A Summary of Pythagorean Theology

Part I: Introduction

© 2002, John Opsopaus

May Hermes, the God of Eloquence, stand by my side to aid me, and the Muses also and Apollo, the Leader of the Muses..., and may They grant that I utter only what the Gods approve that people should say and believe about Them.
-- Julian (Oration IV)


  1. History
  2. Theogony
  3. Triadic Structure


 This document presents a summary and synthesis of the theology of Pythagoreanism, a spiritual tradition that has been practiced continuously, in one form or another, for at least twenty-six centuries. But first, a little history. (Note: I will refer to all of the following philosophers and theologians as Pythagoreans or Platonists, which is what they usually called themselves, for the terms "Neo-Pythagorean" and "Neo-Platonist" are modern inventions. This history is of necessity incomplete and superficial.)

According to ancient Greek tradition, Pythagoras (572-497 BCE) studied with the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Chaldeans, Brahmans, and Zoroastrians, and was initiated into all their mysteries. He is supposed to have met with Zoroaster (Zarathustra), but, since scholars now believe that Zoroaster probably lived in the second millennium BCE, it is likely that the Greek tradition reflects a meeting between Pythagoras and Zoroastrian Magi. In any case, there are many traces of Zoroastrianism in Pythagorean doctrine. In particular, there are similarities between the central Duality of Pythagoreanism and the dual Gods of Zoroaster (Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman). However, there are also connections to Zurvanism, a Zoroastrian "heresy," which placed a primordial God Zurvân Akarana (Infinite Time) before the dual Gods. Pythagoras may have learned these ideas from his teacher Pherekydes, whose cosmology begins with Aiôn (Eternity), who engenders the Primal Duality (see Theogony below). Pherekydes' book, which is reputed to be the first book of philosophy to have been written in prose, survives in fragments and is a useful source for reconstructing the Pythagorean system.

When his wanderings were done (c.530), Pythagoras established a society of followers in Croton, Italy, where they learned Pythagorean Way of Life (Bios Pythagoreios) and were initiated by degrees into its mysteries. He wrote nothing down, but the poem of Parmenides (fl. 495), of which large fragments survive, seems to reflect Pythagorean ideas. It apparently describes a "shamanic journey" from the illusory world of duality to the One, which transcends apparent duality. Another early Pythagorean was Empedocles (c.495-435), who first explained the four Elements, governed by the Powers of Love and Strife; he was also a practicing Mage and initiate of the Mysteries of Hekate (see Opsopaus, AGEDE). Fragments of his work survive.

Pythagoras transmitted all his teachings orally, and Philolaus (c.470 - 390) is supposed to have been the first Pythagorean to present the secret teachings in a book; Plato (427-347) is said to have paid the equivalent of 100 pounds of silver for it as soon as it was available. Plato was the most famous Pythagorean and turned the doctrine in a more intellectual direction (which is how it is understood by many people nowadays), but soon after his death, Pythagoreans revived the old practices, and created the traditions that modern scholars call Neo-Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism (which I will not distinguish in this summary). Plato's Timaeus especially was taken as a source of Pythagorean doctrine, but all of Plato's dialogues were venerated. Xenocrates of Chalcedon (396-314), a later head of Plato's Academy (339-314), explored the hierarchies of the Gods and other Divine Spirits, work which I have used in this summary of Pythagorean theology.

This is perhaps the place to mention the "scriptures" of Pythagoreanism, that is, ancient texts that were supposed to have been composed by divinely inspired poet-theologists. Chief of these are the Orphic Scriptures, which were attributed to the legendary, semidivine poet-musician Orpheus, known for his soul-retrieval of Eurydice (unsuccessful only in the late, romantic telling). Pythagoreanism was closely connected to the Orphic Mysteries, and some of the Orphic scriptures are even attributed to Pythagoras. A number of the Orphica survive as fragments from the fifth century BCE and later. Other "scriptures" are discussed below.

