Dogmata, Rules, Prohibitions: an overall investigation of the Pythagorean symbola

Persistent identifier:


As part of a large body of traditional Pythagorean wisdom, symbola are short sentences concerning diverse topics including cosmology, ethics, ritual and cult, dietary precepts as well as regulations of everyday behaviour. Pythagorean followers considered them the most important and most characteristic of the master’s teachings. Despite increasing interest in Pythagorean studies, an overall investigation of the symbola in the context of ancient philosophy and thought is still missing. My project has aimed to bridge this gap through an extensive investigation of the relationship and interaction between the symbola and other forms of folk wisdom, as well as between the symbola and several texts of early Greek philosophy. The main goals of this project are to understand the role that religious and folk wisdom played in the composition of the Pythagorean symbola as well as the role of the symbolic language and form in the development of philosophical discourse at the beginning of the western philosophical tradition. Other goals are to reconstruct a collection of the symbola that is as complete as possible, to investigate the history of its tradition and to explore its function in the Pythagorean school from the very beginning. This topic and the research I have conducted at the CHS will constitute the basis for a monograph on the Pythagorean symbola and the ancient Greek mind.

Project Report

As part of a large body of traditional Pythagorean wisdom, symbola are very short definitions or sentences concerning a broad and diverse range of topics including cosmology, ethics, ritual and cult, dietary precepts as well as regulations of all kinds of everyday behaviours more generally.[1] Pythagorean followers considered them the most important and most characteristic of the master’s teachings. Despite increasing interest, over the last three decades, in Pythagorean studies,[2] an overall investigation of the symbola in the context of ancient philosophy and thought is still missing. Yet the symbola are integral to understand the history of early Pythagoreanism, indeed of early Greek philosophy and its development more generally.[3] However too many aspects of the history of this collection remain unclear.

To begin with, there is the question of how many sayings could be included in the collection in the first place. The library resources of the CHS enabled me to collect as much material as I could with the first purpose to reconstruct a collection of the Pythagorean symbola that could be as complete as possible. This has first required a revision of the selection criteria. In fact, on the one hand there are about seventy sayings that are explicitly cited as symbola.[4] On the other hand, further comparable material may surely be added to them and considered of Pythagorean origin. However, given the complexity of the tradition at stake and the fact that scholars have already attempted to widen the selection criteria, but have reconstructed very different collections,[5] it seemed to me that a more cautious approach had to be preferred: I considered as strictly “Pythagorean” those sayings that our sources transmitted as such plus some further material which is very akin to these, while other “less akin” sayings have been taken into account as comparable material.

In order to look into the question of whether the symbola were part of a collection from their very origin and, if this is the case, how far in the past this collection could be traced back, I embarked on an investigation of the history of the tradition and transmission of the symbola, focusing in particular on Iamblichus’ report in his Life of Pythagoras. In fact, while the most extensive sources for the symbola are relatively late (third and fourth century AD within the works of Diogenes Laertius, Iamblichus and Porphyry), it is widely accepted that Iamblichus’ source was Aristotle’s lost treatise(s) on Pythagoras. Moreover, the very first evidence for a collection of the symbola can be dated to the fifth or fourth century BCE, when Anaximander the Younger wrote an exegesis of them. Both Anaximander and Aristotle’s lost survey(s) allow us to consider the hypothesis that symbola already circulated among the earliest Pythagoreans.[6] This raises the question of Pythagoras’ role in the first arrangement and initial development of the collection. In this framework, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, a contemporary of Pythagoras, can be considered a witness to Pythagoras’ syggraphai, namely “written texts” in prose.[7] Those Pythagorean syggraphai are very likely to correspond to the original collection of the symbola.[8] Despite the many and intricate problems concerning the tradition of the symbola, my research has specifically built on the premise that Heraclitus is a pivotal indication for their earliest origin. This opens up the path to consider the symbola in the framework of pre-Socratic philosophy.

Thus, in order to make sense of this heterogeneous material within early Greek thought, I maintained the need to investigate the symbola by exploring a slightly different path. As well as discussing, as scholars have generally done, their authenticity, my method has been to accept in theory the genuine character of all of them and compare them to similar forms of wisdom in ancient Greece. During my stay at the CHS, I focused my analysis on their evident affinity with similar texts from early Greek philosophy, especially with Empedocles. Specifically, I used the Pythagorean symbola to reconstruct Empedocles’ Purifications and showed that the Empedoclean poem was not a discursive narrative recounting the story of the guilty soul which is punished through rebirths, as generally thought. Rather, it is a collection of heterogeneous sayings, healing utterances and purificatory oracles, which show points of contact with the Pythagorean symbola. In order to understand the purpose and function of symbolic utterances in early Greek philosophy, I particularly concentrated on a close comparison between the symbola and similar forms of wisdom, such as, on the one hand, the Delphic oracles and Hesiod’s Works and Days, and, on the other hand, the fragments of Heraclitus.

