Pythagoras is one of the most intriguing and mysterious figures in ancient history. Although today known only by his mathematical legacy, he was much more than a philosopher or mathematician – he was also the founder of a very secretive spiritual cult with serious political influence, focusing on initiation of the worthy, purification, and salvation.
Born around 570BC, Pythagoras emigrated to Croton in Southern Italy, and there founded a movement that was a blend of politics and mysticism. “Without a doubt, Pythagoras aimed for a viewpoint of the divine, and the opinions he expressed were taken by his followers as sacred revelations” (To Think Like God, Arnold Hermann, 17).
Although it is difficult to separate the man from the myth, there are striking parallels between Jesus and Pythagoras; most likely due to the extensive influence Pythagoreanism seems to have had on the Greco-Roman world through other mystery cults, especially Orphism, and on Platonism. I’m not strictly concerned with comparing the actual, historical figures of Jesus and Pythagoras; I only wish to demonstrate that the myths which followers ascribed to them are similar and may have come from a common literature base.
For example, it is said that when Pythagoras arrived in Croton, he first appeared to the fishermen on the outskirts of the city and performed a certain miraculous sign; he told them exactly how many fish were in their nets, and he was right (they counted). News of the miracle spread into city and prepared the way for him (Hermann 43). In the gospels of Luke and John, Jesus later performs a similar miracle, although instead counting the fish, he causes the fisherman to catch a great quantity. In Luke, this happens at the beginning of his ministry (5:1-11); in John, it occurs after Jesus had resurrected. Interestingly, we are even given the precise number of fish caught: “Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net ashore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them” (John 21:1-14).
Although we are not given the exact number of fish in the Pythagorean story, the Pythagoreans regarded 153 as a sacred number due to its use in a mathematical ratio called “the measure of the fish,” which produces the mystical symbol of the Vesica Pisces – the intersection of two circles which yields a fish-like shape. The sign of the fish is still widely used today as a symbol of Christianity (Freke/Gandy, 39).
Pythagoreans believed (much like Orphics, and modern day Buddhists) in reincarnation, or a “wheel of rebirth”. Thus, they were vegetarians and also tried to cultivate purity. Although the soul was immortal, it had to be freed from the contaminating influences of the body. Only a ‘lover of wisdom’, leading the best of lives, could escape the prison of his body at the moment of death and break free of the cycle.
Tradition holds that Pythagoras gained his mystical knowledge because he’d spent 7 years in the underworld or land of the dead. Diogenes Laertius records the claim of Hieronymus, who said “that when he descended to the shades below, he saw the soul of Hesiod bound to a brazen pillar, and gnashing its teeth; and that of Homer suspended from a tree, and snakes around it, as a punishment for the things that they had said of the Gods” (Diogenes Laertius, XIX), and also mentions how Austophon says in his ‘Pythagorean’:
He said that when he did descend below
Among the shades in Hell, he there beheld
All men who e’er had died; and there he saw,
That the Pythagoreans differ’d much
From all the rest; for that with them alone
Did Pluto deign to eat, much honouring
Their pious habits. (XX)
Laertius further recounts a tale by Hermippus, about how when Pythagoras returned from the underworld, he was considered a God.
Pythagoras came up again after a certain time, lean, and reduced to a skeleton; and that he came into the public assembly, and said that he had arrived from the shades below, and then he recited to them all that had happened during his absence. And they, being charmed by what he told them, wept and lamented, and believed that Pythagoras was a divine being; so that they even entrusted their wives to him, as likely to learn some good from him; and that they too were called Pythagoreans. And this is the story of Hermippus. (XXI)
According to legend, in a past life Pythagoras had been a son of Hermes, named Aethalides. Hermes promised him any gift (except immortality), and Aethalides/Pythagoras wished to remember everything, even after death. Thus, Pythagoras remembered all of his previous lives – a proof of which is offered in another famous story. While staying at Argos, he saw a shield from the spoils of Troy nailed up to the wall. He began to weep, claiming that the shield had been his in a last life, when his name was Euphobus and that he had used it at the battle of Troy. He even offered proof: his previous name, Euphobus, was written on the inside. They took the shield down from the wall and found the name written as he had claimed (Newmann 25). In another story, he recognizes the reincarnation of an old friend in a stray dog.