Apollonius of Tyana (first century CE) was a wandering Pythagorean holy man; his miracles and other exploits were sufficiently similar to Jesus' to worry early Christian polemicists and to provoke them to try to discredit him. Plutarch of Chaeronea (c.46-c.125), known for his parallel Lives of illustrious Greeks and Romans, was High Priest at Delphi for his last 30 years. He was a very learned Pythagorean, and I have drawn liberally from his voluminous writings in this summary. Nicomachus of Gerasa (fl. 130) is especially known for his development of Pythagorean numerology. Numenius of Apamea (fl. 160) compared his very dualistic concept of Pythagoreanism with the ideas of the Brahmans, Chaldean Magi, Egyptian priests, and Jewish scriptures. His system also had similarities to the Chaldean Oracles and Hermetic Corpus (see below).

Apuleius of Madaurus (born c.125) is best known as the author of the Metamorphoses or Golden Ass, but he was also a Pythagorean, an initiate of the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris, and a practicing Mage, as we know from his Defense (Apologia) against the charge of using magic to seduce a wealthy widow. In addition to the Metamorphoses and Defense, a number of his philosophical works survive. His ideas combine Hellenistic, Egyptian, and African elements.

Plotinus' (205-270) writings are collected in his Enneads; he is especially known for his contemplative practice, the Ascent to Union with the One, which I'll discuss in Part V of this Summary. Plotinus' writings were arranged and edited by his student Porphyry (234-c.305), who also wrote a Life of Pythagoras, Philosophy from Oracles, Pythagorean allegorical interpretations of Homer (The Cave of the Nymphs), and a polemic Against the Christians, amongst many other works.

Also important as Pythagorean "scriptures" are the Chaldean Oracles, a poem that is dated to the second or third century CE. It was given by divine inspiration to Julian the Chaldean and his son, Julian the Theurgist. The Oracles, which survive only in fragments, are important for what they teach us about spiritual practices such as theurgy (see below), which the Julians perfected; I will quote the Oracles from time to time. Julian the Theurgist accompanied the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180) on his military campaigns, which he aided magically, throwing thunderbolts and calling down rain. According to legend, he won a competition with Apuleius and Apollonius to end a plague in Athens, but the dates don't seem possible.

As relevant texts I should also mention the Hermetic Corpus, which are not strictly Pythagorean, but are closely related in viewpoint, and therefore helpful to our understanding. According to tradition (Iamblichus), both Pythagoras and Plato viewed the pillars from which the Hermetic texts were transcribed. Gnostic scriptures are also sometimes useful for comparison.

Iamblichus of Chalcis (c.245-c.325) has left us many works, including a Life of Pythagoras and On the Mysteries, which is a good source of Pythagorean theology and theurgy. The Theology of Arithmetic attributed to him incorporates some of Nicomachus' (otherwise lost) ideas on Pythagorean numerology. Iamblichus attached great importance to the Chaldean Oracles and set the future direction of Pythagoreanism. The Emperor Julian (331-363) is best known for his attempt to restore the practice of Paganism in the Roman Empire, which had been Christianized by Constantine (c.272-337). Julian followed the teachings of Iamblichus, and his initiation as a Pythagorean theurgist was in 352 under Maximus of Ephesus, a student of Aedesius (died c.355), who was a student of Iamblichus. Maximus was a great teacher of theurgy and magic, which Julian eagerly learned from him. Julian's religion was a synthesis of Pythagoreanism and Mithraism, which also traces its roots to Zoroastrianism.

Hypatia (365-415) was the most famous female philosopher of the ancient world; she taught Pythagoreanism in Alexandria until her martyrdom at the hands of a Christian mob, whipped into a frenzy by "Saint" Cyril (then Bishop). "Her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames," in Gibbon's memorable words. Proclus (c.411-485), who was head of the Platonic Academy, took the ideas of Iamblichus and other Pythagoreans and developed them into an elaborate system. In particular he extended the use of the Triadic Principle and the Three Phases of Emanation (see below). Many of Proclus' works survive, including his Elements of Theology and Platonic Theology, upon which I have based much of this presentation. He also wrote commentaries on the Chaldean Oracles.

