Michael Baigent looks at one of the most revered figures of early Freemasonry
An early legend, taken seriously by working Freemasons, explained that prior to the great flood all knowledge of the seven sciences had been recorded on two large stone pillars which were hidden in caves near the ancient city of Thebes in Egypt – around the modern city of Luxor.
The fifteenth-century Cooke Manuscript of the Freemasons’ ‘Old Charges’ reports: ‘After this flode many years … these 2 pillers were founde … a grete clerke that called putogoras fonde that one and hermes the philosopher fonde that other’.
Hermes ‘the Philosopher’ was a mythical figure used to express the inner initiatory teachings of the Egyptian priesthood. He was a Greek echo of the Egyptian god Thoth (Djeuty) who ruled over initiation and was guide through the ‘Far-World’, the world of the gods and the dead.
The second figure was Pythagoras; he was different. He was not mythological but a Greek born on the island of Samos around 580 BC. And he was well aware of Hermes whom he considered ‘the wisest of all’.
Pythagoras’ teachings involved initiation and a study of music, geometry, medicine, divination, justice and politics; the latter perhaps contributing to the eventual demise of his schools.
The Greeks, particularly those from Samos, were great traders, venturing out in their ships across the Mediterranean perhaps even into the Atlantic to Cornwall to get tin for bronze, or travelling east for high-value items like silks, peacocks and precious stones. From the eighth century BC, they began creating their own colonies, the first of these in southern Italy and Sicily. Some still flourish: Syracuse in Sicily, Naples and Crotona in Italy, Marseilles in France and Malaga in Spain.
LIFE OF PYTHAGORAS According to the philosopher Iamblichus, when Pythagoras was young he decided to study in Egypt. On his way there he was initiated into the Mysteries of Byblos and Tyre and then spent some time in solitude in a temple at the top of Mount Carmel. Once in Egypt, he stayed twenty-two years visiting all the temples and becoming initiated into the different divine Mysteries. He was caught up in the invasion of Egypt by the Persians in 525 BC and taken to Babylon where he was initiated into the Mesopotamian and Persian Mystery traditions. Then, in his mid-fifties, he moved to Croton in southern Italy where he founded his academy in the last decades of the sixth century BC.
Unfortunately, a new ruler of Croton became an enemy: around 508 BC he openly persecuted the Pythagoreans and many were killed. That same year Pythagoras moved up the coast to Metapontum where he later died. In the fifth century BC his philosophy was violently suppressed and its remaining centres were burned.
Pythagoras was the first, it is said, to call himself a philosopher – that is, a lover of wisdom. Crucially, he saw wisdom as something you gained by experience and not as an intellectual accumulation or some prowess in argument, as philosophy became in the hands of such as Plato. And, perhaps surprising to many western readers, he believed in, and taught, reincarnation.
He said that he had come not to teach but to heal. He had both practical and mystical approaches to medicine: he used diet, medicines and poultices but above all he taught that music, properly used, might also effectively heal. He discovered the mathematical harmonic ratios at the basis of music and this led him to see a mystical interconnection with astronomy and geometry as well. He taught that the basis of reality itself was to be discovered in number since this was not a product of the human mind but of a reality which exists beyond.
Pythagoras used symbols to instruct his students but warned, ‘They who present these symbols without unfolding their meaning by a suitable exposition, run the danger of exposing them to the charge of being ridiculous and inane … When, however, the meanings are expounded according to these symbols, and made clear and obvious … then they will be found analogous to prophetic sayings…’
But above all, the primary task of healing for any Pythagorean was to bring himself back to the original unity. The act of humanity separating itself from the One, he said, was ‘an act of foolhardiness.’
THE MYSTERY OF THE AIR-WALKER
A mysterious figure from the far north named in the Greek texts as Abaris and called ‘air-walker’ or ‘skywalker’ came to Greece, recognised Pythagoras as a living incarnation of Apollo, and mysteriously gave him a golden arrow.
Apollo was the god of ecstasy – that is, of the infinite stillness experienced in another state of consciousness; in the still centre of the heart perhaps. Significantly, old Greek traditions record Apollo coming to Greece from those lands far to the north.
Abaris was an Avar shaman from Mongolia. His ‘arrow’ was a powerful magical object well known to the Tibetans and Mongols as a phurba, which often takes the form of a dagger with a three-sided blade. According to Tibetan tradition, it is only used by initiates for shamanic healing.
Whatever the truth of this, this donation marked a passing of authority from Abaris to Pythagoras.
Northern shamans like Abaris wore very different clothes from the Greeks. They wore trousers which were good for riding and for warmth in the bitterly cold Siberian plains. Distinctively, Pythagoras always wore the same.
THE ONE SOURCE
Personal experience of the one source of divinity was the beginning and end of Pythagoras’ message. As our masonic ritual eventually explains, this can be seen symbolically as a journey towards the centre of the circle; thus a profound perspective is explained in a simple geometrical figure.
Where, our ritual leads us to ask, do the genuine secrets of Freemasonry reside? With the centre, it explains, the point from which you cannot err – for from the centre you have gained an eternal standard by which to judge your actions.
And the masonic search for the lost word can give us further insight: in Greek, the ‘word’ is logos but it also has the meaning in ancient Greek mathematics of ‘ratio’ which was the basis of Pythagoras’ music and geometry, the basis of divine harmony. In effect, the search for the lost word can be seen as the search for a lost harmony. Have we an echo here of Pythagoras’ warning that separation from the One is an act of foolhardiness?