2020-04-30

Thighs: Pythagorean, Biblical and Other

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by Neil Godfrey

This is just a curiosity post in response to someone raising a query about the golden thigh of Pythagoras and wondering if there is any connection with the use of the word thigh as a euphemism for genitalia in the Bible.

To begin, here are the sources for the idea that Pythagoras had a “golden thigh”. It is difficult to interpret the word as anything other than a literal thigh. But we will see there is more to Greek mythical associations with the thigh in the next section.

Pythagoras modestly covering his golden thigh

They come from “the fragments” of what ancients recorded of their knowledge of what Aristotle wrote. They are all collated in a volume available at archive.org — pages 134 and 135.

APOLLON. Mirab. 6. These were succeeded by Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus, who first worked at mathematics and arithmetic, but later even indulged in miracle-mongering like that of Pherecydes. When a ship was coming into harbour at Metapontum laden with a cargo, and the bystanders were, on account of the cargo, praying for her safe arrival, Pythagoras intervened and said: ‘Very well, you will see the ship bearing a dead body.’ Again in Caulonia, according to Aristotle, he prophesied the advent of a she-bear; and Aristotle also, in addition to much other information about him, says that in Tuscany he killed a deadly biting serpent by biting it himself. He also says that Pythagoras foretold to the Pythagoreans the coming political strife; by reason of which he departed to Metapontum unobserved by anyone, and while he was crossing the river Cosas he, with others, heard the river say, with a voice beyond human strength, ‘Pythagoras, hail!’; at which those present were greatly alarmed. He once appeared both at Croton and at Metapontum on the same day and at the same hour. Once, while sitting in the theatre, he rose (according to Aristotle) and showed to those sitting there that one of his thighs was of gold. There are other surprising things told about him, but, not wishing to play the part of mere transcribers, we will bring our account of him to an end.

Further from the same source . . . .

AELIAN, V.H. 2. 26. Aristotle says that Pythagoras was called by the people of Croton the Hyperborean Apollo. The son of Nicomachus adds that Pythagoras was once seen by many people, on the same day and at the same hour, both at Metapontum and at Croton; and at Olympia, during the games, he got up in the theatre and showed that one of his thighs was golden. The same writer says that while crossing the Cosas he was hailed by the river, and that many people heard him so hailed.

Ibid. 4. 17. Pythagoras used to tell people that he was born of more than mortal seed; for on the same day and at the same hour he was seen (they say) at Metapontum and at Croton; and at Olympia he showed that one of his thighs was golden. He informed Myllias of Croton that he was Midas the Phrygian, the son of Gordius. He fondled the white eagle, which made no resistance. While crossing the river Cosas he was addressed by the river, which said ‘Hail, Pythagoras!’

DIOG. LAERT. 8. 1. 11 (9). He is said to have been very dignified in his bearing, and his disciples held that he was Apollo, and came from the men of the north. There is a story that once, when he was stripped, his thigh was seen to be golden; and there were many who said that the river Nessus had hailed him as he was crossing it.

IAMB. V.P. 28. 140-3. The Pythagoreans derive their confidence in their views from the fact that the first to express them was no ordinary man, but God. One of their traditions relates to the question ‘Who art thou, Pythagoras?’; they say he is the Hyperborean Apollo. This is supposed to be evidenced by two facts: when he got up during the games he showed a thigh of gold, and when he entertained Abaris the Hyperborean he stole from him the arrow by which he was guided. Abaris is said to have come from the Hyperboreans collecting money for the temple and prophesying pestilence ; he lived in the sacred shrines and was never seen to drink or eat anything . . . .

But there is more. There is something suggestive about the thigh in other myths.

Birth of Dionysus from Zeus’s thigh

One that comes to mind is the birth of the god Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus. Zeus had seduced and impregnated Semele but when Semele died before her time to give birth (Zeus’s jealous wife had tricked Zeus into causing Semele’s death by appearing before her in all his divine glory) Zeus snatched up the child and sewed him into his thigh until he was ready to be born. (Dionysus thus was known as the twice-born god.)

But why the thigh? We believe that we are dealing here with a literal translation of a West Semitic idiom which euphemistically designated begetting: “sprung from one’s thigh” (yōṣe’ yerēkó, inaccurately translated in English Bibles by “loins”) merely meant “begotten by one,” his child.

