Pythagoras and the Delphic Mysteries, by Edouard Shuré, , at sacred-texts.com
AT the beginning of the sixth century before our era, Samos was one of the most flourishing islands of Ionia. Its harbour fronted the violet peaks of a slumbering Asia Minor, the abode of luxury and charm. The town was situated on a wide bay with verdant coasts, and retreated, tier upon tier, up the mountain in the form of an amphitheatre, itself lying at the foot of a promontory on which stood the temple of Neptune. It was dominated by the colonnades of a magnificent palace, the abode of the tyrant Polycrates. After depriving Samos of her liberty he had given the island all the lustre of art and Asiatic splendour. Courtesans from Lesbos had, at his bidding, taken up their abode in a neighbouring palace to which they invited the young men and maidens of the town. At these fêtes they taught them the most refined voluptuousness, accompanied with music, dancing and feasting. Anacreon, on the invitation of Polycrates, was transported to Samos in a trireme with purple sails and gilded masts; the poet, a goblet of chased
silver in his hand, sang before this high court of pleasure his languishing odes. The good fortune of Polycrates had become proverbial throughout Greece. He had as a friend the Pharaoh Amasis who often warned him to be on his guard against such unbroken fortune, and above all not to pride himself on it. Polycrates answered the Egyptian monarch's advice by flinging his ring into the sea. "This sacrifice I offer unto the gods," he said. The following day a fisherman brought back to the tyrant the precious jewel, which he had found in the belly of a fish. When the Pharaoh heard of this, he said he would break off his friendship with Polycrates, for such insolent good fortune would draw down on him the vengeance of the gods.Whatever we may think of the anecdote, the end of Polycrates was a tragic one. One of his satraps enticed him into a neighbouring province, tortured him to death, and ordered his body to be fastened to a cross on Mount Mycale. And so, one evening as the blood-red orb of the sun was sinking in the west, the inhabitants of Samos saw the corpse of their tyrant, crucified on a promontory in sight of the island over which he had reigned in glory and abandonment.
To return to the beginning of Polycrates reign. One star-lit night a young man was seated in a
wood of agnus castus, with its glimmering foliage, not far from the temple of Juno, the Doric front of which was bathed in the rays of the moon, whose light added to the mystic majesty of the building. A papyrus roll, containing a song of Homer, had slipped to the ground, and lay at his feet. His meditation, begun at twilight, was continued into the silence of the night. The sun had long ago disappeared beneath the horizon, but its flaming disc still danced in unreal presence before the eyes of the young dreamer. His thoughts had wandered far from the world of visible things.
Pythagoras was the son of a wealthy jeweller of Samos and of a woman named Parthenis. The Pythoness of Delphi, when consulted during a journey by the young married couple, had promised them: "a son who would be useful to all men and throughout all time." The oracle had sent them to Sidon, in Phoenicia, so that the predestined son might be conceived, formed, and born far from the disturbing influences of his own land. Even before his birth the wonderful child, in the moon of love, had been fervently consecrated to the worship of Apollo by his parents. The child was born; and when he was a year old his mother, acting on advice already received from the priest of Delphi, bore him away to the temple of Adonaï, in a valley
of Lebanon. Here the high priest had given him his blessing and the family returned to Samos. The child of Parthenis was very beautiful and gentle, calm and sedate. Intellectual passion alone gleamed from his eyes, giving a secret energy to his actions. Far from opposing, his parents had encouraged him in his precocious leaning towards the study of wisdom. He had been left free to confer with the priests of Samos and the savants who were beginning to establish in Ionia schools in which the principles of natural philosophy were taught. At the age of eighteen he had attended the classes of Hermodamas of Samos, at twenty those of Pherecydes at Syros; he had even conferred with Thales and Anaximander at Miletus. These masters had opened out new horizons, though none had satisfied him. In their contradictory teachings he tried to discover the bond and synthesis, the unity of the great whole. The son of Parthenis had now reached one of those crises in which the mind, over-excited by the contradictions of things, concentrates all its faculties in one supreme effort to obtain a glimpse of the end, to find a path leading to the sun of truth, to the centre of life.
