We all may have studied the Pythagoras theorem back in geometry class, in school, but did you know that the Greek philosopher actually founded a secret society, with mathematics as part of its religion?
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The Pythagorean brotherhood was established in Italy and comprised carefully chosen members who went through an initiation, participated in ritual purifications and pledged with a vow of secrecy. They followed a number of rules, some of which were honourable, such as the promise to live an unselfish life, to be honest, and to show kindness to animals. Others were considered bizarre even in the sixth century BC, when the cult was formed and active.
Legend has it that Pythagoreans were all vegetarians, but prohibited from eating beans. They were also not allowed to stir a fire with a knife or wear rings. They believed men were represented by odd numbers and women by even numbers. And when there was a thunderstorm, they had to touch the earth at the sight of lightning.
Pythagoreans also believed that the souls of the dead returned as animals and entered an infinite cycle of reincarnation, moving higher or lower through the ranks of animals and humans. Since Pythagoras himself spent 12 years in Babylon, where he studied maths and learned of Eastern spiritual ideas from as far away as India, it is thought he adopted the idea of reincarnation from Hinduism and embraced concepts of mysticism from ancient Egypt.
In order to purify their body and mind, and break away from the cycle of reincarnation, Pythagoreans studied maths and science and tried to understand the order of the universe. The cult’s motto, “All is number”, cemented their belief that mathematics was the principle of all things. Moreover, they believed 10 was the supreme number, which could be made up by adding the first four numbers. These numbers form the tetractys – a perfect equilateral triangle – which Pythagoreans prayed to and believed had mystic powers.
Pythagoras himself was the brotherhood’s spiritual leader, but the cult survived for nearly 200 years after his death. According to educational resource website Famous Scientists, Roman historian Cicero documented that when any of the cult members’ ideas were questioned, Pythagoreans would always reply: “The master said so.” The master they referred to was, of course, Pythagoras.
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