerdy language coincidence of the month: the Pythagoreans’ adversary at Croton was called Cylon (although pronounced with a hard “c”). Someone should make a TV series about their years on the run from a Cylon attack. It could have lots of references to Greek deities and mysticism.

Naiden, F. S. 2007. “The Fallacy of the Willing Victim.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 127: 61–73.
Rives, James B. 2011. “The Theology of Animal Sacrifice in the Ancient Greek World.” In Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice, edited by Jennifer Wright Knust and Zsuzsanna Varhelyi, 187–98. Oxford University Press.
Beer, Michael. 2010. “Vegetarianism (Ch 2).” In Taste or Taboo: Dietary Choices in Antiquity, 74–113. Totnes: Prospect Books.
Bowden, Hugh. 2010. Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.
(Translator), Paula Wissing, and Jean-Pierre Vernant. 1998. The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks. University Of Chicago Press.
Berthiaume, G. 1997. Les Roles Du Mageiros: Etude Sur LA Boucherie, LA Cuisine Et Le Sacrifice Dans LA Grece Ancienne (Mnemosyne , Vol Suppl. 70). Brill Academic Pub.
Haussleiter, Johannes. 1935. Der Vegetarismus in der Antike. A. Töpelmann.

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About Ian

London. Formerly known as New Media. Vegan since 1992.

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