How vegetarian were Pythagoras and his students?
Pythagoras and veganism – What do ancient and later authors write about the diet of Pythagoras and his students?
One of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and physicists of all time is undoubtedly Pythagoras. He was born in Samos around 580 BC. and died in Metapontium in Lower Italy around 496 BC. According to tradition, he got to know the teachings of Thales, Anaximander and Pherecydes of Syria and later made long trips to Egypt and Persia where he broadened the horizon of his knowledge, both with mathematical and astronomical theories, as well as the moral and religious beliefs of the Egyptians and of the Babylonians. He probably belonged to the aristocratic families of Samos who opposed the tyranny of Polycrates and thus was forced to settle in Crotona in Lower Italy around 532 BC. There he moved in aristocratic circles and established himself as a scientific authority. The phrase “he said” is typical.
In Crotona he founded an “organization” to which he gave the form of a moral-religious movement, a scientific community and a political “company”. It was thus linked to the aristocratic-directed policy of enforcing Croton in the neighboring regions. This culminated with the destruction of Syvari by the Crotonians (511-510 BC). This event caused huge reactions, so Pythagoras and his followers competed to move to Metapontium where the great philosopher died (data from GLOBAL BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY, vol.8, ATHENS PUBLISHING). The life and work of Pythagoras will soon be the subject of one (at least…) of our articles. Today we will deal with only one aspect of the Pythagorean teaching, namely the “Pythagorean diet”. How true is what is written about principles of vegetarianism and veganism in Pythagoras?
What is written about Pythagoras and vegetarianism?
To be clear, Pythagoras left no written texts, according to the prevailing view, so what is attributed to him is a pseudo-inscription and was written many centuries later. Ancient tradition added to the person of Pythagoras elements of a fictional hero with supernatural dimensions: prophecies, miracles, resurrections, reincarnations, consciousness and memory of past lives and various others. Pythagoras’ teaching of transmigrations did not exist before him. Most likely the great philosopher carried ideas from the Near East and others associated with the Orphics, neither of which there were texts before Pythagoras. A simple internet search, “Pythagoras, vegetarian”, turns up thousands of relevant results. Among the publications, there are in some, especially those that support vegetarianism, phrases and attributes that have nothing to do with the great Samian philosopher.
To see exactly what’s going on, we’ll look at what ancient and later writers write about Pythagoras and his students and their relationship to vegetarianism. In the “Golden Epics” of Pythagoras (these are 71 verses recited every day by the “Pythagorean students of the Omoakoion”), there are also the following: “Do not eat what you do not eat”, that is, “do not eat what is not allowed”. It is about what is contrary to what the Pythagoreans believed about transmigration. “I am alive.” This is interpreted as an aversion to foods that come from living things and is again related to Pythagoras’ belief that possibly a human soul had been reincarnated in an animal body. “Kyamon apheshesthei” or “Kyamus astrophesthei”. That is, don’t eat beans or avoid beans. In this Pythagoras was influenced by the Egyptians, who did not sow or eat beans, and their priests did not even want to see them as they considered them impure. Perhaps the avoidance of beans is related to chyamism, as those suffering from this disease develop hemolytic anemia if they eat beans or come into contact with certain chemicals.
The first two verses we mentioned are the main arguments of the vegetarians in their view that Pythagoras and his disciples did not eat meat. But what do two later “biographers” of Pythagoras, Porphyrios (3rd century AD) and Iamblichus (3rd/4th century AD) write? In the work “Life of Pythagoras” Porphyrios mentions (translated text): “As for their diet (ie the students of Pythagoras), breakfast consisted of honeycomb or honey and dinner of millet or barley bread, rarely meat from sacred carcasses and indeed not from any part of the animal” (paragraph 35). We also quote the original text at the point where meat is mentioned: “…rarely the meat of sacrificial priests and this is not from everywhere of the Pythagorean Life”.
Let’s look at some of them (par. 106 -109 in his work).
“Since nutrition also plays a big role for excellent education, when it is done well and in order, let’s examine what it prescribed for it as well. Of the foods in general, he disapproved of those that caused bloating and disturbances, while he approved of the opposite and suggested that they be consumed, that is, those that calm and soothe the body, which is why he also considered millet a suitable food. He also generally disapproved of anything foreign to the gods, because he believed it removed us from our likeness to them… He also rejected all foods that were contrary to purity and clouded the purity of the soul as well as the visions of sleep. These were his general instructions regarding diet. Especially for the most initiated philosophers and those who had reached the highest point of teaching he forbade all unnecessary and contrary to righteous food, instructing them never to eat living things and not to drink any wine nor to sacrifice animals to the gods nor to harm in any way and to strictly observe justice towards them”.