Read transcript of Ep 3: Pythagoreans

Writing in Greek on gold leaf

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Chatter, doors, steps]

Ian McDonald:

We’re entering the “Greek and Roman Life” room, full of the objects people actually used – a frying pan, a child’s doll, a musician’s lyre.

This is the British Museum.

We’re here with Hugh Bowden, head of the classics department at King’s College London. He researches religious activity that lies beneath the everyday Greek life that surrounds us in this room.

Prof. Hugh Bowden:

Mystery cults are cults which involve initiation. This gives them a feeling that they belong to a group who have a secret not known to others.

Ian:

Vegetarianism was known to the people who made and used the stuff in this room. As we’ll discover, there’s a particular reason for thinking one of them might have been vegetarian herself. But to find how vegetarianism gets into western philosophy, we’ve got to uncover the hidden side of ancient Greece. Dr Michael Beer.

Dr. Michael Beer:

Whenever vegetarianism is talked about it’s always unusual, secretive, very often involved in these religious rituals.

Ian:

For centuries, Europeans who don’t eat other animals are going to be called Pythagoreans – after the guy from your geometry lessons. But to the Greeks, he was a mathematical musical mystic.

This episode, we’ll discover the secretive vegetarians of ancient Greece, and how Pythagoras went from guru to fugitive to legend.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

Vegetarianism: the Story so Far. With me, Ian McDonald. Episode 3: Pythagoreans.

[Theme ends]

Ian:

Pythagoras lives in the 6th Century BCE. The Greeks have spread cities around the Mediterranean, developed writing, currency, and enormous religious diversity.

[echoey chatter in background]

Bowden:

The ancient Greeks had many gods. Every city had its own religious system. You would visit temples, attend sacrifices, festivals, of a whole series of gods. Religious activity would consist of dedications, prayers, some that took place inside the home, some that took place outside, some that were organised centrally.

Ian [as narrator]:

As today, if you don’t eat meat you have to negotiate a culture that mostly does; in ancient Greece as in India, that includes animal sacrifice.

Bowden:

In fact, there’s no separate vocabulary for secular butchery as opposed to the butchery involved in sacrifice. There is no separation from the idea of meat-eating and accepting the importance of the gods.

Ian [as narrator]:

As in the East, sacrifice expresses how animals are seen. To understand what vegetarians faced, I spoke to a specialist in ancient Greek food.

Prof. John Wilkins:

I’m John Wilkins, I’m professor of Greek culture in the University of Exeter.

Human beings have difficult relationships with the gods. And the gods control the natural world. So if human beings continue to eat and drink – as needy creatures they have to do that – they must have the gods on their side.

Ian [as narrator]:

Professor Wilkins told me how the 8th century poet Hesiod lays out the ancient Greek’s origin story – Prometheus stealing fire, the Gods inflicting Pandora’s box – framing the relationship between God, man and beast.

Wilkins:

So the animal is part of what the god demands for human survival. By killing an animal and dividing it up in a special way that the Greeks did, the Greeks identified themselves as human beings, below the level of gods and above the level of animals. So they were placing themselves in the cosmos within an agricultural world.

[echoey chatter in background]

Ian [at museum, to Bowden]:

We’re by a case of objects relating to sacrifice. What does this tell us about how Greeks regarded animals?

Bowden:

All of the animals that we can see in this display case are domestic animals. Typical sacrificial animals were ones that had lived a useful life, a productive life.

Ian [as narrator]:

This ritualising of the killing of animals who share our lives might just remind you of anthropologist James Serpell right from the start of our series.

James Serpell:

They’ve looked after these animals from birth and yet at the end of the day they’re going to betray that trust. They’re going to kill those animals.

Ian [as narrator]:

Interestingly, John Wilkins also told me that other classicists point to details of the rituals like this…

Wilkins:

At some festivals, a desire to reconstruct the animal that had been killed.

Ian [as narrator]:

That might betray a guilty conscience.

Wilkins:

Getting the animal’s cooperation to its own death.

Ian [as narrator]:

Grain or water was sprinkled onto the victim’s head. The response could be a test of vitality, but many think it’s a trick to provoke a nod to be taken as agreement.

[echoey chatter in background]

Bowden:

These do exist without reference to animals. You do have non-blood sacrifices. We can see here there’s a wine jar, and on it there is a man described as a warrior pouring something out of a jug. This is likely to be a libation, an offering of wine to the gods without reference to actual animal sacrifice.

Ian [to Bowden]:

What would the social impact be of a Greek saying, no I’m not going to be part of killing an animal?