Throughout that glorious night Pythagoras fixed his gaze on the earth, the temple, and the starry heavens in turn. Demeter, the earth-mother, the
[paragraph continues] Nature whose secrets he wished to pierce, was there, beneath and around him. He inhaled her powerful emanations, felt the invincible attraction which enchained him, the thinking atom, to her bosom, an inseparable part of herself. The sages he had consulted had said to him: "It is from her that all springs. Nothing comes from nothing. The soul comes from water, or fire, or from both. This subtle emanation of the elements issues from them only to return. Eternal Nature is blind and inflexible, resign thyself to her fatal laws. The only merit thou wilt have will be that thou knowest them, and art resigned thereto."
Then he looked at the firmament and the fiery letters formed by the constellations in the unfathomable depths of space. These letters must have a meaning. For if the infinitely small, the movement of atoms, has its raison dêtre, why not also the infinitely great, the widely scattered stars, whose grouping represents the body of the universe? Yes; each of these worlds has its own law; all move together according to number and in supreme harmony. But who will ever decipher the alphabet of the stars? The priests of Juno had said to him: "This is the heaven of the gods, which was before the earth. Thy soul comes therefrom. Pray to them, that it may mount again to heaven."
These meditations were interrupted by a voluptuous chant, coming from a garden on the banks of the Imbrasus. The lascivious voices of the Lesbian women, in languishing strains, were heard accompanying the music of the cithara, responded to in the Bacchic airs chanted by the youths. Suddenly other cries, piercing and mournful, from the direction of the harbour, mingled with these voices. They were the cries of rebels whom Polycrates was embarking to sell as slaves in Asia. They were being struck with nail-studded thongs, to compel them to crouch beneath the pontoons of the rowers. Their shrieks and blasphemous cries died away in the night and silence reigned over all.
A painful thrill ran through the young man's frame; he checked it in an attempt to regain possession of himself. The problem lay before him, more pressing and poignant than before. Earth said: Fatality. Heaven said: Providence. Mankind, between the two, replied: Madness! Pain! Slavery! In the depths of his own nature, however, the future adept heard an invincible voice replying to the chains of earth and the flaming heavens with the cry: Liberty! Who were right; sages, or priests, the wretched or the mad, or was it himself? In reality all these voices spoke the truth, each triumphed in its own sphere, but none gave
up to him its raison dêtre. The three worlds all existed, unchangeable as the heart of Demeter, the light of the constellations and the human breast, but only the one who could find agreement between them and the law of their equilibrium would be truly wise; he alone would be in possession of divine knowledge and capable of aiding mankind. It was in the synthesis of the three worlds that the secret of the Kosmos lay!
As he gave utterance to this discovery he had just made, Pythagoras rose to his feet. His eager glance was fixed on the Doric façade of the temple; the majestic building seemed transfigured beneath Diana's chaste beams. There he believed that he saw the ideal image of the world and the solution of the problem he was seeking. The base, columns, architrave, and triangular pediment suddenly represented, in his eyes, the triple nature of man and the universe, of the microcosm and the macrocosm crowned by divine unity, itself a trinity. The Kosmos, controlled and penetrated by God, formed
"The sacred Quaternion, the source of Nature; whose cause is eternal." 1
Yes, here concealed in these geometrical lines was the key of the universe, the science of numbers,
the ternary law regulating the constitution of beings, and the septenary law that governs their evolution. Pythagoras saw the worlds move through space in accordance with the rhythm and harmony of the sacred numbers. He saw the balance of earth and heaven of which human liberty holds control; the three worlds, the natural, the human, and the divine, sustaining and determining one another, and playing the universal drama in a doubleascending and descendingmovement. He divided the spheres of the invisible enveloping the visible world and ever animating it; finally, he conceived of the purification and liberation of man, on this globe, by triple initiation. All this he saw, along with his life and work, in an instantaneous flash of illumination, with the absolute certainty of the spirit brought face to face with Truth. Now he must prove by Reason what his pure Intelligence had obtained from the Absolute, and this needed a human life, it was the task of a Hercules.
Where could he find the knowledge necessary to bring such a labour to a successful issue? Neither the songs of Homer, nor the sages of Ionia, nor the temples of Greece would suffice.
