31. Years of Travel: Samos, Memphis, Babylonia

At the beginning of the sixth century B.C. Samos was one of the most flourishing islands of Ionia. Its port faced the purple mountains of Asia Minor, from which came all wealth and culture. Behind a broad bay, the city spread itself along the green shore and arose like an amphitheater against the mountainside, at the foot of a promontory crowned with the temple of Neptune. The columns of a magnificent palace overlooked it. There the tyrant Polycrates reigned. Having deprived Samos of its freedoms, he had given it the radiance of the arts and an Asiatic splendor. Courtesans of Lesbos, summoned to Samos by him, invited young men of the city to their festivals where they taught them the most refined voluptuousness, accompanied by music, dancing and feasting. Called by Polycrates, Anacreon was brought to Samos in a trireme with velvet sails and golden masts. And, a silver cup in his hand, before this high court of pleasure the poet had his caressing odes played, perfuming the hearers like a shower of roses.

The good fortune of Polycrates had become proverbial in all Greece. His friend, the Pharaoh Amasis warned him several times to fear such continuous happiness, and above all not to boast about it. Polycrates answered the Egyptian monarch's warning by throwing his ring into the sea. "I make this sacrifice to the gods," he said. The next day a fisherman brought back to the tyrant the precious ring which he had found in the belly of a fish. When the Pharaoh heard this, he said that he was breaking his friendship with Polycrates because such brazen luck would draw upon him the vengeance of the gods. In any case, Polycrates met a tragic end. One of his satraps lured him into a neighboring province, caused him to be tortured to death and ordered his body fastened to a cross on Mount Mycale. Hence, one day as the blood-red sun set in the west, the Samians could see the body of their tyrant crucified on a promontory facing the island where he had ruled in glory and pleasure.

But let us return to the beginning of Polycrates' reign. On a clear night, a young man was sitting in a grove not far from the temple of Juno, whose Dorian facade was bathed in full moonlight, revealing its mystical majesty. For a long time a scroll of papyrus containing one of Homer's songs laid on the ground at his feet. His meditation, begun at dusk, continued into the silence of the night. The sun had set long ago, but its flaming disk still floated before the gaze of the young dreamer. His thought was wandering far from the visible world.

Pythagoras was the son of a rich ring merchant of Samos, and of a woman named Parthenis. The Pythoness of Delphi, consulted during a trip by the newly-married couple, had promised them "a son who will be useful to all men for all time," and the oracle had sent the husband and wife to Sidon in Phoenicia so that the promised son might be conceived, formed and brought into the world far from the disturbing influences of his homeland. Even before his birth the wondrous child had been fervently dedicated by his parents to the light of Apollo in the moonlight of love. The child was born. When he was one year old, in harmony with the counsel given in advance by the priests of Delphi, his mother brought him to the temple of Adonai in a valley of Lebanon. There the high priest had blessed him, and the family returned to Samos. Parthenis' child was very beautiful, gentle, even-tempered and filled with justice. Intellectual passion alone shone in his eyes, giving a secret power to his deeds. Far from restraining him, his parents had encouraged his early desire for wisdom. He had been able to confer freely with the priests of Samos and with the scholars who were beginning to establish schools in Ionia, where they taught the principles of physics. At eighteen he had studied the lessons of Hermodamas of Samos, at twenty, those of Pherecydus at Syros; he had even conferred with Thales and Anaximander at Miletus. These masters had opened new horizons to him, but none had satisfied him. Among their contradictory teachings he inwardly sought the link, the synthesis, the unity of the Great Whole. Now Parthenis' son had reached one of those crises where the mind, excited by the contradictions in things, concentrates all its faculties in a supreme effort to see through to the goal, to find the road which leads to the sunlight of truth, to the center of life.