And once, they say, when he passed by a dog which was being maltreated, he pitied the animal and said these words: “Stop! Don’t beat him! For he is the soul of a friend whom I recognized straight away when I heard his voice.” (Bremmer, 12)
Pythagoras also believed that the entire universe was musical: each planet made a certain vibrational frequency as it passed through the heavens, and everything on earth could be assigned to one of these seven frequencies. Thus, there are 7 notes, 7 colors of the rainbow, and 7 primarily organs of the body (in Eastern spirituality, there are also 7 Chakras).
According to a legend told by Iambilochos, when Pythagoras heard the different sound made by hammers in a forge, he realized that tones can be expressed in quantitative relationships, and hence in numerical values and geometrical measures. Using stringed instruments, he then discovered the connection between vibration frequencies and pitch. The whole world, according to Pythagoras’ theory, consisted of harmony and number. (Roob, 92)
Pythagoras taught that this life was a sentence (for a sin or evil done at the mythical level in pre-history). Therefore, we should do our time well and get out quickly, rather than avoiding our punishments and stretching the sentence out longer. Earth is not meant to be enjoyed: “Do not assist a man in laying a burden down; for it is not proper to be the cause of not laboring (also translated as ‘idleness’ or ‘lack of effort’); but assist him in taking it up” (Herman, 49). Of course Christianity has its parallels in monasticism, its valuation of the poor, the weak and the suffering, and its ascetic traditions. There are also passages like the following:
Then, speaking to all, he said, “if anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it. What benefit is it to anyone to win the whole world and forfeit or lose his very self.” (Luke 9:23-26)
Consequently, the life of a Pythagorean was “governed by strict rules and routines that covered a wide range of issues, everything from dietary restrictions to purification rites to religious taboos to the observance of decorous behavior, not to mention a host of magical practices” (Hermann 19).
Although the similarities between the actual life of Pythagoras and Jesus may be limited, it is interesting to notice the parallels between the two movements each figure left behind. As we shall see, it was the bureaucratic organization of the Christian movement, more than the originality of its beliefs or practices, which really ensured its survival; however this organization may have had its roots in Pythagoreanism. As Konstantine I. Boudouris says in The Pythagorean Community,
The Pythagorean organizations were unions of people, the members of which had accepted certain principles and doctrines, and who lived, thought, and acted collectively, and whose acts were dictated or related to the beliefs that they had accepted. Moreover, as all the sources testify, the chief characteristic of the Pythagorean movement was secrecy. Experience had taught Pythagoras that small but secretly and well-organized forces could have great results. (qtd. in Newmann 50)
While the overall tone of Pythagoras’ teaching appears concerned with morality, virtue, and religious piety, the mission of the secret group seems to have been the infiltration and takeover of the government. Thus, it functioned as a political conspiracy on the one hand, while on the other projecting the outward appearance of a bona fide political association. (Newmann, 51)
The speeches ascribed to Pythagoras that have been handed down to us are nothing particularly special; be good, honor your elders, refrain from evil, etc. There was certainly more to the movement than his words of wisdom (although there may have been much that was lost). The power of the movement was in its initiations and secrecy. Membership was extremely selective, and the initiation process not for the faint of heart. There was first a series of tests for candidates, followed by a background check involving the applicant’s personal life, relationships and behavior: “Did he talk too much or laugh on the wrong occasions? How did he get along with other students? What, for example, made him happy or sad?” (Newmann 53).
Finally there was a physical examination. If he passed these preliminaries, he was sent away for three years and totally ignored, but secretly watched. The 1999 movie Fight Club is an excellent example of the development of this sort of cult; although the three years of waiting was shortened to only three days.
If they were admitted, candidates had to turn over all of their belongings – money, properties and income – to a special board of trustees (Newmann 53, 54); and for the first 5 years, they took a vow of silence. If they were later rejected from the higher levels of initiation, they had their investments returned in double but were treated as if they were dead by members. Likewise, there is evidence that, in the earliest periods of Christianity, such socialist practices were also the rule, and strictly enforced. Luke has Jesus caution, “None of you can be my disciple without giving up all that he owns” (Luke 14:33), and according to the Acts of the Apostles, “And all who shared the faith owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (Acts 2:44).