Another famous representative of the Pythagorean Tradition, who preserved the Orphic theogonies for us, was Damascius, who was head of the Platonic Academy at Athens when Justinian closed all the Pagan schools in 529. Seeking a more tolerant environment, he departed with six other philosophers for the Sassanid court in Persia, but from there they dispersed. One of the Wandering Seven, Simplicius, went to Harran, "the City of the Moon God," which remained a bastion of Paganism into the tenth century. The Pythagorean school that he founded there continued until the eleventh century, when the Seljuk Turks arrived. Over the preceding centuries it had been a fountainhead of Pythagoreanism in the East.

One important Pythagorean was Suhrawardî (1152/3-1190/1), founder of the Ishrâqî (Illuminationist) Sufis. He was known as a magician and alchemist, and was executed by Saladin, who was afraid that his son might be converted to Suhrawardî's heretical beliefs. He was a follower of the ideas of Pythagoras and Empedocles, which he learned from the Hermetic and alchemical traditions transmitted through the Graeco-Egyptian world.

During 900 years following the ban on teaching Pagan philosophy, Pythagoreanism remained influential in the West, although hidden in Christian clothes. For example, another major vehicle for promulgating the Pythagorean ideas of Proclus was the fifth or sixth century CE writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, which were very influential in Christian mystical traditions. It is unclear whether the author was a devout Christian trying to hide the Pagan source of his ideas, or a Pagan forced to hide Pythagorean doctrine under Christian disguise. Michael Psellus (1018-c.1081) was another Christian follower of Pythagoras and Proclus, but the Church authorities looked with some suspicion on his writings about Pythagoreanism, Hellenic philosophy, alchemy, and daimonology, and accused him of Paganism. His commentaries on the Chaldean Oracles were especially influential in the later Pythagorean Tradition.

An important turning point came with George Gemistos (c.1360-1452), who adopted the Neo-Pagan name Plethon. He established in Mistra, near ancient Sparta, a secret Pythagorean practice, which drew heavily from the Chaldean Oracles, Proclus, and (his understanding of) Zoroastrianism. After his death, his Book of Laws unfortunately fell into the hands of the Christian Empress Theodora and George Scholarios (Gennadios), Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who destroyed most of it (only fragments have survived): "So we caused the book to be committed to the flames." Fortunately, Plethon traveled in 1439 to the Council of Florence, which was directed toward a reconciliation of the millennium-long schism of the Western and Eastern Christian Churches. There he gave lectures on "Platonic philosophy," which were heard by Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), who was so taken by them that he committed himself to establishing a Platonic Academy in Florence.

This did not happen until 1462 when Cosimo picked the young Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) to organize and run the Academy, where he conducted Neo-Pagan rituals. Even though Ficino eventually reaffirmed his Christianity, he was very active in pursuing Pythagoreanism and promoting it by making the first translations into Latin of the Chaldean Oracles, the Hermetic Corpus, and many important Platonic and Pythagorean texts. However, he got into trouble with the Church on account of the magical practices he advocated in his Three Books on Life. Another influential Pythagorean was Ficino's student, Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who became much more discrete about his magical and cabalistic interests after they were condemned by the Pope. Nevertheless, by their promulgation of the Pythagorean Tradition, Plethon, Ficino, and Pico were instrumental in precipitating the rebirth of art, literature, and philosophy known as the Italian Renaissance.

Another important step in the Pythagorean Tradition was taken by Thomas Taylor (1785-1835), known as "the English Pagan," whose English translations of Pythagorean and other ancient Greek texts brought them to the attention of many people. His works influenced William Blake (1757-1827) and many other important figures of the Romantic movement. His translations and commentaries are still widely read and are important as expressions of a continuous Pythagorean Tradition stretching back at least 2600 years.

Finally, I should mention the influential archetypal psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961), whose concept of collective archetypes is borrowed directly from Platonism, but confirmed by empirical psychology. Indeed, the well-known Jungian psychologist James Hillman has called Ficino the "grandfather of archetypal psychology."


Before discussing the Goddesses and Gods of Pythagoreanism (Parts II and III), it will be helpful to begin by placing Them in context with a brief overview of Pythagorean cosmology. However, I must begin with a warning. Pythagoreans, Neo-Pythagoreans, and Neo-Platonists differ among themselves on many technical points of theology, but I will be ignoring these differences, and presenting something like a "synthesis" of the doctrines. This may seem somewhat intellectually sloppy, but in fact I think it is a mistake to over-emphasize dogmatic details in a religion that is fundamentally mystical.

