Pythagorean Women: Their History and Writings, by Sarah B. Pomeroy

Barbara Graziosi on female adherents to an ancient philosophy

November 28, 2013

There is little evidence about either Pythagoras or women in antiquity, let alone a combination of the two. The earliest reports about Pythagoras concern men accusing each other of not being true followers of the Master, hence raising the question of who or what actually counted as Pythagorean. As for women in the ancient Greek world, frankly the best evidence that there were any is that we know there were men.

Complaints about lack of evidence, however, can become excuses for intellectual laziness. Feminist scholars of the 1970s made that point, showing that the dearth of knowledge about ancient women was not just the result of inadequate ancient evidence but also of blinkered modern research. Sarah Pomeroy herself was a pioneer: she mined ancient sources for information about women, and produced the landmark 1975 work Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. The concerns of this book are similar: rather than an account of ancient Pythagorean philosophy (which is relegated to a brief last chapter authored by Vicki Lynn Harper), the book is conceived as a “social history of women who were Pythagoreans”.

Pomeroy distinguishes between two groups: contemporaries of Pythagoras (circa mid sixth century to early fifth century BC) who feature in later accounts of his life; and female Pythagorean philosophers, who wrote letters and treatises in the late fourth to first century BC. The distinction seems straightforward, but is in fact hard to maintain – not least because women in the two groups often have the same names. We have a letter written by a certain Theano, for example, and this is also the name of Pythagoras’ wife. Perhaps Neo-Pythagorean women named themselves after famous earlier associates of the Master. Or perhaps the letters and treatises purport to be authored by those early women. This would not be strange: pseudo-epigraphic letters are common in ancient literature. They are not straightforward forgeries but rather attempts to give voice to glamorous figures from the past and dramatise their interactions. Pomeroy refuses to view Neo-Pythagorean texts in this manner, and complains that Iamblichus (Pythagoras’ main ancient biographer) “does not distinguish between an original and later bearer of the same name”. The problem is that if we insist on the distinction, we fail to appreciate an ancient literary game. A further problem is that those who do appreciate it often go on to argue that Neo-Pythagorean texts were actually all written by men. Pomeroy, for her part, points out that there is some evidence for literate women in the relevant period. It is easy to see how the argument might descend to the level of schoolyard retorts: “Actually written by women”; “Not”; “Yes”; “So not”; etc.

It would help to reconsider the intellectual framework for the study of Pythagorean women. Social history is, in my view, rather unhelpful – at least in as much as it emphasises “real life” at the expense of the life of the mind. After all, whoever actually wrote the texts discussed in the book intended them to be seen as the work of women – and that is interesting in itself.

More generally, women are prominent in Pythagoreanism. We can draw a general conclusion about social history: real women will have engaged with Pythagorean philosophy even though the details remain unknown. We can also ask what the emphasis on women tells us about Pythagorean philosophy: that question is only partly explored in the book. Answers would focus on the construction of Pythagoras’ religious authority, the purported organisation of his followers into a secret society, everyday norms (including diet, the regulation of sexual intercourse, and other activities that involved women), and the emphasis placed on remaining faithful to a mythical ancient Master.

Pythagorean Women: Their History and Writings

By Sarah B. Pomeroy
Johns Hopkins University Press, 200pp, £32.00
ISBN 9781421409566 and 9573 (e-book)
Published 28 November 2013

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