On this warm, beautiful night, Parthenis' son looked at the earth, the temple and the starry sky. Demeter, the earth-mother, was there beneath and around him; her nature he wished to fathom. He breathed her powerful emanations, he felt the invincible attraction which bound him as a thinking atom to her breast, like an inseparable part of herself. These wise men whom he had consulted had told him, "Everything comes from her. Nothingness does not come from nothingness. The soul comes from water, or fire, or both. Subtle emanation of the elements, it escapes, only to return. Resign yourself to its fatal law. Your only merit will be to know it and to submit to it."

Then he looked at the firmament and the letters of fire which the constellations form in the unfathomable depths of space. These letters had to have a meaning. For if the infinitely small, the movement of atoms, has its reason for being, would not the infinitely great, the outspread stars, whose grouping represents the body of the universe, also have significance? Indeed, each of these worlds has its own law, and all move together according to number, and in supreme harmony! But who will decipher the alphabet of the stars? The priests of Juno had said to him, "The world of the stars is the heaven of the gods, which was before earth. Your soul comes from there. Pray to the gods that your soul may ascend there once again."

This meditation was interrupted by a voluptuous song which came from a garden on the banks of the Imbrasus. The lascivious voices of the Lesbians languidly mixed with the sounds of the zither; young men responded with Bacchic airs. Suddenly these voices were drowned by piercing, mournful cries coming from the port. These were the rebels whom Polycrates had ordered into a ship, to be sold as slaves in Asia. They were driven with lashes tipped with nails so that they could be tightly crowded into the rowers' galley. Their cries and blasphemies faded into the night. Everything became silent once again.

The young man felt a painful tremor surge up in him, but he repressed it and concentrated his thoughts. The problem was before him, more poignant and sharp than ever. Earth said, Fate! The sky said, Providence! And mankind, poised between the two, responded, Folly, Grief, Slavery! But deep within himself the future initiate heard an invincible voice which answered the chains of earth and the glory of heaven with the cry, Freedom! Who then was right -- the sages, the priests, the madmen, the unhappy, or himself? All these voices spoke the truth; each was triumphant in its own sphere, but not one revealed to him his reason for being. The three worlds existed, eternal as the heart of Demeter, as the light of the stars and as the human heart. But only one who could find their agreement and the law of their balance would be a true sage; he alone would possess divine knowledge and would be able to help men. In the synthesis of the three worlds was to be found the secret of the cosmos!

Upon pronouncing this word which he had just discovered, Pythagoras stood up. His fascinated gaze fixed itself upon the Dorian facade of the temple. The severe building seemed transfigured beneath the chaste rays of Diana. He thought he saw the ideal image of the world and the solution he was seeking. For the base, columns, architrave and triangular pediment suddenly represented for him the threefold nature of man and universe, of microcosm and macrocosm, crowned with divine unity, which is itself a trinity. Cosmos, dominated and penetrated by God, formed

The holy Tetrad, vast and pure symbol,
Origin of Nature and model of the gods.

Yes, it was there, hidden in those geometric lines, -- the key to the universe, the science of numbers, the ternary law which rules the constitution of beings, that of the septenary which controls their evolution. And in a tremendous vision Pythagoras saw the worlds move according to the rhythm and harmony of the sacred numbers. He saw the equilibrium of earth and heaven, whose balance human freedom holds; he observed the three worlds, the natural, human and divine, supporting each other, determining one another and playing the universal drama through a double movement -- a rising and a falling. He divined the spheres of the invisible world enveloping the visible and giving it life unceasingly; he finally perceived the purification and liberation of man from this earth by a threefold initiation. He saw all this, and his life and work in an instantaneous and clear illumination, with that irrefutable certainty of spirit which feels itself in the presence of truth. It was seen as if in a flash of lightning. Now it was a question of proving through reason what his pure intelligence had grasped in the Absolute; in order to do this a lifetime and a herculean effort were needed.

But where could he find the knowledge necessary to bring such an effort to a happy conclusion? Neither the songs of Homer, the sages of Iona nor the temples of Greece sufficed.