We will face one of these issues right off, for the best way to understand the cosmology is through theogony, or the birth of the Gods. But Pythagoreans disagree as to whether this is to be understood as a historical process, which took place at some point in time, or whether it is a process of emanation, which is always taking place. Although I incline to the emanationist view, I will present it as a myth of origins, since I think it is easier to understand that way; in fact the two views are difficult to separate, because we must deal with the birth of Time Itself. For this reason, I will tell myths in the present tense, which you may interpret as the eternal present or the historical present, as you like.

The myth begins with a Primordial Unity, a bisexual Deity, who is sometimes called Aiôn (Eternity). In fact, this ineffable Deity is outside of time and transcends all dualities (even that of being and non-being).

By self-fertilization Aiôn gives birth to, or divides into, two Gods, the First Polarity. These Gods, whom we may call Kronos and Rhea, govern the primary dualities, including Male/Female, Father/Mother, and Unity/Multiplicity. Among these dualities, Kronos and Rhea rule the Light and the Dark, and by Their cyclic alternation create Time as we know it. Kronos is the Abiding, but Rhea is the Proceeding, who by Her Power to Change causes Kronos to become Khronos (Time).

Therefore, Plato (Tim. 37D) says that the Father creates Time as the animated Image of Eternity (Aiôn). The word here translated "Image" (Agalma) refers especially to divine images set up in shrines and temples for veneration. We may see in this an allusion to the theurgic practice of "animating images," that is, of invoking a God into a statue.

Kronos is the supreme simplicity of the One Mind as Rhea is the supreme simplicity of Primordial Matter (the Universal Foundation of all Existence). Therefore they are both called Bythos (Abyss), for They are both impenetrably deep and obscure; but They are also both inaccessibly high, and therefore called in ancient Greek Bathos, which (like Latin Altus) means "high" as well as "deep." That is, the Greatest Height unites with the Greatest Depth, for They are One. Proclus calls Them "dissimilarly alike."

Kronos and Rhea marry, a re-union of the Opposites, and become the Father and Mother of the Gods. Since Kronos represents the Monad (the principle of Unity) and Rhea represents the Indefinite Dyad (the principle of Plurality), the union of the two engenders a Plurality of Divine Unities (Henads): the Gods. Thus They create the Empyrean Realm, the world of the Olympian Gods.

First created are the Regents of the Second Rank of Gods, Zeus and Hera; Kronos and Rhea either give birth to Them or by Their union transform into Them; the two processes are hardly different, for Gods give birth by creating images of Themselves. Next Zeus and Hera create the Aetherial Realm in which dwell the immortal Celestial Beings, the Stars and Planets. Zeus and Hera are the Craftsman (Demiurge) and the Nurse, who together create the Material Realm. Zeus thinks the world-defining Ideas, which He throws like lightening bolts into the Womb of Hera, who nourishes them with Her Substance, thereby giving birth to our world. Thus She is the life-conferring World Soul (hê tou Pantos Psychê, "the Soul of The All"), who unites the Ideas with Matter. So much for now on the genealogy of the Gods.

Triadic Structure

 One of the metaphysical principles of the Pythagoreans is called the Triadic Principle or the Law of Mean Terms. It is based on the idea that there can be no meeting between opposites, and therefore, for there to be a Harmonia, or Union, of the opposites, there must be a Mean Term, which has something in common with each of the Extremes. The Mean Term both connects the Extremes, but also keeps them separate by occupying the gap between them. Therefore, as we will see, Mediating powers are also Separating powers.

By means of this principle Pythagoreans have discovered many triads in the structure of Reality. For example, in the Macrocosm the Triadic Principle reveals the World Soul, who embodies the Ideas, thereby mediating between Unformed Matter and the Immaterial Forms in the mind of the Demiurge. Similarly, in the human microcosm there must be Soul, which unites Mind and Matter.