The spirit of Pythagoras, which had suddenly found wings, began to plunge into his past life,
into his mist-enveloped birth and his mother's mysterious love. Childhood's memory returned to him with striking clearness. He recalled the fact that his mother had carried him in her arms, when only a babe of twelve months, to the temple of Adonaï, in a vale of Lebanon. He saw himself again as a child, clinging to the neck of Parthenis, with mighty forests and mountains all around, whilst the river formed a waterfall close by. She was standing on a terrace shaded with giant cedars. In front of her stood a majestic-looking, white-bearded priest, smiling on the mother and child as he uttered grave-sounding words the little one did not understand. Often had his mother brought back to his mind the strange utterance of the hierophant of Adonaï: "O woman of Ionia, thy son shall be great in wisdom; but remember that, though the Greeks still possess the science of the gods, the knowledge of God can no longer be found elsewhere than in Egypt." These words came back to him along with his mother's smile, the old man's beautiful face, and the distant murmur of the waterfall dominated by the priest's voice, with that magnificent scenery all around, like the dream of another life. For the first time he guessed the meaning of the oracle. He had indeed heard of the wonderful knowledge of Egyptian priests and their
dreadful mysteries, though he thought he could do without it all. Now he understood that he needed this "science of God," to penetrate to the very heart of nature, and that he could find it only in the temples of Egypt. It was the gentle Parthenis who, with maternal instinct, had prepared him for this work, and borne him as an offering to the sovereign God! From this moment he made up his mind to go to Egypt, and there undergo initiation.
Polycrates prided himself on being the protector of philosophers as well as of poets. He willingly gave Pythagoras a letter of recommendation to Pharaoh Amasis, who introduced him to the priests of Memphis. The latter were opposed to receiving him, and were induced to consent only with the utmost difficulty. Egyptian sages distrusted Greeks, whom they charged with being fickle and inconstant. They did all they could to discourage the young Samian. The novice, however, submitted with unfaltering patience and courage to the delays and tests imposed on him. He knew beforehand that he would only attain to knowledge by entirely mastering his will throughout his entire being. His initiation under the pontificate of Sonchis the high priest lasted twenty-two years. All the trials and temptations, the soul-rending
dread and ecstatic joy passed through by Hermes, the initiate of Isis, even to the apparent, or cataleptic death of the adept and his resurrection in the light of Osiris, were experienced by Pythagoras, so that he now realized, not as a vain theory, but as something lived through, the doctrine of the Logos-Light, or of the universal Word, and that of human evolution through seven planetary cycles. At each step of this giddy ascent the tests became more formidable. A hundred times the risk of death was incurred, especially if one's object was to gain control over occult forces, and attain to the dangerous practice of magic and theurgy. Like all great men, Pythagoras believed in his star. No path that led to knowledge disheartened him, the fear of death could not check him, for he saw life beyond. When the Egyptian priests had recognized that he possessed extraordinary strength of soul and that impersonal passion for wisdom, which is the rarest thing in the world, they opened out to him the treasures of their experience. Whilst with them he daily improved, and became filled with divine knowledge. He mastered sacred mathematics and the science of numbers, or universal principles, which he formulated anew and made the centre of his system. The severity of the Egyptian discipline in the temples also impressed on him the prodigious
power of the human will when wisely trained and exercised, the endless applications, both to body and to soul, that can be made of it. "The science of numbers and the art of will-power," said the priests of Memphis, "are the two keys of magic; they open up all the gates of the universe." It was in Egypt that Pythagoras obtained that view from above, which allows of one seeing the spheres of life and the sciences in concentric order, and understanding the involution of the spirit into matter by universal creation, and its evolution or re-ascent towards unity by way of that individual creation called the development of a consciousness.
