Pythagoras the Con-Artist


“Pythagoras confined himself in an underground hole and told his mother to tell people that he had died. When he reappeared, he told a lot of marvelous tales about resurrection and the things which happen in the underworld, and, to the living he related a full account of all the companions he happened to meet in the underworld; from this arose the belief that he was Aithalides son of Hermes before the Trojan War, then Euphorbus, then Hermotimus, then Pyrrhus the Delian, and then finally Pythagoras. Sophocles seems to be hinting at this story. Some assert, though unpersuasively, that the lines are aimed at Odysseus. But this is unconvincing, because Odysseus never did anything of the sort.”

ἤδη γὰρ εἶδον πολλάκις Πυθαγόρας καθείρξας ἑαυτὸν ἐν ὑπογείῳ λογοποιεῖν ἐκέλευσε τὴν μητέρα ὡς ἄρα τεθνηκὼς εἴη καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα ἐπιφανεὶς περὶ παλιγγενεσίας καὶ τῶν καθ’ ῞Αιδου τινὰ ἐτερατεύετο διηγούμενος πρὸς τοὺς ζῶντας περὶ τῶν οἰκείων οἷς ἐν ῞Αιδου συντετυχηκέναι ἔλεγεν ἐξ ὧν τοιαύτην ἑαυτῷ δόξαν περιέθηκεν ὡς πρὸ μὲν τῶν Τρωικῶν Αἰθαλίδης ὢν ὁ ῾Ερμοῦ, εἶτα Εὔφορβος, εἶτα ῾Ερμότιμος, εἶτα Πύρρος ὁ Δήλιος, εἶτα ἐπὶ πᾶσι Πυθαγόρας· εἰς τοῦτο  οὖν ἔοικεν ἀποτείνεσθαι ὁ Σοφοκλῆς· ἔνιοι δὲ οἴονται ἀπιθάνως εἰς ᾿Οδυσσέα ἀποτείνεσθαι· οὐ γὰρ πέπρακταί τι τοιοῦτον ᾿Οδυσσεῖ·


This account is from the scholiast on Sophocles’ Electra, explaining lines 62-64:

“I know that many times wise men have died in report only. Then, when they return home, they receive a greater portion of honor.”

ἤδη γὰρ εἶδον πολλάκις καὶ τοὺς σοφοὺς

λόγῳ μάτην θνῄσκοντας· εἶθ’, ὅταν δόμους

ἔλθωσιν αὖθις, ἐκτετίμηνται πλέον·

This account can also be found in Diogenes Laertius, 8.40, where it is attributed to Hermippus:

“Hermippus says that when Pythagoras came to Italy, he made himself a little dwelling underground and told his mother to write events which she had noticed on a tablet and make a note of the time, and send it down to him until he should come back up. His mother did just this. After a time, Pythagoras came back up withered and dried out, he went to the public assembly and said that he had just returned from the underworld. He related to them all that had happened there. The people, won over by the stories, cried and wailed and believed that Pythagoras was some sort of divine character, such that they even gave their women to him to learn something of what he had to say, and these women were then called ‘Pythagorikai.’ Thus the story from Hermippus.”

φησὶν ὁ ῞Ερμιππος· λέγει γὰρ ὡς γενόμενος ἐν ᾿Ιταλίᾳ κατὰ γῆς οἰκίσκον

ποιήσαι καὶ τῇ μητρὶ ἐντείλαιτο τὰ γινόμενα εἰς δέλτον γράφειν σημειουμένην

καὶ τὸν χρόνον, ἔπειτα καθιέναι αὐτῷ ἔστ’ ἂν ἀνέλθῃ. τοῦτο ποιῆσαι τὴν

μητέρα. τὸν δὲ Πυθαγόραν μετὰ χρόνον ἀνελθεῖν ἰσχνὸν καὶ κατεσκελε-

τευμένον, εἰσελθόντα τ’ εἰς τὴν ἐκκλησίαν φάσκειν ὡς ἀφῖκται ἐξ ῞Αιδου.

καὶ δὴ καὶ ἀνεγίνωσκεν αὐτοῖς τὰ συμβεβηκότα. οἱ δὲ σαινόμενοι τοῖς λεγο-

μένοις ἐδάκρυόν τε καὶ ᾤμωζον καὶ ἐπίστευον εἶναι τὸν Πυθαγόραν θεῖόν

τινα, ὥστε καὶ τὰς γυναῖκας αὐτῷ παραδοῦναι ὡς καὶ μαθησομένας τι τῶν

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