Bowden:

Most Greek festivals involved public sacrifice and eating meat. It would probably be quite possible for a private individual to avoid this. He would therefore be choosing to exclude himself from political life, from public life. In order to run a city, you need to maintain good relations with the gods, so a city where no one sacrificed, would be a very strange, very improbable place.

Ian:

A dangerous place.

Bowden:

A place that put its own citizens in great danger.

Ian:

But where did Pythagoras come from?

Bowden:

Pythagoras is said to have come from the island of Samos in the eastern Aegean. Samos was a very important crossing point between the Greek world and the Persian empire. At the time when Pythagoras was born, Samos was probably under the control of the Persian empire. So he came very much from a place where Greek ideas and near-eastern ideas came together.

Ian [as narrator]:

Michael Beer from John Wilkins’ department at Exeter has written on vegetarianism in the ancient world. He told me that Pythagoras himself was very much a mystery.

Dr. Michael Beer:

His biographies tend to be written a long time afterwards, and they very often disagree about certain key facts.

One of the later biographies actually starts off by saying that there are a number of different people called Pythagoras. And we’re not entirely sure which one is which.

The material about his travels around the Mediterranean, visiting places like Crete and Egypt to acquire wisdom, is something that’s shared with numerous other historical figures and law givers. So it seems to be a trope of ancient wise men, is that they visit communities that are learned.

Ian [to Beer]:

But we know that the Pythagoreans were real.

Beer:

Yes.

Ian [as narrator]:

The sources do agree that this mystical figure became the guru of, basically, a cult at a Greek city called Croton on the southern tip of Italy.

Beer:

We know that they were a community that set themselves both ideologically and physically apart from other states. We know that they were regarded with a certain amount of, if not hostility then with a certain amount of suspicion because of some of the more esoteric doctrines including the vegetarianism taboo on beans.

Ian [as narrator]:

For example, Xenophanes, a contemporary philosopher, mocks Pythagoras’ belief in reincarnation.

Xenophanes [actor reading]:

And they say that once as he was passing by a puppy being beaten, he felt compassion and said, “Stop! Don’t beat it! For it is the soul of a friend – whom I recognised when I heard it cry out.”

Beer:

So the fact that Pythagoras believed – we are told that the Pythagoreans believed – that human beings could be reincarnated in any number of different other living beings, and so it was believed that if you ate a cow, or a sheep, you could inadvertently be eating something that contained the soul of a human being. Therefore, by proxy you could almost be committing an act of cannibalism.
Therefore, to protect these souls, and to protect yourself from doing this, then you shouldn’t be eating meat.

Interestingly enough, the same reason is given for the bean taboo. The idea that beans could contain human souls is slightly more unusual.

Ian [as narrator]:

People will speculate for centuries on a link between Pythagoras and similar doctrines in contemporary India. The Persian empire stands between the worlds of Greece and India, trading with both – and Pythagoras was on its western fringe.

Beer:

We could be talking about people having come back from India and those lands, and bringing back their own practices that replicate some of the practices that they found in India.

Ian [as narrator]:

The later accounts of Pythagoras’ own diet are contradictory – not the first time we’ve encountered that this series. But we can be more confident that his core followers are vegetarian. The focus of the cult, though, is mathematics and music.

[soft music like from a harp]

This, by the way, is a real ancient Greek melody, here performed by Michael Levy. It’s not Pythagorean, but will they have their own musical genre, just a flavour of what was at the heart of the cult.

Oxford University’s Prof Armand D’Angour researches ancient music.

Prof. Armand D’Angour:

He was fascinated by numbers, as a kind of religious expression.

Ian [to D’Angour]:

What was the connection between mathematics and music?

D’Angour:

A very intimate connection, and one that probably goes back to Pythagoras himself, who was supposed to have discovered the basis of musical intervals.

Ian [as narrator]:

That basis of musical intervals, is the discovery that you make musical harmony when you multiply or divide the length of your pipe or string by whole numbers. Taking our theme by Robb Masters an example…

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

To get this initial descent you need to add a third to the length of your string or trumpet. And to go up an octave…

[Theme music increase in pitch]

Ian:

You halve it.

D’Angour:

They realised that their music could be described mathematically. And Pythagoras thought this is so basic to the way that nature works, that it must extend to the whole universe.

Ian:

This is how Aristotle puts it a century or two later…

Aristotle [actor reading from his “Metaphysics”]:

And since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe, they assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole universe to be harmony and number.

Ian:

This understanding of the link between the length of the thing that vibrates and the note is not just important to the ancient Greeks; it underlies the maths of sound, and the technology that lets me encode this radio show and give it to you online.

