Eco, Pythagoras, and the Mystic

Signore professore dottore schools me on Ancient Greek symbols (The Tetractys, Part 1)

In reading Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty (Storia della bellezza), I came across a symbol I hadn’t before. First, a bit about the book itself: it is exactly similar in structure to The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari), and actually makes up a trilogy with On Ugliness (Storia della bruttezza) being the final member. Various concepts of beauty are presented chronologically with contemporary images and quotes illustrating each. I’d say it has a great deal more depth than his other book, and often connects movements across art, architecture, philosophy, and religion.

When I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was fortunate to have had an art history lecturer named Robert Loescher whose knowledge was immense and presentation style both humorous and thought provoking. Unfortunately, being a teenager, I was chronically sleep deprived, the lectures immediately followed lunch, and the newly renovated auditorium featured comfortable chairs and dim lighting better to show the slides. All of this meant I’d often suddenly jolt awake sometime in the middle of any given lecture having missed an unknown number of pearls of wisdom and kicking myself. Worse, the sketchbook all my notes were in went missing some time ago so I can only rely on my fallible mental software.

Nonetheless, even though art history is not the field Eco is best known for, he manages to surpass even this excellent lecturer. And it’s great to have the information in a book, so if I fall asleep, I won’t miss anything, and unlike my vanished sketchbook, this one can sit safe in my library to be referred to again and again. My only criticism, similar to what I said of Eco’s other book, is that further breakdown of the images would be awesome, but I can also understand how this could increase the scope excessively, something like a full-scale map.¹ And I can simply have recourse to the internets if I want to know how Hans Holbein the Younger rendered the anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors.

Back to the original point: I’ve run across many things of which I was previously unaware in this book, but one I would have supposed I would have known about was this symbol: the tetractys.

And why do I think I should already have known about the tetractys? Because it was a symbol of Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας), who, while best known today for his supposed creation of the eponymous theorem (it is clear that the Babylonians were aware of the mathematical relationships among the three sides of a right triangle, and other cultures also discovered it independently, but tradition assigns the first written proof to Pythagoras), was actually best known in antiquity as a thaumaturge (θαυματουργός)—a miracle worker.

And because of this, I had already researched him heavily for the creation of the Mystic class in Gods & Heroes.

Therefore I had already learned of his near-mythic status in this regard, how he eschewed property, sharing all in common with his brethren instead, and how he espoused vegetarianism for ethical reasons. He also posited a heliocentric astronomical model well in advance of Copernicus.

This intertwining of mathematics and mysticism might seem strange, but Aristotle (Ἀριστοτέλης) made some sense of it in his Metaphysics (τα μετα τα φυσικά):

[…] the so-called Pythagoreans applied themselves to mathematics, and were the first to develop this science; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything. And since numbers are by nature first among these principles, and they fancied that they could detect in numbers[…] many analogues of what is and comes into being […] and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers […] it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe […].

Aristotle uses the phrase “so-called” here as he doesn’t think Pythagoras to have been a real person.

The prodigies ascribed to Pythagoras were many and varied, the best known being his golden thigh, his use of hypnotism, his claim that he could write on the moon, at least one instance of bilocation, his possession of the Golden Arrow of Abaris (Ἄβαρις), as well as his doctrine of transmigration, regarding which he:

[…] maintained that he distinctly recollected having occupied other human forms before his birth at Samos [Σάμος]: (1) He was Æthalides [Αἰθαλδης], son of Mercury; (2) Euphorbos [Εὔφορβος] the Phrygian [Φρυγος], son of Panthoos [Πανθοος], in which form he ran Patroclos [Πάτροκλος] through with a lance, leaving Hector [Ἕκτωρ] to dispatch the hateful friend of Achilles [Ἀχιλλεύς]; (3) Hermotimos [Ἑρμότιμος], the prophet of Clazomenae [Κλαζομεναί]; and; (4) a fisherman. To prove his Phrygian existence he was taken to the temple of Hera, in Argos [Ἄργος], and asked to point out the shield of the son of Panthoos, which he did without hesitation.

For a bit more detail on these prodigies: having a golden thigh might seem an odd miracle, but it essentially meant that he was part immortal. The same trope is at work in the tale of Pelops (Πέλοψ), who, after being hacked to bits and offered to the gods in a stew by his father, Tantalos (Τάνταλος), was put back together, and returned to life with an ivory shoulder. Bilocation means he was seen simultaneously by two different people in two far distant places. And the Arrow of Abaris allowed one to ride through the air, become invisible, cure diseases, and give oracles.

Quoting myself from a developer diary I wrote about the Mystic in Gods & Heroes:

This Roman tradition of “sorcery” centered around a couple of things—mastery of time and space, nature control, various healing arts including uses of medicines, and cursing, generally associated with necromancy.

One can see that apart from the dark magic at the list’s end, and which I drew from other sources, these fit well with the tale of Pythagoras. For dark magic I drew on traditions that existed across the ancient Mediterranean, best known from the use of defixiones (Greek κατάδεσμοί), which invoke the aid of underworld gods to act against a subject. The skills available to the class included some that clearly were influenced by these ideas as well, including:

  • Acquired Immunity
  • Cleanse
  • Mesmerize
  • Hypnotize
  • Persuasion
  • Insubstantiality
  • Transmigration
  • Summon Shade

Of these, the last is slightly less clear in referring to Pythagoras’ feat of bilocation, but is essentially a dark form thereof, just as there were negative forms of other abilities such as Miasma in opposition to Cleanse. The application of the word mesmerize is a bit awkward as it is named after German physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). Regardless, the “animal magnetism” described by Mesmer matches well with the descriptions of Pythagoras’ dominion over beasts and birds by the power of his voice and touch.

In any case, the tetractys is a simple-seeming symbol, but which has a ton of depth. There are different versions of the figure, but the basic version looks like this:

A discussion of its manifold meanings will have to wait for Part 2.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2: A Child’s Garden of Tessellae


1. The reference is to Eco’s essay, “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1” (“Dell’impossibilità di costruire la carta dell’impero 1 a 1”), collected in How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, a partial translation of Il secondo diario minimo, 1994.

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