In this framework, I focused on the debated question of how the earliest symbola were meant to be understood by the first Pythagoreans, in other words, whether the earliest collection of the symbola only included ritual injunctions to be followed literally or also riddling precepts hiding deeper meanings.[9] In fact, the answer to this question may also shed light to the purpose behind the use of the same form in early philosophy (for instance by Heraclitus and Empedocles). The result of my research is that the hypothesis that symbola were conceived from the beginning as utterances needing decoding, hence as passwords for the initiates, make more sense of the extant material than the alternative assumption. Note that there are several symbola, attested from the fifth or fourth century BCE,[10] that stand out for their obscure meanings; for instance, “do not step over a balance” or “do not poke the fire with a sword” were allegorically explained as “do not be covetous” and “do not vex with sharp words a man swollen with anger”. Yet even a number of sayings, which simply indicate what one should or should not do, are transmitted by our sources, among them Aristotle, with an allegorical explanation. Just to make an example: the injunction “abstain from heart”, which seems to recommend Pythagoreans abstain from eating animals’ hearts, was also explained as “not to vex oneself with grief”. In this framework, I have emphasized that the same practice, namely the addition of secondary meanings to perfectly understandable injunctions, is attested to Empedocles’ purificatory utterances too; for instance to his precept recommending abstention from beans, which was explained as an injunction against sexual intercourse. The conclusion I could work out from the comparison between the Pythagorean symbola and Empedocles’ Purifications is that the latter as well, like Apollo’s words, are meant to hide meanings. In fact, Empedocles, by emulating his master Pythagoras, composed his own symbola. His purificatory utterances can be understood as “passwords” indicating membership or, more correctly, “proofs” of different degrees of initiation into Empedocles’ philosophy. As such, they serve to establish the divine and elite character of Empedocles’ teachings, whose ultimate meaning is disclosed only to those who have reached the highest level of initiation. Yet their very short form is likely to have a didactic function that can be compared to that of the Hesiodic Works and Days. As their concise nature renders them very suitable for memorization, they are also directed to the broadest public, who can easily learn and follow them literally.

The project I have worked on at the Center clearly indicates that the Pythagorean symbola are a challenging and fascinating field of study, which still needs to be fully explored. My aim in the not too distant future is to continue on this path in order to enquire further the literary form in which the symbola were composed, that of the aphorism, proverb and oracle, and its relationship to folk wisdom, on the one hand, and scientific discourse, on the other. More has to be done, in fact, to investigate the role and place of the symbola in the development of early Greek thought. During the term I spent in the Center I could only approach some issues in particular with reference to some specific texts and authors. Yet the pivotal questions, which have initiated and animated such a project, need further study: what is the role and function of the form of the symbola in the context of early Greek thought? Above all: to what extent does this form influence the knowledge it communicates? To what extent does religious and folk wisdom influence the composition of the symbola? In turn, to what extent does the symbola influence philosophical and scientific discourses at the beginning of the western philosophical tradition?

In conclusion: though seldom studied today, the symbola are integral to our understanding of how Pythagoras claimed, obtained and preserved, through the centuries, his prestige and authority as an elite alternative to traditional wisdom. They are essential, therefore, to grasp the nature of early Pythagoreanism, and of its concrete contribution to western thought more generally. Further, a study of the aphorismatic and symbolic form within the context of early Greek thought will shed some light on the challenging issue of the interaction between religion and philosophy at the beginning of the western philosophical tradition. The material I already gathered during my research at the CHS and the one I expect to collect in the future will be the basis for a monograph on the Pythagorean symbola and the ancient Greek mind.

Select Bibliography

Boehm, F. 1905. De symbolis Pythagoreis. Berlin.

Burkert, W. 1962. Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaos und Platon. Nuremberg. Trans. Lore and science in ancient Pythagoreanism. Cambridge, MA, 1972..

Centrone, B. 1996. Introduzione ai Pitagorici. Rome-Bari.

Cornelli, G., R. McKirahan, and C. Macris, eds. 2013. On Pythagoreanism. Berlin.

Corseen, P. 1912. “Die Schrift des Arztes Androkydes Περὶ Πυθαγορικῶν συμβόλων.” Rheinisches Museum, n.s. 67:240–263.

Delatte, A. 1915. Études sur la Littérature Pythagoricienne. Paris.

Giangiulio, M. 2000. Pitagora: le Opere e le Testimonianze. Milan.