The spirit of Pythagoras which suddenly had found wings, began to look into his past, his birth hidden beneath veils of mystery, and into the love of his mother. A memory of his childhood came to him clearly. He recalled that when he was one year old his mother had carried him into a valley of Lebanon, to the temple of Adonai. He saw himself a child again, his arms around Parthenis' neck, in the midst of tremendous mountains and enormous forests, where a river descended in a great waterfall. His mother was standing on a terrace shaded by tall cedars. Before her a majestic priest with a white beard smiled at mother and child while uttering serious words the child did not understand. Later his mother often reminded him of these strange words of the hierophant of Adonai: "O woman of Iona, your son will be great in knowledge, but remember that if the Greeks still possess the wisdom of the gods, the science of God is to be found only in Egypt." These words came back to him along with the memory of his mother's smile, the handsome face of the old man and the distant roar of the waterfall, dominated by the voice of the priest in a setting as beautiful as the dream of another life. For the first time he guessed the meaning of the oracle. Indeed he had heard men speak of the prodigious knowledge of the Egyptian priests and their awe-inspiring Mysteries, but he thought he could do without them. Now he realized that he needed this wisdom of God in order to penetrate to the very heart of nature, and that he would find it only in the temples of Egypt. And it was gentle Parthenis with her mother-instinct, who had prepared him for this work, had carried him as an offering to the supreme God!

From that moment his decision was made to go to Egypt, there to have himself initiated.

Polycrates boasted that he was the patron of philosophers as well as of poets. He promptly gave Pythagoras a letter of recommendation to Pharaoh Amasis, who in turn presented him to the priests of Memphis. The latter received him unwillingly, and only after he had overcome many difficulties. The Egyptian sages distrusted the Greeks, for they considered them superficial and undependable. Therefore they did everything to discourage this young man from Samos. But with an unshakable patience and courage the novice submitted himself to the delays and the oral tests that were imposed upon him. He knew in advance that he would achieve knowledge only by a complete domination of his entire being. His initiation lasted twenty-two years under the pontificate of the high priest, Sonchis. In the section on Hermes we have experienced the tests, the temptations, the terrors and ecstasies of the initiate of Isis, including the seeming cataleptic death of the adept and his resurrection into the Light of Osiris. Pythagoras went through all these stages, which allowed him to realize, not as empty theory but as something he had experienced, the doctrine of the Word-Light or the Universal Word, and the evolution of mankind through seven planetary cycles. At each step of this ascent the tests became more and more difficult. A hundred times one risked one's life, especially if one wished to reach the manipulation of spiritual forces, the dangerous practice of magic and theurgy.

Like all great men, Pythagoras had faith in his star. Nothing that could lead to knowledge rebuffed him, and fear of death did not stop him, because he saw the life beyond. When the Egyptian priests had recognized in him an extraordinary strength of soul and that impersonal desire for wisdom which is the rarest thing in the world, they revealed to him the treasures of their experience. Now he was able to delve deeply into sacred mathematics, the science of numbers, or the universal principles, which he made the center of his system and formulated in a new way. The severity of Egyptian temple discipline taught him the tremendous power of the human will when wisely exercised and guided, and its infinite applications to the body as well as to the soul. "The science of numbers and the art of the will are the two keys of magic," said the priests of Memphis. "They open all the doors of the universe." It was in Egypt, therefore, that Pythagoras acquired this divine insight which allows one to see the spheres of life and of the sciences in a concentric order, to understand the involution of the mind in matter through universal creation, and its evolution, or its reascent to unity through this individual creation, which is called the development of consciousness.

