Pythagoras in Egypt and Babylon
(Excerpt from the book, "Divine Harmony", by John Strohmeier and Peter Westbrook)
Pythagoras' plan to learn from the priests of Egypt was difficult to accomplish. Before him no Greek but Thales had been admitted to their schools, and even he had not been initiated into their mysteries. Pythagoras went first to the court of Amasis in Heliopolis, in the northern part of the Nile valley, where he presented the letter of introduction he had secured in Samos. He was warmly received by the Pharaoh, who, in addition to being indebted to Polycrates, was an admirer of Greek culture. Amasis had made lavish gifts to a number of Hellenic sanctuaries, including the temple of Apollo at Delphi, which he helped to rebuild after its destruction by fire. Impressed by the speech and bearing of the young scholar, the Pharaoh provided him with the documents necessary to be admitted to the priestly schools.
At this time, the scientific and religious knowledge of Egypt was preserved at four centers—Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis and Thebes—each with its own distinctive traditions. Following the recommendation of Amasis, Pythagoras called first upon the priests of Heliopolis. Sworn to protect their ancestral teachings, the priests there sent him southward to Memphis, on the pretense that the temple schools there were more ancient and authoritative. Using the same explanation, the priests at Memphis directed him further up the Nile valley to Thebes.
Fearing the anger of Amasis, the priests at Thebes accepted Pythagoras. Before initiating him, however, they imposed upon him extremely harsh disciplines, expecting that this would persuade him to abandon his purpose. He was assigned a strict program of study, service to the temple, fasting, and other ascetic hardships—a program that far exceeded the demands placed upon other applicants to the priesthood. These tasks he performed so readily and exactly that he at last succeeded in winning their respect. He was initiated, and invited to live among them, sacrifice to their gods and study their sciences. No foreigner had ever been granted such extensive privileges.
After mastering the teachings of the school of Thebes, Pythagoras proceeded to all the temples and schools of Egypt. As he traveled, he earned by his hard work and natural talents the respect of each of the priests and scholars he encountered. He sought out the heirs of every oral teaching and absorbed every detail of their knowledge. The first Greek to develop fluency in the Egyptian spoken language and written characters, he mastered mathematics, medicine, herbalism, and was instructed in the stages of the soul's life. He was introduced to the Egyptian sciences of architecture and music, and admitted into the most secret mystery rituals.
In the twenty-third year of his stay, Egypt was overwhelmed by the Persian armies of Cambyses. The Pharaoh Psammetichus, son of Amasis, was executed, and members of the Egyptian priesthood, including Pythagoras, were captured and brought to Babylon. Here, Pythagoras' prodigious learning and receptivity to new ideas were recognized by the Magi, the stewards of Persian religion and science.
It was a momentous time in the history of Persian thought. Only a century before, the reform movement inspired by Zoroaster had emerged, challenging the multiple gods and rigid social hierarchy of Babylonian religion. Fighting for the preeminence of their institutions, the Magi struggled to accommodate the rituals, ethical teachings, and monotheism of Zoroastrianism in their traditional practices. At the same time, the Persian Empire was expanding westward, first into Babylonia and Asia Minor, then Egypt, and ultimately to Athens. The religious hierarchy struggled to assimilate to varying degrees the new gods and foreign practices of subject nations.
Pythagoras found himself at the center of this convergence of old and new sources of knowledge. Sharing his learning and experience with his captors, he was in turn instructed by them, participating in such rituals as the consumption of hallucinogenic haoma-juice, and elaborate purification ceremonies before the sacred fire of Ahura Mazda. He perfected his knowledge of number, harmony, rhythm and the other mathematical sciences. He also mastered astronomy and the interpretation of the heavens, surpassing Thales himself in his ability to predict the future.
After twelve years in Babylon, Pythagoras was allowed to return home to Samos, which was now established as part of the Persian Empire. He was fifty-six years old.