Pythagoras had reached the summit of Egyptian priesthood, and was perhaps thinking of returning to Greece, when war, with all its misery, burst upon the valley of the Nile, carrying away the initiate of Osiris in another direction. The despots of Asia had long been meditating the ruin of Egypt. Their repeated attacks had failed, for centuries past, before the wisdom of the Egyptian institutions, the power of the priesthood, and the energy of the Pharaohs. But the refuge of the science of Hermes, the kingdom from time immemorial, was not to remain for ever. Cambyses, son of the conqueror of Babylon, descended on Egypt with his innumerable hosts, famished as clouds of locusts,
and put an end to the institution of the Pharaohs, the origin of which was lost in the night of time. In the eyes of the sages this was a catastrophe for the whole world. Hitherto Egypt had sheltered Europe against Asia. Her protecting influence still extended over the whole basin of the Mediterranean, by means of the temples of Phoenicia, Greece, and Etruria, with which the high Egyptian priesthood were in constant connection. This rampart once overthrown, the Bull, with lowered head, was about to burst upon the land of Greece. Pythagoras saw Cambyses invade Egypt, he may have beheld the Persian despot, worthy scion of the crowned villains of Nineveh and Babylon, plunder the temples of Memphis and Thebes, and destroy that of Ammon. He may have seen the Pharaoh Psammitichus brought in chains before Cambyses, placed on a mound, and surrounded by the priests, the principal families, and the royal court. He may have witnessed the Pharaoh's daughter, clad in rags and followed by all her maids of honour similarly demeaned, the royal prince and two thousand young men, brought forward, bit in mouth and bridle on neck, before being beheaded; the Pharaoh Psammitichus, choking back his sobs before the frightful scene, and the infamous Cambyses, seated on his throne, gloating over the anguish of his vanquished
enemy. Cruel though instructive this lesson of history after those of science! What a picture of the animal nature let loose in man, culminating in this monster of despotism who tramples everything under foot, and, by his horrible apotheosis, imposes on humanity the reign of a most implacable destiny!
Cambyses had Pythagoras taken to Babylon, with a portion of the Egyptian priesthood, and kept him within the gates. 1 This colossal city, which Aristotle compares to a country surrounded by walls, offered at that time an immense field for observation. Ancient Babel, the great prostitute of the Hebrew prophets, was more than ever, after the Persian conquest, a pandemonium of nations, tongues, and religions, in whose midst Asiatic despotism raised aloft its dizzy tower. According to Persian tradition, its foundation dates back to the legendary Semiramis. She it is who was said to have constructed the monster enceinte, over fifty miles in circumference: the Imgur-Bel, its walls on which two chariots ran abreast, its superimposed terraces, massive palaces with polychrome reliefs, temples supported on stone elephants and surmounted by many-coloured dragons. There had followed in succession the series of despots who had
brought into subjection Chaldea, Assyria, Persia, a part of Tartara, Judaea, Syria, and Asia Minor. Hither Nebuchadnezzar, the assassin of the magi, had led captive the Jewish people who continued to practise their religion in one corner of the immense city which would have contained London four times over. The Jews had even given the great king a powerful minister in the person of the prophet Daniel. With Balthazar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, the walls of the old Babel had finally disappeared beneath the avenging hand of Cyrus, and Babylon passed for several centuries under Persian rule. By reason of this series of preceding events, at the time Pythagoras came there, there were three different religions side by side in the high priesthood of Babylon: the ancient Chaldean priests, the survivors of the Persian magi, and the élite of the Jewish captivity. The proof that these different priesthoods were in mutual agreement, on the esoteric side, is found in the part played by Daniel, who, whilst acknowledging the God of Moses, remained first minister under Nebuchadnezzar, Balthazar, and Cyrus.
Pythagoras was now obliged to enlarge his horizon, already so vast, by studying these doctrines and religions, the synthesis of which was still preserved by a few initiates. In Babylon he
was able to thoroughly study the knowledge in the possession of the magi, the heirs of Zoroaster. Though the Egyptian priests alone possessed the universal keys of the sacred sciences, the Persian magi had the reputation of carrying farther the practice of certain arts. They claimed to control those occult powers of nature called pantomorphic fire and astral light. In their temples, it was said, darkness reigned in broad daylight, lamps were lit without human agency, the radiance of the Gods was visible and the rumble of thunder could be heard. The magi gave the name of celestial lion to this incorporeal fire, the agent that generates electricity, which they could condense or disperse at will, and that of serpents to the electric currents of the atmosphere and the magnetic currents of the earth, which they claimed to be able to direct like arrows against mankind. They had also made a special study of the suggestive, attractive, and creative power of the human word. To evoke spirits they employed graduated formulas, borrowed from the most ancient languages on earth. The following is the psychic reasoning they themselves gave thereof: "Make no change in the barbarous names employed in evocation; for they are the pantheistic names of God; they are magnetized with the worship of multitudes, and their power is
ineffable." 1 These evocations, accompanied by prayer and purification, were, properly speaking, what was called at a later date, white magic.