(Astour, 195. Note that the Greek myth of Dionysus was borrowed and adapted from Phygia in Asia Minor.)

In the literature of ancient Greek myths thigh wounds are often euphemisms for castration. So . . .

Classical scholars are generally aware of the trope that in literature from around the world thigh wounds are often euphemistic for castration, or at least for impotence. But classicists have not noted how thigh wounds frequently symbolize not only physical impotence but political or spiritual impotence, and how such wounds also represent a temporary or permanent loss of heroic status for the wounded individual as well as a crisis for the group of people represented by that individual. This association apparently has its roots in a belief, held by many cultures, that semen was produced in several places in the body, including in the marrow of the thigh bone, and the thighs’ proximity to the testicles resulted in a close association that was nearly an interchange between the thighs and the male genitalia. Consequently, any kind of wound to the thigh, whether a wrenching, piercing, crushing, or other injury or mutilation, could represent a blow to a man’s physical and spiritual virility. . . . .

(Felton, 47f)

Some ancient physiology and learning why ankle wounds so often proved fatal:

Dying Achilles (Wikimedia)

The feet were physiologically connected to the sources of vitality in two ways. Fulgentius, in his discussion of Achilles’ life (Mitologiarum, III, 7), mentions a belief among doctors which he says goes back to the time of Orpheus: that veins ran from the kidneys and genitals, through the thigh, to the heel. Aristotle quotes the similar belief of Polybus: “There are four pairs of veins. The first extends from the back of the head, . . . until it reaches the loins and passes on to the legs, … to the outer side of the ankles and on to the feet. Another pair . . . goes on inside along the backbone, past the muscles of the loins, on to the testicles, and onwards to the thighs, … to the inside of the ankles and to the feet. This concept of anatomy helps to explain why foot wounds are so quickly fatal in mythology — not only to Achilles, but to Pholus, Diarmuid, Paris — who dies not from his head wound but a heel wound, and Talos — whose vein structure resembles that described by the early physiologists: “He had a single vein extending from his neck to his ankles” (Apollodorus, I, ix, 26, Frazer’s translation). It also explains why the myths contain so many leg wounds. They are the rationalized remains, in sophisticated stories, of more primitive rituals, of live sacrifices that involved the genital organs or legs . . . .

The path of the life-stuff, semen, into the lower limbs was through the marrow. In classical times the testes were not regarded as the sources of semen, but simply as reservoirs between the places of generation and emission. As Aristotle says, “The testes are no [essential] part of the ducts but are only attached to them” (De Generation Animalium, 717a, 34-35). Moreover, it was known empirically that castration did not kill, which would certainly happen if the source of life were destroyed, and so castration was regarded as an act which, by preventing the emission of semen, preserved it within the body. Thus Aristotle records that the legs of eunuchs swell because of the trapped fluid.

(Hays, 15f)

Hence the thigh as a male womb:

The Greeks shared in this cultural association of the thighs with organs of regeneration. Hence, Zeus can incubate the infant Dionysus in his thigh, which becomes the male equivalent of the womb.7 Aristotle was among those who believed that veins ran from the genitals through the thigh to the heel . . .

(Felton, 48)

What of the biblical use of thigh as a euphemism and its well-known appearance in oaths:

Genesis 24:2-3

And he said to the elder servant of his house, who was ruler over all he had: Put thy hand under my thigh, that I may make thee swear by the Lord the God of heaven and earth, that thou take not a wife for my son, of the daughters of the Chanaanites, among whom I dwell (Douay-Rheims trans)

Genesis 47:29-31

And when he saw that the day of his death drew nigh, he called his son Joseph, and said to him: If I have found favour in thy sight, put thy hand under my thigh; and thou shalt shew me this kindness and truth, not to bury me in Egypt: But I will sleep with my fathers, and thou shalt take me away out of this land, and bury me in the burying place of my ancestors. And Joseph answered him: I will do what thou hast commanded. And he said: Swear then to me. And as he was swearing, Israel adored God, turning to the bed’s head. (Douay-Rheims trans)

[T]he word yārēk “thigh” in these passages is used euphemistically of “genitals”. The language is transparently symbolic of posterity, family, and blood relationships. Touching the procreative organ while promising to maintain the cohesion of the family must have entailed invoking the ancestral spirits of the family to witness and assure the fulfilment of the promise. Failure to keep it or an attempt to violate the principle of the family cohesion would arouse the wrath of the ancestral spirits.

