Say what you like about Pythagoras of Samos, and you mostly can because nearly all his leading followers have gone and died from embarrassment over being asked to explain what precisely the thing with the beans is about, but here’s a bit of legend that really caught me. It’s from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which I never heard of either: “Pythagoras is said to have had a golden thigh, which he showed to Abaris, the Hyperborean priest, and exhibited in the Olympic games.”
Think of the stories that sentence implies. The obvious question is, was it the left or the right thigh? And was it the whole thigh or just one side? I’d think you’d want the gold to be the outer thigh, so as to make it easier to show off, but maybe Pythagoras didn’t get to pick. For that matter, why a golden thigh?
Maybe it was keeping up with the neighbors? Like, Thales of Miletus popped up one day showing off where he had a copper pinky-toe (it was on his foot), and then Anaximander of Also Miletus went off to sulk before coming back with some tin eyebrows, and Pherecydes of Syros Hey That’s Not Miletus found where he could get a great deal on a bauxite tongue and Pythagoras figured to upstage everyone with a golden thigh, only to feel like a right fool when Themistoclea the Delphic priestess wouldn’t stop seeing if refrigerator magnets will stick to his leg? And which of these names did I just make up? I’m pretty sure “Anaximander” is one of those plants that spreads out over a pond until it looks like it’s just green dotty stuff waiting for you to fall in. Does that count as making it up?
The other part is, Pythagoras supposedly showed off this golden thigh at the Olympics. There’s two ways this makes sense. One is to suppose that he waited until everybody was at the Olympics and when he saw a lull, ran out to the middle of the stadium and announced, “Everyone! Look at my golden thigh! And stop asking questions about the square root of two! Or else! Thigh! See that? Golden!” Maybe he ran off before security could apprehend him, possibly using magnets if they stick to gold, or perhaps he stood there waiting for people to admire that indeed he had a pretty darned thigh-ish gold, as gold goes.
A compelling image, sure, but look at the obvious problem with that interpretation: it says only that he showed his golden thigh at the Olympics. Could all of ancient Greece have gotten bored with a golden thigh at just the one show? I’d think anyone would have wanted to see it at least twice, to make sure the first time around wasn’t some kind of trick done with mirrors. And ancient Greece had a population of literally hundreds of people; they couldn’t all be satisfied that easily.
So here’s the other possibility: what if his exhibition was part of the Olympic competitions? Maybe they had events where folks came in and if they had any golden body parts, well, here they are. I’d hate having to be the judge, then; I don’t know whether I’d rank a golden thigh above or below a golden ankle bone or otolith, and if someone entered, say, a pile of a year’s worth of golden toenail clippings I’d find myself bereft of all my normal critical facilities and most of my ability to speak, such as it is. I’d probably have some horrible and wrong reaction, like wondering what they taste like, and now I’m sorry even bringing up the subject. Or was the contest one of different kinds of thigh people could have, though, with some bringing in gold thighs, some glass thighs, ceramic thighs, yarn thighs? Maybe the thighs weren’t even the point of the contest, and were just something for the crowd to admire while the competitors explain the nature of infinity or whether trees lay eggs or stuff.
Anyway, if he was entering his golden thigh in a regular competition, then, did he win? And if he did, win what? A gold medal would seem ridiculous. “Gee, thanks, what body part can I replace with this?” he’d demand, dripping with sarcasm, only in ancient Greek. I’m assuming they had sarcasm in ancient Greece, if nothing else to see how long they could hold a conversation with Sparta. (Now before you write in and correct me, I know they didn’t give out gold medals in the ancient Greek Olympics. It was olive oil-soaked USB sticks.) But that leaves a gap.
You know, I’ve been assuming it was his thigh, as in the one he would use to stand on. Maybe it was just a golden thigh he found on a clockwork bird or something like that. I suppose that would explain it all, wouldn’t it?
14 thoughts on “Pythagoras and the Golden Middle-Ish”
For the Olympics bit of the story, it is worthwhile to note that Diogenes Laertius claims that Pythagoras received the laurels for Boxing at the 48th Olympiad. Incidentally, that’s where my username originates 🙂
You know, I feel genuinely stupid for not realizing that’s what your user name was likely referring to.
Hah, no worries! Even for those of us interested in the esoteric trivia related to math, that is a bit of an obscurity!