The Mystery Schools

Pythagoras (c. 590–c.520 b.c.e.)

Pythagoras, one of the greatest philosophers and mathematicians of the sixth century B.C.E., is reported to have been the first of the Greeks to teach the doctrine that the soul, passing through the "great circle of necessity," was born at various times to various living bodies. Pythagoras believed in the soul as a "thought of God," and he considered the physical body to be simply one of a succession of "receptacles" for the housing of the soul. Many of his followers became vegetarians, for he taught that the soul might live again in animals.

Because of his importance to early Greek culture, Pythagoras is among those individuals given the status of becoming a myth in his own lifetime. Therefore, the philosopher was said to have been born of the virgin Parthenis and fathered by the god Apollo. Pythagoras's human father, Mnesarchus, a ring merchant from Samos, and his mother consulted the Delphic Oracle and were told that he would be born in Sidon in Phoenicia and that he would produce works and wonders that would benefit all humankind. Wishing to please the gods, Mnesarchus demanded that his wife change her name from Parthenis to Pythasis, in order to honor the seeress at Delphi. When it was time for the child to be born, Mnesarchus devised "Pythagoras" to be a name in which each of the specially arranged letters held an individual sacred meaning.

Pythagoras is said to have traveled the known world of his time, accumulating and absorbing wisdom and knowledge. According to the legends surrounding his life, he was taught by Zoroaster (c. 628–c. 551 B.C.E.), the Persian prophet, and by the Brahmans of India. Although his teachings on past lives formed the essence of so many of the mystery religions, he was initiated into the Orphic, Egyptian, Judaic, Chaldean, and many other mystery schools.

At last Pythagoras formed his own school at Crotona in southern Italy. An unyielding taskmaster, he accepted only those students whom he assessed as already having established personal regimens of self-discipline. To further stress the seriousness of his study program, Pythagoras lectured while standing behind a curtain, thereby denying all personal contact with his students until they had achieved progress on a ladder of initiatory degrees that allowed them to reach the higher grades. While separated from them by the curtain, Pythagoras lectured his students on the basic principles of music, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.

Pythagoras called his disciples mathematicians, for he believed that the higher teachings began with the study of numbers. From his perspective, he had fashioned a rational theology. The science of numbers lay in the living forces of divine faculties in action in the world, in universal macrocosm, and in the earthly microcosm of the human being. Numbers were transcendent entities, living virtues of the supreme "One," God, the source of universal harmony.

Devoted to his studies, his travels, and his school, Pythagoras did not marry until he was about 60. The young woman had been one of his disciples, and she bore him seven children. The legendary philosopher died while exercising authority over his strict standards of admittance to his school. He denied a man acceptance because it was apparent that the would-be student had an unruly temper that could easily become violent. The rejected follower fulfilled Pythagoras's negative evaluation by angrily leading a mob against the school and burning down the house where the teacher and 40 students were gathered. Some accounts state that Pythagoras died in the fire; others have it that he died of grief, sorrowing over how difficult a task it was to elevate humanity.

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