(Malul, 198)

We see the evidence that the word was used as a euphemism for genitals in these passages:

Genesis 46:26

All the souls that went with Jacob into Egypt, and that came out of his thigh, besides his sons’ wives, sixty-six.

Exodus 1:5

And all the souls that came out of Jacob’s thigh, were seventy

Judges 8:30

And he had seventy sons, who came out of his thigh, for he had many wives.

As for the word so translated,

the expression paḥad yiṣḥāq contains an Aramaic word, pḥd “thigh”, and should be translated literally “the thigh ( = genitals) of Isaac”. At this stage it may be stated that it refers symbolically to something like the “posterity” or “family of Isaac” . . .

(Malul, 196)

Malul summarizes

To summarize: the phrase paḥad yiṣḥāq used twice in Gen. xxxi contains an Aramaic word (paḥad) and should be translated “the thigh of Isaac”. It symbolizes the family and ancestral spirits of Isaac. In it is reflected the custom of the oath by the thigh twice attested in the stories of the patriarchs (xxxiv 1ff. and xlvii 29ff.), an oath to which one had recourse when the continuity and cohesion of the family were at stake. The spirits of the family, invoked by the symbolic gesture accompanying the oath, were supposed to rally to the protection of their descendants and to the defence of the integrity of their line.

(200)

After the publication of that article a colleague of Malul forwarded him a reference to an old Babylonian letter that testified to a similar custom:

Thus you (have said to me): “Let your envoy grasp my testicles and my penis, and then I will give (it) to you.”  Concerning(??) then what you have said to me, (I am dispatching to you) Burriya the son of Menanum.

. . . . .

The similarity between the Mesopotamian and biblical symbolic oath ceremonies is striking. Even the derived meaning of one’s “seed, posterity”, which the word for thigh has in Biblical Hebrew, is attested in Akkadian, at least for the word išku, “testicle”, which can also mean “son”.

(Malul, 1987, 491f)

.

Conclusion

I don’t believe Pythagoras was a flasher. His thigh was glimpsed as he rose from his seat sometimes. But the thigh did have cultural significance as a symbol of some sort of power and virility. The Babylonian letter leaves no doubt that there was a custom that involved some notion of touching male genitals as an oath of some kind. But though the thigh may have been a euphemism in the Bible it also had more literal connections with virility, progeny, power in the Greek world.

 


Aristotle. 1952. The Works of Aristotle. Volume XII, Select Fragments. Translated by W. D. (William David) Ross. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Astour, Michael C. 1967. Hellenosemitica; an Ethnic and Cultural Study in West Semitic Impact on Mycenaean Greece. Leiden, E.J. Brill.

Felton, D. 2014. “The Motif of the ‘Mutilated Hero’ in Herodotus.” Phoenix 68 (1/2): 47.

Hays, Peter L. 1971. The Limping Hero; Grotesques in Literature. New York, New York University Press.

Malul, Meir. 1985. “More on Paḥad Yiṣḥāq (Genesis XXXI 42, 53) and the Oath by the Thigh.” Vetus Testamentum 35 (2): 192–200.

———. 1987. “Touching the Sexual Organs as an Oath Ceremony in an Akkadian Letter.” Vetus Testamentum 37 (4): 491–92.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Thighs: Pythagorean, Biblical and Other”

  1. It is commonly said that the story of a woman’s upper “thigh” falling in the Bible, was an euphemism for her womb.
    Shrinking after the administration, by a priest, of an abortifacient (sp?) dust or powder.

    1. That’s from Numbers 5:21

      21 These curses shall light upon thee: The Lord make thee a curse, and an example for all among his people: may he make thy thigh to rot, and may thy belly swell and burst asunder.

      and Numbers 5:27

      27 And when she hath drunk them, if she be defiled, and having despised her husband be guilty of adultery, the malediction shall go through her, and her belly swelling, her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse, and an example to all the people.

      1. Yes. Thank you.

        Dionysus may also have gotten a proto-christisn reputation for being reborn, also in part for being the god of the cultivation of grape vines. Which are often grown from cuttings; some grafted on to old root stock.

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