Accordingly we now see Pythagoras in Babylon, penetrating the arcana of ancient magic. At the same time, in this den of despotism, he witnessed a glorious spectacle; on the ruins of the crumbling religions of the East, above their decimated and degenerate priesthood, a band of dauntless initiates, grouped together, were defending their science, their faith, and as well as they could, justice. Boldly facing the despots, like Daniel in the den of lions, ever prepared to be torn to pieces, they tamed and fascinated the wild beast of absolute power by their intellectual might, disputing, foot by foot, the ground they had won.
After his Egyptian and Chaldean initiation, the child of Samos knew far more than his teachers of natural philosophy, far more than any Greek, either priest or laic, of his time. He was acquainted with the eternal principles of the universe and their application. Nature had opened up to him her secrets; the gross veils of matter had been torn from his eyes, enabling him to see the marvellous spheres of nature and spiritualized humanity. In the temples of Neith-Isis in Memphis, and Bel in
[paragraph continues] Babylon, he had learned many secrets as to the past history of religions, continents, and races. He had been able to compare the advantages with the disadvantages of the Jewish monotheism, the Greek polytheism, the Hindu trinitarianism, and the Persian dualism. He knew that all these religions were rays of one same truth, strained down through different degrees of intelligence and intended for different social conditions. He held the key, i.e. the synthesis of all these doctrines, in esoteric science. His vision, compassing the past and plunging into the future, was bound to judge the present with singular lucidity. His experience showed him humanity threatened with the most terrible evils, through the ignorance of the priests, the materialism of the savants, and the lack of discipline in the democracies. In the midst of this universal decay he saw Asiatic despotism increase; from this dark cloud a terrible cyclone was about to burst upon defenceless Europe.
Accordingly it was now the hour to return to Greece, there to fulfil his mission and begin his work.
Pythagoras had been kept in Babylon for twelve years. To leave the city, an order from the king of Persia was necessary. Democedes, a compatriot of his and the king's physician, interceded in his
favour and obtained liberty for the philosopher. After an absence of thirty-four years Pythagoras returned to Samos. He found his country crushed and ruined by a satrap of the great king. Schools and temples were closed, poets and savants had fled like a cloud of swallows before Persian caesarism. He had the consolation however, of seeing Hermodamas, his first master, take his last breath, and of meeting Parthenis, his mother, the only one who had never doubted that he would return. For everyone thought that the adventurous son of the jeweller of Samos was dead. Not for a moment had she doubted the oracle of Apollo. Well she divined that beneath the Egyptian priest's white robe, her son was preparing himself for some lofty mission. She knew that there would come forth from the temple of Neith-Isis the beneficent master, the light-bearing prophet, of whom she had dreamed in the sacred wood of Delphi, and whom the hierophant of Adonaï had promised her beneath the cedars of Lebanon.
And now a light skiff was bearing away mother and son to a new exile over the azure waves of the Aegean sea. They were fleeing, with all their possessions, from an oppressed and ruined Samos, and were making sail for Greece. Neither the Olympic crowns nor the poet's laurels tempted the son of
[paragraph continues] Parthenis. His work was greater and more mysterious; it was to rouse to life the slumbering soul of the gods in the sanctuaries, to restore the temple of Apollo to its former might and prestige, and then to found somewhere a school of science and of life whence should come forth, not politicians and sophists, but men and women initiates, true mothers and pure heroes!
18:1 The Golden Verses of Pythagoras.
25:1 Iamblichus relates this fact in his Life of Pythagoras.
28:1 The Oracles of Zoroaster, taken from the theurgy of Proclus.