Plutarch on Pythagoras and Fish
A note to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Book III, chapter 25

From Philemon Holland's (1603) translation of Plutarch's Quaestiones Conviviales [Symposiacks, Book VIII, Question 8], pp. 778-780.


Why the Pythagoreans, among all other living creatures, absteine most from eating fish.

IF Lucius our friend (quoth he) be offended, or take no pleasure in our sayings, it is high time that we should give over and make an end: but if these things fall within the compasse of their precept for silence; yet this I thinke ought not to be concealed, but may well be revealed, and communicated unto others, namely: What the reason is, that the Pythagoreans absteined principally from eating fish? for so much we finde written of the auncient Pythagoreans: and I my selfe have fallen into the company and conference of certeine disciples of Alexicrates, a man of our time; who fedde a litle sometimes of other living creatures, yea and sacrificed them unto the gods; but for no good in the world would tthey so much as taste of a fish: not as I take it for that cause which Tyndares the Lacedæmonian alledged, who thought that this was done for the honour they had to silence; in regard whereof, the philosopher Empedocles whose name I beare, who was the first that ceased to teach Pythagorically, that is to say, to give rules and precepts of hidden wisedome, called fishes Ellopas, as having τὼ ὄπα ἰλαιομένω [sc. ἰλλομένω], that is to say, their voice tied and shut up within; but for they thought, taciturnitie to be a singular and divine thing, and in one word, that even the gods themselves doe shew by deeds and effects, without voice or speech unto wise men, what their will and pleasure is: Then Lucius mildely and simply answered: That the true cause indeed might peradventure lie hidden still and not be divulged: howbeit, there is nothing to hinder or let us, but that we may render one reason or other which carrieth with it some likelihood & probability: so Theon the grammarian began first to discourse upon that point saying: it was very difficult to shew & prove that Pythagoras was a Tuskan born; but for certeine knowen it was, that he had made his abode a long time in Aegypt, & conversed with the sages of that countrey, where he approoved, embraced, and highly extolled manie of their religious ceremonies, and namely, that as touching beanes: for Herodotus writeth, that the Aegyptians neither sowe, nor eat beanes, no nor can abide so much as to looke upon them: and as for fishes, we are assured that their priests, even at this day, absteine from them, and living as they doe, chaste and unmaried, they refuse salt likewise; neither will they endure to eat it a a meat by it selfe, nor any other viands wherein any sea salt commeth; whereof divers men alledge divers & sundry reasons; but there is one true cause indeed, & that is the enmitie which they beare unto the sea, as being a savage element, a meere alien, & estranged from us, or to speak more truely, a mortall enimie to mans nature; for the gods are not nourished therewith, as the Stoicks were of opinion: that the starres were fed from thence: but contrariwise, that in it was lost the father and saviour of that countrey of Aegypt, which they call the deflux or running out of Osiris, and in lamenting his generation on the right hand, and corruption on the left, covertly they give us to understand, the end and perdition of Nilus in the sea: In which consideration, they are of opinion, that lawfull it is not, once to drinke of the water, as being not potable; neither doe they thinke, that any thing which it breedeth, bringeth forth, or nourisheth, is cleane and meet for man; considering that the same hath not breath and respiration common with us, nor food and pasture agreeable unto ours; for that the very aire which nourisheth and maintaineth all other living creatures, is pernicious and deadly unto them, as if they were engendred first, and lived afterward in this world against the course of nature, and for no use at all; and marvell we must not, if for the hatred they beare unto the sea, they hold the creatures therein, as strangers: seeing, they will not deigne so much as to salute any pilots or mariners whensoever they meet with them, because they get their living upon the sea.