Pythagoras had achieved the summit of Egyptian priesthood and perhaps dreamed of returning to Greece, but war came and spilled over into the Nile basin, bringing all its calamities, drawing the initiate of Osiris into a new whirlwind. For a long time the despots of Asia had been plotting the destruction of Egypt. Their attacks which had been repeated for centuries, had failed in face of the wisdom of the Egyptian institutions, before the power of the priesthood and the strength of the Pharaohs. But the ancient kingdom, shelter of the wisdom of Hermes, could not last forever. The son of the conqueror of Babylon, Cambyses; pounced upon Egypt with his vast armies, starving like a cloud of locusts, and put an end to the rule of the Pharaohs. In the eyes of the sages this was a catastrophe for the whole world. Until then, Egypt had shielded Europe against Asia. Its protective influence extended throughout the Mediterranean area by means of the temples of Phoenicia, Greece and Etruria with which the Egyptian priests were in constant contact. Once this contact was destroyed, the Bull would disappear, head lowered, on the shores of Hellas.

Pythagoras saw Cambyses invade Egypt. He observed the Persian despot, heir of the crowned scoundrels of Nineveh and Babylon, sack the temples of Memphis and Thebes and destroy that of Ammon. He saw the Pharaoh Psammetichus led before Cambyses, bound in chains, placed on a mound, around which were assembled the priests, the leading families and the king's court. He saw the daughter of the Pharaoh clothed in rags, followed by all her ladies-in-waiting, similarly dishonored, as well as the royal prince and two thousand young men paraded with bits in their mouths and halters on their necks, later to be beheaded. The Pharaoh Psammetichus scarcely could restrain his sobs at this terrible scene, while the infamous Cambyses, seated on his throne, enjoyed the grief of his fallen rival. For Pythagoras this was a cruel but instructive lesson in science. What a picture of unleashed animal nature in man, culminating in the monster of despotism who treads everything underfoot and by his ugly apotheosis imposes upon humanity the reign of the most implacable destiny!

Cambyses had Pythagoras transported to Babylon along with a part of the Egyptian priesthood, and imprisoned him there. This colossal city which Aristotle compares to a country surrounded with walls, offered a vast field of observation. Ancient Babel, the great prostitute of the Hebrew prophets, after the Persian conquest was more than ever a pandemonium of peoples, languages, cults and religions in the midst of which Asiatic despotism raised its lofty tower. According to Persian traditions, its foundation dated back to the legendary Semiramis. It is she, they said, who built its monstrous enclosure, some fifty miles in circumference, the Imgum-Bel, its walls where two chariots ran abreast, its terraces, rising one above the other, its mighty palaces with polychrome reliefs, its temples supported by stone elephants and overhung with multi-colored dragons. There the series of despots who had conquered Chaldea, Assyria, Persia, a part of Tartary, Judea, Syria and Asia Minor, had followed one another. There Nebuchadnezzar, the assassin of Magi, had the Jewish people led into captivity. The latter continued to practice their cult in a corner of the vast city, four times larger than London. The Jews even had provided the king a powerful minister, the prophet Daniel.

With Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, the walls of old Babel finally crumbled under the avenging blows of Cyrus, and for several centuries Babylon passed under Persian domination. As a result of this series of events, at the time Pythagoras came there, representatives of three different religions rubbed elbows with each other in the high priesthood of Babylon: the ancient Chaldean priests, survivors of the Persian Magi and the elite of the Jewish captivity. The proof that these various priesthoods agreed among themselves in esoteric matters is seen in the role of Daniel who, while constantly affirming the God of Moses, remained prime minister under Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Cyrus.