So we know more about the Pythagoreans than Pythagoras. Like Mahavir and Siddharta Gautama, we see him through his later followers. And his cult too is divided between monastics and laypeople.

[to Beer] They were based in what we’d now call an ashram, on the city of Croton…

Beer:

Yes, yes, that’s right.

Ian:

Which was a thriving community on the southern tip of Italy. So how integrated were they or not into that? How apart were they really?

Beer:

The texts differ in what they say, though we are told that there were different levels of involvement as a Pythagorean.

So you could be a what was called a “Mathematikoi” which was a sort of a high level which seems to mean that you were more deeply involved in the more esoteric side of Pythagoreanism. And then there were the “Acousmatikoi”, the listeners. And they seem to have been people that were not as stringent in the observations.

It’s quite possible that means that they were not fully vegetarian. It might possibly mean that they were more involved in the community.

Ian [as narrator]:

The most reliable accounts say his cult became influential in Croton until a rival noble – supposedly a rejected Pythagorean – began a violent conspiracy. Pythagoras fled along the coast, ending his days in exile.

The Pythagoreans continued until the middle of the 5th Century. Greek historian Polybius charts their end.

Polybius [actor reading]:

When, in the part of Italy then called Greater Greece, the meeting-houses of the Pythagoreans were burnt down, there ensued – as is natural when the leading citizens of a city perish – a large revolutionary movement. In all those Greek towns murder, sedition, and every kind of disturbance were rife.

[echoey chatter in background]

Bowden:

And what this is taken to mean is that you had significant Pythagorean membership of the elite. So we’re talking a generation or two after Pythagoras himself, and that they were targets of political revolution and uprising of anti-Pythagoreans, perhaps. And from then on we hear much less about Pythagoreans.

Ian [as narrator]:

A lot of the ideas in that musical mathematical vegetarian cult were associated with older mysteries of a mythological hero.

[echoey chatter in background]

Bowden:

We have here a reconstruction of a greek lyre. And the lyre was one of the basic stringed instruments known in the Greek world. The most famous mortal with whom it’s associated would be Orpheus.

Ian [as narrator]:

Orheus’s lyre-playing was said to charm humans and animals, even gods and stones. He’s the one who was said to go to the underworld, to coax its guardians into returning his wife, only to lose her again when he couldn’t stop himself from looking at her before they crossed into the land of the living.

Bowden:

There do seem to be similarities between ideas associated with Orpheus and ideas associated with Pythagoras. So it’s quite possible that Pythagoras would himself have identified Orpheus as someone whose views he was following.

Ian [as narrator]:

The cult of Orpheus isn’t an organised movement like the Pythagoreans. Classicists argue how much it’s a religion versus simply things that tend to go together. Those things being hymns, initiation, the secrets Orpheus took back from the underworld, and vegetarianism. Armand d’Angour.

D’Angour:

Basically we get the idea that they were vegetarian from the later sources which conflate Orphism and Pythagoreanism. It has them both as abstaining from meat and therefore being anti-social.

Ian [as narrator]:

Philosophers, historians, and playwrights mention this. In one dramatic example from the late 5th Century, a Euripedes tragedy has Theseus rant against the illegitimate son he wrongly blames for driving his wife to suicide.

Theseus [in the tragedy Hippolytus, by Euripedes – actor reading]:

Are you the companion of the gods? The chaste and sinless saint? Keep boasting!

Sing the praises of a diet of inanimate plants! Revel with Orpheus! Soak up the vapours of those mystical texts!

But you have been caught.

[echoey chatter in background]

Bowden:

Euripedes is pointing to two features of what Theseus dislikes. One is vegetarianism, the other is an obsession with books.

Ian [as narrator]:

One of the supposed secrets in those books is engraved in an object in this room. Some classicists suspects an actual member of the cult of Orpheus took it to her grave as a passport to eternity.

Bowden:

What we have here is a piece of gold leaf that’s about the size of a large postage stamp, about half the size of a credit card maybe. And on it is in tiny writing, some lines of poetry. And what they are, are instructions to the dead soul of what to do when they reach the house of Hades.

So because it’s gold, it’s imperishable, and the idea is that the dead soul will be able to read it.

Ian [as narrator]:

She’ll then have a guide to the afterlife, telling her which is the spring of oblivion, and which of memory.

Bowden:

And ask the guards to drink from it. And you’re supposed to say, “I am a child of…

[music starts]

Female Greek [actor]:

”I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven: but my race is heavenly.

“I dry up and perish from thirst, but give me quickly the cold water flowing forth from the lake of memory.”

