The Madness of Pythagoras

Kayla Mahoney

Tour Guide

You might only know Pythagoras as that guy who invented triangles, or at least invented how to measure right-angled ones, but did you know he also started a cult that worshiped him, fava beans, and the number 10?

A Leader You Can Count On

Pythagoras was born in ancient Greece in 570 BCE. Around 532 BCE, he emigrated to southern Italy for the same reasons most people do: to enjoy the nice weather, the beautiful Italian views, and to start a cult.

There, Pythagoras started a “school” where he taught his students that numbers are the center of the entire universe and should be worshiped as such.1

The number ten was the Big Daddy of this new faith. Pythagoras and his followers even had a sacred symbol called a Tetractys that was a triangle (duh) with ten points across four rows. And there was a specific prayer to worship it. Kind of like the “Our Father” prayer, except with math.

Wild, Wild Numbers

Pythagoras’ followers literally believed he was the son of a god. They even believed he had mystical powers because of his numerical ability. We’re pretty sure calculators would have blown their minds.

Pythagoras, as a crazy cult leader, totally dug this line of thinking. Among other things, Pythagoras once claimed he had been reincarnated multiple times and was the son of Hermes, who gifted him the power of remembering who he was in all of his past lives.

The strangest (and sexiest) of the legends surrounding the aura of Pythagoras is that he had a golden thigh that he would show to impress people he wanted to join his cult.2

But there’s no proof of this.

City of Angles

Being a follower of Pythagoras wasn’t all fun and math games.

In order to prove yourself worthy of a spot in this nerd fest, you had to be silent for five years, which both proved your devotion and helped the group stay out of the spotlight around town. You were also supposed to abstain from sex, or at least try your hardest to. Pythagoras knew this was a tough ask, so he told his followers to save all their adding of parts for the winter time and subtract lovemaking from the summer months.

Beans, Beans the Magical Fruit

In addition to Pythagoras’ love of all things three-sided, he may have been one of the first people to choose not to eat meat for morality’s sake.

But don’t get too excited vegetarian historians – Pythagoras and his followers still sacrificed oxen whenever they proved a mathematical formula.

One of Pythagoras’ strangest obsessions with food was his relationship to the fava bean. He believed you should never eat fava beans because they give you gas and expelling gas took away the “breath of life.”3 At the same time, he claimed fava beans contained the souls of the dead. So maybe he believed you shouldn’t eat beans because you’ll fart ghosts?

The world may never know.

The world may also never know exactly how Pythagoras died but almost every story ends with him sacrificing his life in order to save a field of fava beans, aka the souls of dead ancestors. We’re not sure what danger awaited the fava beans, but we’re sure it was pretty serious.

No matter what you think of Pythagoras’ ideas around holy numbers, sex, or beans, his ideas and theories about math are still taught in schools all over the world. Anyone’s life can seem strange, you just need to take a look at it from the right angle.

Please submit your best math puns in the comments.

We’re counting on you.

(Also, extra credit if you can find all the math puns in this article).

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Notes 📌

  1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (January 3rd, 2018). Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. Collection of Pythagoric Sentences (1818). Classical Astrologer
  3. Oliver, M. (April 26th, 2017). Listverse

Additional Resources

  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, Jan. 3rd) Pythagoras.
  • Oliver, M. (2017, April 26th). 10 Strange Facts About Pythagoras: Mathematician And Cult Leader.
  • Taylor, T. (1818). Collection of Pythagoric Sentences.

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