Pythagoras had to broaden his horizon still further by studying these doctrines, religions and cults, whose synthesis a few initiates still preserved. In Babylon he was able to increase his knowledge of the Magi, heirs of Zoroaster. If the Egyptian priests alone possessed the universal keys of the holy sciences, the Persian Magi had the reputation of having advanced furthest in the practice of certain arts. They attributed to themselves the manipulation of hidden powers of nature which are called pantomorphic fire and astral light. In their temples, it is said, darkness was created in broad daylight, lamps lighted of themselves, one saw the gods shining and heard the thunder roll. The Magi called that bodiless fire, that generating agent of electricity which they knew how to condense or disperse at will, the celestial lion. The electric currents of the atmosphere, magnetism of earth which they claimed they could aim at men like arrows, they named serpents. They also had made a special study of the suggestive, magnetic and creative power of human speech. They employed formulas, borrowed from the oldest languages of earth, for the evocation of spirits. The following is the psychic reason they themselves gave for this: "Do not change any of the barbaric names of evocation, for they are the pantheistic names of God; they are magnetized by the adorations of multitudes and their power is ineffable." These evocations, practiced in the midst of purifications and prayers were, properly speaking, what was later called black magic.

In Babylon, therefore, Pythagoras penetrated the Mysteries of ancient magic. At the same time, in this den of despotism he saw a great spectacle: above the debris of crumbling religions of the Orient, above their decimated and degenerated priesthood, a group of initiates, courageous, united, defend their science, their faith and, as much as they can, justice. Standing before despots as did Daniel in the lion's den, always near being devoured, they charmed and subdued the wild beast of absolute force through their spiritual power, disputing every inch of ground with him.

After his Egyptian and Chaldean initiation, the child of Samos knew much more about physics than his teachers, far more than any Greek, priest or layman, of his time. He knew the eternal principles of the universe and their applications. Nature had opened her depths to him; the crude veils of matter were torn from his eyes to show him the wonderful spheres of nature and of spiritualized mankind. In the temple of Nith-Isis at Memphis, in that of Bel at Babylon, he had learned many secrets of the history of religions, of the history of continents and races. He had been able to compare the advantages and disadvantages of Jewish monotheism, of Greek polytheism, Hindu trinitarianism and Persian dualism. He knew that all these religions were rays of the one truth, filtered by different degrees of intelligence and intended for various social conditions. He held the key, that is, the synthesis of all these doctrines of esoteric science. His gaze, embracing the past and looking into the future, had to judge the present with extraordinary clarity. His experience showed him mankind threatened by the greatest calamities, by the ignorance of priests, the materialism of scientists and the lack of discipline of democracies. In the midst of universal deterioration he saw Asiatic despotism increase, and from this black cloud a terrible tempest was about to break over defenseless Europe.

Therefore he realized that it was time to return to Greece, in order to accomplish his mission there. It was there that he was to begin his work.

Pythagoras had been confined in Babylon for twelve years. In order to leave, a release from the king of the Persians was necessary. A fellow-Greek, Democedes, the king's physician, interceded in his favor and obtained the philosopher's freedom. Therefore Pythagoras returned to Samos after thirty-four years of absence. He found his country crushed under a satrap of the great king. Schools and temples were closed; poets and scientists had fled like a flock of sparrows before the Persian Caesarism. At least he had the consolation of being present at the death of his first teacher, Hermodamas, and of finding his mother, Parthenis, who alone had not doubted his return. Everyone else had thought that the adventurous son of the jeweler of Samos was dead, but never had she doubted the oracle of Apollo. She realized that beneath his white Egyptian priest's robe, her son was preparing for a high mission. She knew that from the temple of Nith-Isis emerged the beneficent Master, the luminous prophet of whom she had dreamed in the sacred grove of Delphi, and whom the hierophant of Adonai had promised her beneath the cedars of Lebanon.

Now a small ship was carrying this mother and her son on the blue waves of the Cyclades into a new exile. With all their possessions they were fleeing from oppressed and lost Samos. They had set sail for Greece. But it was neither Olympic crowns nor the poet's laurels which tempted the son of Parthenes. His work was more mysterious and greater: to awaken the sleeping soul of the gods in the sanctuaries, to give back power and prestige to the temple of Apollo and finally, to establish somewhere a school of knowledge and life from which would come, not politicians and sophists, but initiated men and women, true mothers and pure heroes!


32. Temple of Delphi

The Great Initiates