Gemelli Marciano, M. L. 2007. Die Vorsokratiker, I, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras und die Pythagoreer, Xenophanes, Heraklit. Düsseldorf.

———. 2014. “The Pythagorean Way of Life and Pythagorean Ethics.” In A History of Pythagoreanism, ed. C.A. Huffman, 131-148. Cambridge.

Hölk, C. 1894. De acusmatis sive symbolis Pythagoricis. PhD diss, Kiel.

Huffman, C.A. 2008: “Heraclitus’ Critique of Pythagoras’ Enquiry in Fragment 129.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 35:19–47.

Huffman, C.A., ed. 2014. A History of Pythagoreanism. Cambridge.

Hüffmeier, A. 2001. Die pythagoreischen Sprüche in Porphyrios’ Vita Pythagorae Kapitel 36 (Ende) bis 45. PhD diss, Münster.

Kahn, C.H. 2001. Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A brief History. Indianapolis.

Riedweg, C. 2002. Pythagoras: Leben, Lehre, Nachwirkung: eine Einführung. Munich.

Sider D., and D. Obbink, eds. 2013. Doctrine and Doxography: Studies on Heraclitus and Pythagoras. Berlin.

Struck, P. 2004. Birth of the Symbol. Princeton.

Thom, J. C. 1994. “‘Don’t Walk on the Highways’: The Pythagorean akousmata and Early Christian Literature.” JBL 113:93–112.

Thom, J. C. 2013. “The Pyhagorean akousmata and Early Pythagoreanism.” In On Pythagoreanism, ed. G. Cornelli, R. McKirahan, and C. Macris,77-101. Berlin.

Vitalnioti, I. F. 2015. L’Harmonie des Sirènes du Pythagorisme Ancien à Platon. Berlin.

Zhmud, L. 2012. Pythagoras and the early Pythagoreans. Oxford.

Zhmud, L. 2013. “Pythagoras und die Pythagoreer.” In Die Philosphie der Antike, ed. H.F.D. Bremer, and G. Rechenauer, 375–437. Basel.


[1] Symbola with a cosmological or ethical content run as follows: the isles of the Blessed are Sun and Moon. The oracle at Delphi is the tetractys, which is the harmonia in which the Sirens sing. The most just thing is to sacrifice. The wisest thing is the number; but second is the man who assigned names to things. The wisest of the things in men’s power is medicine, the finest harmonia, the most powerful knowledge and the best happiness, while the truest thing said is that men are wicked. Cf. Iamblichus, VP 82. Most of the sayings take the form of prescriptive rules: for instance, do beget children; do not put the right shoe first; do not travel by the main roads; do not dip one’s hand into holy water; do not use the public baths, etc. Food prohibitions sound like: do not eat the heart (of the animal); do not eat beans, etc. There are also injunctions regulating the worshipping of the gods in temples and the practice of sacrifice: for instance, do sacrifice and enter the temple barefoot; do not sacrifice a white cook; do eat only flesh of animals that may be sacrificed. Moreover, there are several prescriptions that stand out for their particular obscurity: for instance, do not step over a balance; do not poke the fire with a sword; do not puck the crown, etc. Cf. Porphyry, VP 42.

[2] For example, Centrone 1996, Giangiulio 2000, Kahn 2001, Riedweg 2002, Gemelli Marciano 2007 and Zhmud 2012 and 2013. Also see the three most recent collective volumes on the topic: Sider-Obbink 2013, Cornelli-McKirahan-Macris 2013 and Huffman 2014.

[3] See, for example, Thom 2013 and Gemelli Marciano 2014.

[4] The Pythagorean symbola were also defined indifferently as akousmata or ainigmata. See Vitalnioti 2015: 14-45.

[5] The only available edition dates to Boehm in 1905 and includes only those sayings explicitly labelled as symbola. The most extensive investigations by Delatte 1915 and Burkert 1962 collected over one hundred symbola, whereas the most recent collection, by Hüffmeier 2001, is extended to 200 sayings.

[6] On this topic, the best survey is provided by Holk 1894. See also Corseen 1912.

[7] Heraclitus’ DK 22 B 129 with Hoffmann 2008.

[8] This challenges the received and generally accepted opinion that Pythagoras left no writings.See Riedweg 2002 and Gemelli Marciano 2007.

[9] Symbola as literal injunctions: Burkert 1972: 73–6 and Gemelli Marciano 2014. As as words for initiates, used as proof of membership in their circles: Struck 2004: e.g. 100. and Thom 2013: 77-101. For a different opinion, see Zhmud 2012: 192-205.

[10] They are quoted as symbola by Anaximander the Younger (fifth­ or fourth century BCE).