Bowden:

And they will let you drink, and then you can go on your way and rule with the other heros.

Ian [to Bowden]:

Becuase if you forget who you are, that’s your identity gone. If you remember who you are, you keep your identity, you keep yourself.

Bowden:

Absolutely.

Ian [as narrator]:

Gold leaves like this have been discovered in graves around the Greek world. This one has had a tangled history, being re-used in Roman amulet. But its original owner might have lived through the fall of the Pythagoreans.

Bowden:

But the original burial is probably some time not long after 400 BC.

The majority scholarly view would be that the people who are buried with these gold tablets had undergone some kind of initiation process. And that therefore they might also have been given guidance about how to live their lives, about how to purify themselves. And this might well have involved abstention from meat.

It’s always possible, of course, that these are simply golden tickets acquired as souvenirs at fairs rather than evidence of religious activity.

But yes, it’s certainly possible that the people who originally preserved the texts would have been encouraging women and men to follow practices which included avoidance of meat.

Ian [as narrator]:

So there’s vegetarianism going on to generate this reputation, but we can’t say anything with confidence about the owner of the gold leaf.

Bowden:

What we have in 5th Century Athens and 4th Century Athens are individuals who set themselves up as religious specialists, who own books and offer purifications, other rituals, to help individuals. We get a very negative picture of these people from Plato.

Plato [actor reading]:

There are begging monks and soothsayers who go to the doors of the rich. They persuade them that they hold a power, entrusted to them from the gods by means of sacrifices and incantations, that can atone for their or their ancestors’ sins with pleasing festivals.

Bowden:

So you have these self-styled, possibly well-recognised experts who offer various kinds of special treatment, various rituals, various possible sacrifices. And one of the things that seem to be associated with them is the idea of not eating meat. So as a way of achieving some kind of purity.

Ian [to Bowden]:

What were the mystery initiations like?

Bowden:

We’re very carefully not told by anyone, because this is one of the things that was supposed to be kept secret. But we do have accounts by Plutach amongst others explicitly comparing other experiences, and therefore getting around the ban I’m talking about.

Plutach [actor reading]:

In the beginning there is wandering and wearisome roaming, and fearful journeys through darkness without end.

Bowden:

In at least some cases fasting was an important role. These things happened at night, after people had been up all day.

Plutach:

Then all the terrors before initiation: shuddering, trembling, sweating, amazement.

Bowden:

So, a whole series of activities that was expected to increase disorientation, followed by brightness and calm.

Plutach:

But after this emerges a marvellous light.

Bowden:

And a feeling of having arrived, a feeling of having escaped from misery and confusion.

Ian [as narrator]:

What do the hymns in those books sound like? To give us an idea Armand D’Angour sang a hymn to Apollo, the god who got Orpheus his lyre.

D’Angour:

So if one has the words, for example, “how shall I sing of you, who is so worthy of being sung”, in Greek we have [sings in Greek].

And that’s possibly the kind of sound you would have expected from an ancient singer singing an Orpheic hymn, fairly slow, rhythmical, hexameters, with a certain melody attached to it. One shouldn’t forget the rhythm is very much part and parcel of music.

[echoey chatter in background]

Ian [to Bowden]:

Do we know why vegetarianism had a place in the Orphics?

Bowden:

Orphic texts include a lot of explorations of ideas that we find in other texts. Like for example Hesiod. And we have this idea of a perfect age, a golden age, before suffering came into the world.

Ian [as narrator]:

Plato invokes Orphism to describe the peaceful diet of the golden age.

Plato [actor reading]:

For in those days men are said to have lived what is called an “Orphic life”, subsisting entirely on things inanimate, but on the other hand, abstaining wholly from animate beings.

Ian:

That phrase is how ancient Greeks say “vegetarian”. Abstaining from beings who are “empsychos” – living, ensouled, animate.

[echoey chatter in background]

Bowden:

In that perfect world the barrier between humans and gods wouldn’t exist. So there was no function for sacrifice. There was no idea of killing, of shedding of blood. So this is a world that’s seen as innocent but pure. But also I think it’s worth stressing, not civilised. Civilisation is built on agriculture, on using animals.

Ian [as narrator]:

If you’re culture is Christian or Jewish, you might find the idea of a golden age when humans walked with Gods and lived at peace with animals very familiar. Genesis describes how after creating Adam:

Genesis [2:13, read by actor]:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and look after it.

[echoey chatter in background]

Bowden:

The garden of Eden has very similar ideas. By the time Genesis reached the form we have it, there would have been contact with the Greek world and the rest of the near-East. So they are part of a shared understanding of the world.

