Pythagoras’ “Symbols”

Category: Ancient Learning > Ethical Maxims > Pythagorean Maxims

1 Introduction

One element of the complicated textual tradition of Pythagorica, an element that appears to be particularly ancient, are a series of symbola, brief ethical injunctions and (losely ‘physical’) declarations that function as “tokens” of Pythagoras’ teachings. Already the ancients struggled to make sense of them, and took refuge in allegorical interpretation. But they are fascinating to consider even without full comprehension.

Currently, I give here a short text about the Pythagoric use of symbolism preserved by Stobaeus (section 2), a chapter about Pythagoras from Claudius Aelian (section 3), a Pythagorean idea mentioned by Aristotle that might be symbola (section 4), Porphyry’s list of both declarative and injunctive symbola, the latter with allegorical interpretations (section 5), and Diogenes Laërtius’ list of ethical symbola with some interpretations (section 6).

There are some other sources, too. In particular, I intend to translate Iamblichus’ discussions of the symbola (in the Protrepticus and the Pythagoric Life) as a separate page, gods willing.

2 Stobaeus, Anthology 3.1.199

(An excerpt from the) Pythagorica.*

*Although sometimes ascribed to Plutarch,
the origin of this excerpt is totally opaque

Nothing is so appropriate (or ‘unique’) to Pythagorean philosophy as the symbolic (mode of discourse), like the sort of teaching in the mysteries (in a teletē), which mixes speech and silence, so that it is not necessary to say “I shall sing to the wise; close the doors, ye uninitiated!”* Instead, what is said has light and an indication of meaning (kharaktēr) for those who are acquainted, but it is obscure and meaningless to the unacquainted. For just as, according to Heraclitus, the lord at Delphi neither speaks nor hides but indicates, thus, in the Pythagoric Symbols, what seems to be clared is being hidden, and what seems to be hidden can be understood.

*A common beginning for ‘mystic texts’, like those attributed to Orpheus.

3 Claudius Aelian, Varia Historia 4.17

Pythagoras taught that he was begotten by greater seeds than human nature. For they say that he was seen in Metapontium and in Crotona on the same day and in the same hour. And at Olympia, he showed that one of his thighs was of gold. He also reminded Myllias of Crotona that he was Midas of Phrygia, the son of Gordias, (in an earlier life). (Once,) a white eagle allowed him to pet him; and when he was crossing the river Kosas, he was addressed by it, the river itself saying to him, “Greetings (khaire), Pythagoras!”

He said that the most sacred thing is the leaf of the mallow; and the wisest thing, he said, is number, and the second wisest, the one who laid down the names for things.*

*For other answers to the question of what is most X,
see the texts of Philosophy in Questions & Answers

He explained (genealogeō) earthquakes as nothing else than an assembly of the dead. Iris, he said, was like a ray of the Sun. And the sound which often strikes the ear (=tinnitus?) is the voice of the Greater Beings (kreittones).

It was not permissible to doubt him in anything or to ask anything about what he said, but they clung to what he said as if to a divine oracle. When he came to cities, the rumor spread that Pythagoras was coming not to teach, but to heal.

Pythagoras himself commaned to abstain from white roosters, or rather from all carcasses; and not to use a bath, nor to walk on the highway; since it was unclear whether these things were pure.

4 Aristotle, Posterior Analytics 94b33

Thunder, as the Pythagoreans say, serves as a threat to those in Tartarus, to scare them.

5 Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 41–43 (ed. A. Nauck)

He (Pythagoras) also said certain things symbolically, in a mystical fashion, most of which Aristotle wrote down;* for example, he called the sea the ‘tear of Kronos’, the bears (=Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) the ‘hands of Rhea’, the Pleiades the ‘lyre of the Muses’, and the planets the ‘dogs of Persephone’; and the sound of struck bronze is the voice of a certain daemon trapped in the bronze.

*In a work now lost.

