Pythagorean Women & Women Philosophers from Other Schools, Part 1

Compiled by Phil Meade

As early as the seventh century before the common era, Cleobulus, one of the seven sages of Greece, insisted that maidens should have the same intellectual training as young men, and illustrated his doctrine in the careful education of his daughter, Cleobuline, who became a poetess of wide renown. Themistoclea, a priestess of Apollo, was a teacher for Pythagoras, an example of the passing of teachings female to male as some shamanic traditions would practice in ancient cultures. 

Diogenes Laertius in his “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” Book V tells us that:  “Aristoxenus asserts that Pythagoras derived the greater part of his ethical doctrines from Themistoclea, who was the priestess of Apollo at Delphi.”  She was renowned for her amiability and wisdom. Legend has it that Pythagoras maintained a learned correspondence with her through the years.

It must be remembered that since the beginning of his School in Crotona, Pythagoras welcomed women into the study of wisdom. The practice of living a spiritual life in the Pythagorean communities revolved around following a few basic ideas concerning five core virtues:

  1. Sophrosune– to be serene, which does not mean an absence of feeling or of emotions, but their calm harmonization.
  2. Dikaiosune – to be right, sincere, “square minded”; to look for Truth and Justice is the second basic principal.
  3. Andreia – to be courageous, to face obstacles and problems and resolve them is the third principal virtue.
  4. Philia – to love people; Pythagorean philia means more than fraternity and friendship, it is near to the Buddhist idea of Compassion, showing equal active love for all living beings.
  5. Harmonia, what we call harmony, nothing in excess.

The Pythagoreans also honored the Immortal Gods and the Cult of the Muses had a special place in their way of life.

There are many exemplary Pythagorean women starting with the Master’s wife Theano and daughters Arignote, Damo, and Myia. Fragments of their writings exist.

Theano’s principal works are: “Life of Pythagoras”: which is lost but fragments can be found in Iamblichus’ “On the Pythagorean Life”. “Cosmology” “Theorem of the golden mean”.  The Golden Mean is an irrational number that is pivotal in many relationships found in nature as found in sunflowers and spiral shapes. Its decimal form works out to 1.6180. Theano also wrote a work on”Theory of Numbers,” and a “Construction of the universe”:

“The universe is constructed of numbers and simple proportions. It is made up of ten concentric spheres corresponding to the Sun, the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Earth, Counter-Earth and the stars. The Sun, the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury move in a uniform circular motion around a “central fire”.

According to Theano the distances between the concentric spheres and the central fire are in the same arithmetic proportion as the intervals of the musical scale.”

Theano: “Better to be on a runaway horse than to be a woman who does not reflect.” Strobaeus Florilegium, 268.

Theano wrote a larger work On Piety and set a most excellent example for others to follow. She was the mother of the community.

 Another discourse, “On Virtue,” was dedicated to the great architect and city-planner Hippodamus. Theano is one of the best-known female astronomer/cosmologists, and is cited by Athenaeus, Suidas, Diogenes Laertius and Iamblichus. ‘Pythagorean women’ were honored in antiquity as the highest feminine type that Magna Grecia ever produced.

Arignote

Arignote, daughter of Pythagoras, is attributed with three sacred discourses, Epigrams on the Mysteries of Ceres, The Mysteries of Bacchus, and the History of Dionysius, now lost.  The following fragment is attributed to her:

“…The eternal essence of number is the most providential cause of the whole heaven, earth and the region in between. Likewise it is the root of the continued existence of the gods and daimones, as well as that of divine men.” 1 Damo (520-450 BC?)

There is a story of an oral tradition that Pythagoras entrusted all of his secret teachings he had attained over the years to his wife, sons and daughters.

The story concerning Damo is that she received his memoirs, with an injunction that she should keep them secret from all who were not family or of those who did not practiced the Pythagorean way of life. Though offered large sums of money for them, she never yielded from her promise, preferring poverty to disobedience. Before her death she bequeathed the secrets and works over to her daughter Bistalia, with the same injunction and mandate her father had given to her. The granddaughter, Bistalia, remained equally faithful and some say the secrets may have perished. We however know of at least three biographies and a continuing Pythagorean tradition from this time and on into the Roman Empire so the secrets must have passed in a lawful and right manner.

Other oral traditions indicate that Damo published for the Pythagorean brethren of her time some treatises on geometry with a work on the construction of a regular tetrahedron and the construction of the cube.

Some ancient writers mention Theano the younger, of Thurii, as another daughter of Pythagoras. But according to Suidas, she was a daughter of Lycophron who was never the less another woman Pythagorean philosopher and a prolific writer living in Metapontum.  1. From Gorman p.90

Myia

Myia is another daughter of Theano and Pythagoras who married the Olympic athlete Milo.  It was in their home that members of the school were burned to death through the instigation of rabble rousers who were fearful of the Pythagorean’s spiritual life. Myia writes about the practical uses of the principal of Harmonia in the daily life of a woman. The following text is from a surviving letter to her friend Phyllis:

Myia to Phyllis: Greetings.
Because you have become a mother, I offer you this advise. Choose a nurse that is well-disposed and clean, one that is modest and not given to excessive sleep or drink. Such a woman will be best able to judge how to bring up your children in a manner appropriate to their free-born station – provided, of course that she has enough milk to nourish a child, and is not overcome by her husband’s entreaties to share his bed. A nurse has a great part in this [glorious endeavor] which first and prefatory to a child’s whole life, i.e.,nurturing with a view to raising the child well. For she will do all things well at the appropriate time. Let her offer the nipple and breast and nourishment, not on the spur of the moment, but according to due consideration. Thus will she guide the baby to health. She should not give in whenever she herself wishes to sleep, but when the newborn desires to rest; she will be no small comfort to the child.

Let her not be irascible or loquacious or indiscriminate in the taking of food, but orderly and temperate and – if possible – not foreign but Greek. It is best to put the newborn to sleep when it is suitably filled with milk, for the rest is sweet to the young, and such nourishment is easy to digest. If there is any other nourishment, one must give food that is plain as possible. Hold off altogether from wine, because of its strong effect, or add it sparingly in a mixture to the evening milk. Don’t continually give the child baths. A practice of infrequent baths, at a mild temperature, is better. In addition, the air should have a suitable balance of heat and cold, and the house should not be too drafty or too closed in. The water should be neither hard nor soft, the bed clothes should be not rough but falling agreeably on the skin. In all these things nature yearns for what is fitting, not what is extravagant. These are things it seems useful to write to you for the present: my hopes based on nursing according to plan. With the help of God, we shall provide feasible and fitting reminders concerning the child’s upbringing again at a later time.”