Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
43. Abstinence 45. Pythagoras as a Man of Science

From Chapter II., Science and Religion

44. Akousmata
We shall now know what to think of the Pythagorean rules and precepts that have come down to us. These are of two kinds, and have different sources. Some of them, derived from Aristoxenos, and for the most part preserved by Iamblichos, are mere precepts of morality. They do not pretend to go back to Pythagoras himself; they are only the sayings which the last generation of "Mathematicians" heard from their predecessors.62 The second class is of a different nature, and consists of rules called Akousmata,63 which points to their being the property of the sect which had faithfully preserved the old customs. Later writers interpret them as "symbols" of moral truth; but it does not require a practised eye to see that they are genuine taboos. I give a few examples to show what the Pythagorean rule was really like.

1. To abstain from beans.

2. Not to pick up what has fallen.

3. Not to touch a white cock.

4. Not to break bread.

5. Not to step over a crossbar.

6. Not to stir the fire with iron.

7. Not to eat from a whole loaf.

8. Not to pluck a garland.

9. Not to sit on a quart measure.

10. Not to eat the heart.

11. Not to walk on highways.

12. Not to let swallows share one's roof.

13. When the pot is taken off the fire, not to leave the mark of it in the ashes, but to stir them together.

14. Do not look in a mirror beside a light.

15. When you rise from the bedclothes, roll them together and smooth out the impress of the body.

It would be easy to multiply proofs of the close connexion between Pythagoreanism and primitive modes of thought, but what has been said is sufficient for our purpose.

Burnet's Notes


62. For the Πυθαγορικαὶ ἀποφάσεις of Aristoxenos, see Diels, Vors. 45 D.

63. There is a collection of Ἀκούσματα καὶ σύμβολα in Diels, Vors. 45 c.

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