There was also another kind of symbols, of this kind:

(1) Not to overstep the scales, that is, not to be greedy.
(2) Not to stir the fire with a knife, i.e., not to arouse someone who is growing angry with sharp words.
(3) Not to pick at a garland, that is, not to break laws (or ‘customs’); for they are the garlands (or ‘crowns’, stephanoi) of cities.
(4) And again others of this kind: not to eat a heart (or ‘your heart’), that is, not to vex oneself with troubles.
(5) Not to sit on a bushel, i.e., not to live lazily.
(6) Not to turn around when going abroad: not to cling to life when dying.
(7) Not to walk the highway (‘main road’), by which he forbade following the opinions of the masses, and instead follow the intelligent and educated.
(8) Not to keep swallows in the house, that is, not to live with people who babble and cannot restrain their tongue.
(9) To add a burden to people carrying, and not help unloading, by which he enjoins us to help nobody toward leisure, but toward virtue.
(10) Not to carry images of gods on rings, that is, not to regard belief and reason about the gods as obvious (lit. ‘to hand’) or self-evident, and not to present it to the masses.
(11) To make libations over the handles (lit. ‘ears’) of drinking-vessels; for with this, he indicated to honor the gods and hymn them with music; for this passes over the ears.

(12) Not to eat what is not licit, birth, growth, beginning or end, nor of those things which from the first principle of all things arose. He meant abstention from the loins, testicles, genitalia, marrow, feet and head of sacrificed animals.

For he calls the loins the ‘principle’ (hypothesis), because living beings are based on them as if on foundations; the testicles and genitals, ‘birth’, because without their activity no living being is born; the marrow, ‘growth’, which is the cause of growth for all living beings; the feet, ‘beginning’, and the head, ‘end’, because these have the greatest rulership over the body.

(13) He also enjoined to abstain from beans as if from human flesh.

They hand down (historeō) that he prohibited this because, when the first principle and origin of the universe (=the Earth) was disturbed, and many things were stirred, sown and fermented together in the Earth, then after a short time, there came the origin and differentiation of animals being born and plants springing up, and at that time, from its fermentation, humans came into being and the bean sprouted.

And he showed this through many clear signs. For if you chew a bean and, once you have ground it up with your teeth, place it in a spot warmed by sunlight for a short while, then return after a short time, you will find it smelling like human semen.

And if, when the beam plant is in bloom, you take its flower as it darkens, place it in in a clay vessel for a short time, cover it and bury it in the earth, and keep it there for ninety days after burying it; then, after this timespan, you dig it out, take it and remove the lid, you will find, instead of the bean, either the head of a child or the genitals of a woman.

(14) He also enjoined to abstain from other things, like wombs, and the red mullet, sea-anemone, and nearly all other marine animals.

6 Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers 8.17–18

The following were his symbola:

(1) Not to stir fire with a knife,
(2) Not to overstep the scales (or ‘balance’),
(3) Not to sit on a bushel,
(4) Not to eat a heart,
(5) To help unload a burden and not add to it (!),
(6) To always roll bed-clothes up,
(7) Not to carry the image of a god on a ring,
(8) Not to leave the imprint of a pan on the ashes,
(9) Not to wipe on a seat with a torch,
(10) Not to urinate facing the Sun,
(11) Not to walk outside (!) the highway,
(12) Not to offer your right hand (to shake hands) readily,
(13) Not to keep swallows under your roof,
(14) Not to raise a bird of prey (lit. ‘one with crooked talons’),
(15) Not to urinate or stand on nail clippings or hair trimmings,
(16) To turn away the sharp (edge of?) a knife,
(17) To pay no heed to the boundary markers when going abroad.

And he meant:

(1) “Not to stir fire with a knife”: not to arouse the anger and the swelling temperament of the mighty.
(2) “Not to overstep the scales”: that is, not to overstep what is equal and just.
(3) “Not to sit on a bushel”: to have equal care for the future; for the bushel (of corn) is the daily food.
(4) “Not to eat a heart”: not to consume the soul with frustrations and vexations;⸺
(17) And by “not turning back when going abroad”, he enjoyed those about to depart from life not to be desirous of life, nor to be attracted by the pleasures in it.

And, not to digress too far, the others are also to be interpreted along the lines of these.