However, there is a paradox built into the Triadic Principle, for there must be a distinction between the mean and each of the extremes. Therefore, another mean is required to unite the original mean with each of the extremes. As a consequence, the advancing Pythagorean analysis of Reality discovered an ever-proliferating family of triads. This is avoided by a more profound version of the Triadic Principle, called the Principle of Continuity. It recognizes that there is a continuum or spectrum from one extreme to the other. The proliferating triads are simply finer divisions of the continuum. For example, between North and West we discover North West as a mean term. But applying the Triadic Principle to North and North West reveals another mean term, North North West. The triadic division would continue forever if we didn't recognize that there is a continuum of directions between North and West. The Principle of Continuity should be kept in mind as we explore the structure of Reality according to the Pythagoreans. We will see many triads, but it must be understood that they are simply convenient divisions of a continuum. This applies even to the Orders of the Gods.

One of the important triads, which defines the structure of Emanation at all levels of Being between One and Matter, is: Abiding (Monê) - Proceeding (Proödos) - Reverting (Epistrophê). It explains how an Essence can emanate into more substantial forms, and yet retain its identity. The Essence, or unchanging nature, of a thing is Abiding or Remaining; it is the Male Pole. Yet it has the Power or Potential (Dynamis) to relate to other things, to move by a continuous flux toward greater "participation," that is, toward more substantial embodiment, the direction of greater Multiplicity; this is the Female Pole. However, this flowing forth would cause it to lose its definition, so it Reverts or "Re-turns" (turns back) toward its origin so that it can mirror its Essence. The result is an Activity or Actualization (Energeia) of the Potential emanating from the Essence; the Offspring constitutes the third Pole. Thus emanation is revealed to be a cyclic relationship. Notice that in terms of Process, Change (II) is the Mean between the Beginning (I) and the End (III), but that in terms of Character, the Result or Mixture (III) is the Mean between the Extremes or Opposites (I and II).

The Triadic Principle allows us to distinguish three Orders of Creation. In the Empyrean Realm all beings are immortal, immaterial and unchanging; it is Olympus, occupied by the Gods. The Material Realm, which we occupy, the Earth, is characterized by perpetual change; here, all beings are mortal. The Mean between the two is the Aetherial Realm, the Heavens, which is occupied by Celestial Bodies, which are immortal, but material and ever-changing (moving). Since the Moon is the Celestial Body nearest us, the Material Realm is also called the Sublunary Realm.

The Triadic Principle also defines the Diakosmoi or Orders of Being. Between the Primordial One and Primordial Matter there are three orders: (1) the Realm of Forms, corresponding to the Ideas in the Mind of the Demiurge, and (2) the World Soul, which mediates by bringing the Forms into (3) the orderly Material World.

By the Principle of Continuity we can see that there must be a connection between the "highest" and "lowest" realms, between the One and Matter, and connecting all things in between. These are the divine Seirai (Chords, Chains, "Processions"), which unite the Orders of Being. Thus we have connections with the Celestial Bodies and are influenced by Them, who in turn convey influences from the Gods; this is the basis of astrology. We are all connected in the "Great Chain of Being."

This is perhaps a good place to mention an important class of beings, the Daimones (DYE-maw-ness). In Homeric Greek the word Daimôn could refer to any Divine Power, from the Nymphs to the Great Gods, but in later times it came to be restricted to the Mediating Spirits between Gods and mortals. Daimones are thus valuable messengers between the Gods and us, and are useful assistants in our dealings with the Gods, especially in divination, magic, and theurgy. "Daimôn" is of course the origin of our word "demon," but it should be apparent that the Daimones are not at all demonic; in fact they are much more like angels. However, this is enough about Them for now; They will be considered in more detail in Part V.

Most of what I have discussed so far sounds like philosophy rather than religion, but the Pythagorean tradition is grounded in a number of spiritual practices. One of the best known is the Ascent to the One, in which the practitioner, by contemplative meditation, enters into ecstatic union with the One. This is a kind of Theurgy ("God-work"), by which the theurgist ascends into the God's presence by using symbols, signs, words, sounds, materials, etc. that are supported by the God's Chord, and that are provided by the God for that purpose. There are also other, lesser spiritual disciplines preparatory to Theurgy and the Ascent.

Continue to Part II

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