Acts also relates the curious incident of Ananias and Sapphira, new converts to Christianity who secretly held back some of their earnings rather than sharing it with the Church whose transgression was punished by a miraculous execution. First, an example is given of Jospeh/Barnabas, who sold some land and gave all the money, as expected, to the apostles. Next we are told of a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who sold a piece of property but kept some of the money to themselves and lied to the apostles. Peter immediately knew they were lying, and when he accused them, they fell down dead at his feet.
Peter said, ‘Ananias, how can Satan have so possessed you that you should lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land?…You have been lying not to men, but to God.’ When he heard this Ananias fell down dead. And a great fear came upon everyone present. (Acts 4:32-5:11)
Like the Pythagorean cult, the early church had ‘administrators’ who were responsible for maintaining the wealth and finances of the community. This feature of early Christianity didn’t last (later converts were allowed to keep their property), but its presence and inclusion into the Bible suggests external influences. Although Judaism, especially during the decades surrounding the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, did have socialistic sects where Christianity may have found this feature, these sects were themselves almost more similar to Pythagoreanism than to traditional Judaic worship.
Consider, for example, the Essenic communities, such as at Qumran. According to Josephus, they also shared all of their property and wealth communally, had no personal possessions, did not sacrifice animals, and focused on cleansings and purity. After a three year probation, newly joining members would take an oath that included the commitment to practice piety towards “the Deity” and righteousness towards humanity, to maintain a pure life-style, to abstain from criminal and immoral activities, to transmit their rules uncorrupted and to preserve the books of the Essenes and the names of the Angels (The Wars of the Jews. 2.137–142). They also believed in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.18, The Wars of the Jews. 2.153–158).
Another source of commonality is the theme of secrecy, with truth being revealed only to an inner group.
The notion that Pythagoras founded a movement whose mission was the “education and enlightenment of the masses” is wonderfully romantic, yet the very sources who have sought to convey this impression have also persevered old sayings that paint a very different picture.” (Newmann 55)
The eventual fall of Pythagoreanism may have been due to the contradiction inherent in a selective, spiritual minority ruling the alienated majority. Although Jesus Christ is often heralded for his democratic inclusion of all people, there are also passages in the Bible which make it clear that not everybody would make it into the kingdom, but only the worthy, and characterize the Christian cult as a small, non-inclusive group of separatists. “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matthew 20:16). Moreover, Jesus frequently speaks in riddles and parables, which he later explains only to his disciples. At the same time, although in theory a community of brothers, it should not be forgotten that Christianity was managed by a select authoritarian group, which demanded absolute allegiance, complete surrender of personal property, and which quickly grew in wealth and power.
Finally, like Christians, Pythagoreans were taught to fight against sin and lawlessness. They even had a custom of confessing each day’s sins:
As soon as they got up in the morning, members were required to disclose to one another a detailed account of the activities and events of the previous day. Supposedly, this exercise had a twofold aim: to train a person’s memory and to teach him to assess his conduct, in order to, as Diodorus says, “gain knowledge and judgment in all matters. (Newmann 59)
Pythagoreans had a lot of pedantic rules, which inspired a contantly introspective lifestyle.
Tradition does mention, though, a great number of taboos and prescriptions, such as ‘Do not wear a ring’, ‘Do not step over a broom’, ‘don’t use cedar, laurel, myrtle, cypress or oak to cleanse your body or clean your teeth: they are for honouring the gods’. The observance of all these rules must have made the life of the Pythagorean an extremely self-conscious one, in which a moment of carelessness could be fatal. The inclusion among these rules of having to wear white linen. (Bremmer 13)
Some of these lifestyle choices, beliefs and practices will become nearly universal in the centuries before and after the coming of Jesus Christ; mostly in various mystery cults and religions. Their inclusion into Christianity is not surprising, and yet proved problematic for Christians, who constantly needed to differentiate themselves somehow from other groups who believed very similar things and practiced that belief with similar rituals and habits. The powerful figure of Pythagoras will grow to supernatural proportions; as we have seen, he was believed to have been born of a God (Hermes, in a previous life), descended into the underworld, and taught specific instructions about surviving after death. In the religious/political system that he created, Christianity had a ready template for its own organization.