Ian [as narrator]:

In the 5th and 4th Century BCE, Greek philosophy turns towards ethics. You know the main names – Socrates, his student Plato, his student Aristotle. You’ve already heard them discuss vegetarians. In fact, Aristotle wrote a whole book about the Pythagoreans. And he takes for his example of an absolute moral law, a vegetarian philosopher linked with Pythagoreans and Orphics.

Aristotle [actor reading]:

And as Empedocles says in regard to not killing things animate, “for this is not right for some and wrong for others, but a universal law, which extends without a break through the wide-ruling sky and the boundless earth”.

Ian:

As well as those movements, there seem to be occasional independently vegetarian philosophers.

Two of Aristotle’s pupils – Dichaerchus and Theophrastus – were said to have abstained from animate beings in deference to that bloodless golden age and basic justice. But Aristotle’s most famous pupil was the conqueror Alexander the Great, who smashed through the Persian empire as far as the Indus River, bringing back tales of India’s naked vegetarian philosophers.

From the end of the 4th Century, Epicurus and his school – quite contrary to how their name is used later – advocates a modesty of desires as a path to happiness, and for many Epicurians that meant vegetarianism. But it wasn’t a specific doctrine. But what of Pythagoras?

Bowden:

The legend lives on. Stories about Pythagoras, like stories about Orpheus continue to circulate in the following centuries.

Beer:

He eventually have ends up having mystical powers, so he talks to animals. He’s clearly somebody that’s taken on a sort of, almost a, supernatural persona.

Bowden:

He becomes available as one of these sources of all knowledge.

Beer:

The myth becomes certainly more important than the person. Pythagoras becomes a sort of a shorthand for a number of traits which could involve vegetarianism, but almost certainly would have involved mysticism, esoteric doctrines that are heavily intellectual, something that stands outside the community.

Ovid [in “Metamorphoses”, actor reading]:

There was a man here, Pythagoras, Samian born.

Ian:

Rome has become an empire. It’s what we now call the year 8 Common Era, or AD if you’re old school. And Pythagoras stars in the literary hit.

Wilkins:

Ovid was a very playful poet at the time of Augustus. And was incredibly clever and inventive. But his most important work is “Metamorphoses”.

Ovid [of Pythagoras]:

His enlightened imagination looked on all the secrets nature hid from mortal sight.

He was the first to say to spare animals from the table;

wise but not believed, the first to say,

“Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be the tomb of flesh;

for one greedy body to fatten on another;

for one living creature to live by the death of another!”

Wilkins:

And in Book 15 of these Metamorphoses there’s a long speech by Pythagoras in a most sympathetic way, speaking about an ideal society where there is no warfare and no slaughter of animals.

Pythagoras [in Metamorphoses by Ovid]:

There was a time we call the Golden Age,

happy with fruits and herbs,

when none tainted their lips with blood.

Birds flew safely through air,

and in the fields the rabbits wandered unafraid,

and no little fish was hooked by its credulity.

Ian:

He’s become a much more recognisable ethical vegetarian. It’s not just the cannibalism taboo, it’s now a plea for compassion that could come from a megaphone at a modern animal rights protest.

Pythagoras:

When you next place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths,

know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow labourer.

Ian:

And that’s the Pythagoras who was passed down the ages, inspiring philosophers in the era of Rome.

Pythagoras:

Let your mouth be free of their blood;

and enjoy food ripe and gentle.

Ian:

By now, the Greek and Indian worlds overlap.

Alexander the Great left kingdoms behind, and in a city he founded that will later be called Kandahar, there is an Indian royal edict, inscribed in Aramaic and Greek.

Ashoka Maurya [writing in his Kandahar edict – actor reading]:

And after that he caused folk to take more and more to piety.

And everything prospers over the whole earth.

And the king abstains from animate beings, as do the other men.

Ian:

The columns and edicts of this king who abstains from animate beings remain across India. A fragment is on display on the other side of the British Museum. In the 3rd Century BCE, this king rules from the place our story began – Magadha. And in the next episode, we return there to discover Ashoka Maurya.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

With the music of Robb Masters, Michael Levy, and Steffan Hagel; production assistance from Elisabeth Alexandra Fisher; and the acting of Jeremy Hancock with Sandeep Garcha, Orna Klement and Vinay Varma. I’m Ian McDonald. Full credits and more information at VegHist.org. And please share this.

END OF EPISODE 3

This transcript was posted November 19 2017, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter. Featured image of the Petelia totenpass discussed in the show by Elisabeth Alexandra Fisher.

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About Ian McD

I’m a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I’m producing The Vegan Option.

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