Sylla commending this discourse, added moreover, as touching the Pythagoreans, that when they sacrificed unto the gods, they wuld especially tast of the primices or parcels of flesh which they had killed: but never was there any fish that they sacrificed or offred unto the gods. Now when they had finished their speech, I came in with mine opinion: As for those Aegyptians (quoth I) many men there be as well learned, as ignorant, who contradict them, & plead in the behalfe and defence of the sea, recounting the manifold commodities tthereof, whereby our life is more plentifull, pleasant, and happie: as touching the surcease as it were of the Pythagoreans, and their forbearing to lay hand upon fishes, because they are such strangers unto us, it is a very absurd and ridiculous device; or to say more truely, it is a cruell and inhumane part, and savoring much of a barbarous Cyclops, seeing that to other living creatures they render a reward and recompence, for their kinred, cousenage and acquaintance, by killing, eating, and consuming them as they doe: and verily reported it is of Pythagoras, that upon a time hee bought of the fishers a draught of fish; and when he had so done, commaunded that they should be all let out of the net into the sea againe: surely this was not the act of a man, who either hated or despised fishes as his enemies or strangers; considering that finding them prisoners as he did, he paid for their ransome, and redeemed their liberty, as if they had bene his kinsfolke & good friends: and therefore the humanitie, equitie, and mildnesse of these men, induceth us to thinke and imagine cleane contrary, that it was rather for exercise of justice, or to keepe themselves in ure and custome thereof, that they spared and pardoned those sea-creatures; for that al others, give men cause in some sort to hurt them; whereas poore fishes offend us in no maner: and say their nature and will were so disposed, yet cannot they execute the same: moreover, conjecture we may and collect, by the reports, records, and sacrifices of our auncients, that they thought it an horrible & abominable thing, not onely to eat, but also to kill any beast that doth no hurt or damage unto us: but seeing in processe of time how much pestered they were, with a number of beasts that grew upon them, and overspread the face of the earth; and withall being as it is said, commaunded by the oracle of Apollo at Delphos, to succour the fruits of the earth, which were ready to perish; they began then to kill them for sacrifice unto the gods: yet in so doing, they seemed to tremble and feare, as troubled in minde, calling this their action ἔρδειν and ῥέζειν, that is to say, to doe or perpetrate, as if they did, and committed some great deed in killing a creature having life; and even still at this day they observe a ceremony with all religious precisenesse, not to massacre any beast before it hath given a nod with the head, after the libations and effusions of wine upon it, in signe and token of consent; so strict they were and wary to commit no unjust act. Certes, to say nothing of other beasts, if all men had forborne to kill and eat no more, but pullen and conies, within short time they should not have beene able to have dwelt within their townes and cities, nor enjoied any fruits of the earth: & therefore although necessitie at the first had brought in the use of eating flesh; a very hard matter it were now, in regard of pleasure, to put down & abolish the same: whereas the whole kind of sea-creatures using neither the same aire and water with us, nor comming neere unto our fruits, but being (as a man would saie) comprised within another world, & having distinct bonds and limits of their owne, which they cannot passe, but immediately it costeth them their life, for punishment of their trespasse, giveth unto our belly none occasion or pretence at all, more or lesse, to runne upon them: so that the whole hunting, catching, and running after fish, is a manifest worke of gourmandise and daintie feeding; which without any just or lawfull cause, troubleth & disquieteth the seas, and descendeth into the very bottome of the deepe; for we have no reason at any time to call the red sea-barbell ληιβότειρα, that is to say, corne devourer; nor the guilt-head τρυγηφάγος, that is to say, vine waster, or grape eater, nor yet any mullets, lubins, or sea-pikes, σπερμολόγους, that is to say, seed gatherers, as we name divers land beasts, noting them thereby for the harme and annoiance they doe unto us: neither can we impute unto the greatest fish in the sea, the least wrong or shrewd turne, wherewith wee charge, in our exceeding neerenesse and parsimonie, some cat or wezill, a mouse,1 or rat which haunt our houses: in which regard, they precisely contemning themselves, not for feare of law onely, to doe wrong unto men, but also by the very instinct of nature, to offer no injurie unto any thing in the world that doth them no harme, nor displeasure, used to feed on fish lesse than on any other meat: & admit there were no injustice in the thing, all busie curiositie of men in this point, being so needlesse as it is, bewraieth great intemperance and wastfull gluttony: and therefore Homer in his poeme deviseth this, that not onely the Greeks encamping upon the streight of Hellespont, absteined wholy from eating fish, but also that the delicate and daintie toothed Phæacians, the wanton and licorous woers likewise of lady Penelope, dissolute though they were otherwise, and all islanders were never served at their tables with any viands or cates from the sea: no nor the companions of Ulysses in that great and long voiage of theirs which they had at sea, ever laid hooke, leape, or weele, or cast net into the sea for fish, so long as they had a bit of bread, or handfull of meale left:

But when their ship had vittailes none,
But all therein was spent and gone.

even a little before that they laid hands upon the kowes of the sunne, then began they to fish; not iwis for any deintie dishes, but even for necessary food:

With bended hookes, for now their maw,
Great hunger bit, and guts did gnaw.

So that for extreme need they were forced to eat fish, and to kill the sunnes kine: whereby wee may perceive that it was a point of sanctimonie and chastitie, not onely among the Aegyptians and Syrians, but the Greeks also, to forbeare feeding upon fish; for that beside the injustice of the thing, they abhorred as I thinke, the superfluous curiositie of such food.

Heereupon Nestor tooke occasion to speake: And why (quoth he) is there no reckoning made of my countrey-men and fellow-citizens, no more than of the Megarians? and yet you have heard me to say often times, that the priests of Neptune, whom we call Hieromnemones, never eat fish: for this god is surnamed Phytalmios, that is to say, the President of breeding and generation in the sea: and the race descending from that ancient Hellen, sacrificed unto Neptune, by the name and addition of Patrogeneios, that is to say, the stock-father and principall Progenitour, being of opinion, that man came of a moist and liquid substance, as also, be the Syrians; which is the very cause that they worship and adore a fish, as being of the same kinde, generation, and nouriture with themselves; philosophizing and arguing in this point, with more apparence and shew of reason, than Anaximander did, who affirmed not, that men and fishes were bred both in the same places; but avouched that men were first engendred within fishes themselves, and there nourished like their yoong frie; but afterward, when they became sufficient and able to shift and helpe them, they were cast foorth, and so tooke land: like as therefore, the fire eateth the wood, whereby it was kindled and set a burning, though it were father and mother both unto it; according as he said, who inserted the marriage of Ceyx2 among the works of Hesiodus; even so Anaximander in pronouncing, that fish was both father and mother unto men, taxeth and condemneth the feeding thereupon.


1. Some read μυίᾳ, a flie [for μυί].

2. Or Cyex. [Improbable.]

James Eason.

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