Tag Archives: Ancient science

Thighs: Pythagorean, Biblical and Other

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: read more »

Scholars, Divinities and How the Cosmos was Understood “Scientifically” B.C.E.

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon, last discussed at Ascent of the Sage: “From Adapa to Enoch”, part 2 . . . .

We come now to chapter 2, “I Am Adapa!” The Divine Personae of Mesopotamian Scribes.

If we want to understand how ancient scholars related to their universe, their revealed texts and revealers, the best collections of sources we have, spanning two to three thousand years up to the first century CE, are the cuneiform records of Mesopotamia. In the next chapter Sanders begins to compare Judean texts.

In this chapter (2) Sanders examines the nature of the cosmos among these ancient scribes and how they went about understanding, studying and acting on it.

In addition to the texts, there is the visual imagery of divine beings, divine sages or apkallu, to help us with our inquiry.

We have images of a patient (sick, hence possessed or inflicted by a demon) surrounded by superhuman fish-apkallu standing where exorcists would be positioned.

We have royal inscriptions of the enthroned king framed by bird-apkallu maintaining cosmic order from the seat of royal power.

Scholarly participation in supernatural presence was not confined to exorcism: the economists and political scientists of their day, diviners summoned the gods to meet together in divine assembly so that the diviner could be present to hear and transmit their verdict for the country’s future. (Sanders, 72)

“Medical practice” and “political advisors” were thus the more practical pursuits of scholars. But what are the boundaries between science and what we would relegate to mumbo-jumbo in their world? And did the scholars or scribes really become, in their own minds, supernatural sages (apkallu)? Did they really believe they could journey to heaven and meet with the gods?

At this point we find an interesting connection with another book I have been posting about. It is interesting to compare the concepts of early Judean scribes to their Hebrew text — see the two posts on Nanine Charbonnel’s chapter 2, The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text and A God Bound to the Mechanics of Language. Seth Sanders writes,

If cuneiform was the secret of Mesopotamian scribes, the ultimate decipherer of this secret was the semi-human sage Adapa, at once the symbol and the patron saint of the scribe. Probably the single most popular mythic hero in Mesopotamian literature, Adapa beat out even Gilgamesh. As Michalowski notes, “no other hero of a canonical text is so often encountered in other compositions.” This is not surprising, since he would have been so sympathetic to the scribes who produced those compositions. He is supposed to have authored omen collections, fathomed the deepest secrets of words and magic, and broken the wings of the South Wind by the sheer power of his speech. He was of paramount importance to the people who created cuneiform culture.

Adapa is crucial as a phenomenological starting point in our comparison of scribal heroes. As the best-documented ancient Near Eastern figure who ascends to heaven, negotiates with gods, transmits revelation, and fights demons to heal the sick he is simultaneously the closest thing Mesopotamia has to Moses, Enoch and the shaman of North Asian societies. Seen horizontally, from a view of cultures side by side, he represents a broad comparative type: the mediator, who moves between the worlds of gods and humans. (Sanders, 73. My bolding in all quotations)

Adapa is a figure of knowledge and power (see the previous post in this series). He is also worn as a ritual mask. And as we saw in the previous post, his function changes over time as political circumstances change.

In order to grasp something of the way the natural and divine worlds were conceptualized in Mesopotamian culture we need to set aside our dualistic notions of spirit powers and entities. To us, the spirit realm stands against the natural world, yet such a division between the two needs to be set aside, Sanders emphasizes at length. We think of God and spirit beings as not found literally in physical manifestations like idols of stone, or in natural phenomena like earthquakes and storms.

Mesopotamian texts and images portray the divine beings interacting with, present with, humans, both occupying the same space, and in some cases the human speaker actually claims to be the divine Adapa himself.

I am Adapa sage of Eridu [= location of watery source of secret knowledge]
I am the man [= servant] of Asalluhi [= the god of exorcism]
Enki [= creator and master of the demons causing the illness] the great lord has sent me to cure the man in his illness!

In what sense did the speaker understand himself to be Adapa?

Francesca Rochberg

Advances in understanding the Mesopotamian view of the supernatural vis a vis the natural world have come, Sanders explains, through exploring more deeply the nature of Mesopotamian science. And here I take a detour to have a closer look at some of the sources Sanders calls upon, work by the Assyriologist Francesca Rochberg.

Before the “World of Nature”

Imagine not having a concept of “the natural world” or “nature”. We take the concept for granted and that makes it difficult for us to appreciate that it has not always existed.

A key insight has come from the history of science. Exploring Mesopotamian scholars’ criteria for meaning and truth, Francesca Rochberg has shown that cuneiform scholarship tended to see the material world as composed of signs: reality itself is semiotic. Such an ontology does not presuppose a purely non-linguistic physical nature in opposition to culture, and in fact the history of science has shown that an explicit concept of nature is not necessary to all scientific inquiry, citing ancient China and Mesopotamia as cases where forms of science thrived without it (Lloyd 2012:64).  (Sanders, 77)

What were the “subjects” of interest to Mesopotamian scholars?

Various forms of divination: astronomy and astrology, examination of sheep’s entrails, lexical texts (lists of synonyms, grammatical forms, etc.), diagnostic and therapeutic medical texts, magical texts, incantations . . . read more »