A Hecatomb Of Oxen Or: Pythagoras’s Sacrifice

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“Pythagoreans Celebrate the Sunrise” by Fyodor Bronnikov 1869

Legend has it that when the Greek philosopher Pythagoras discovered the Pythagorean theorem (the famous right-triangle theorem you probably first heard in algebra class then never heard it again until now), he celebrated by sacrificing a hecatomb (100 heads) of oxen to the gods. This event was noted several times in the literature.

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Lewis Carroll

Charles Dodgson, or more popularly known as Lewis Carroll, is one of the most well-known children’s book authors due to his works, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. However, not many are aware that he was also a mathematician and he had written several books on the subject. But even in his mathematical writings, Carroll’s brand of wit and humor is still apparent. In his book A New Theory of Parallels (1895), he gave his remark regarding the anecdote of Pythagoras’s sacrifice:

But neither thirty years, nor thirty centuries, affect the clearness, or the charm, of Geometrical truths. Such a theorem as “the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the sides” is as dazzlingly beautiful now as it was in the day when Pythagoras first discovered it, and celebrated its advent, it is said, by sacrificing a hecatomb of oxen — a method of doing honor to Science that has always seemed to me slightly exaggerated and uncalled-for. One can imagine oneself, even in these degenerate days, marking the epoch of some brilliant scientific discovery by inviting a convivial friend or two, to join one in a beefsteak and a bottle of wine. But a hecatomb of oxen! It would produce a quite inconvenient supply of beef.

Concerning the same subject, German writer Karl Ludwig Börne wrote:

After Pythagoras discovered his fundamental theorem he sacrificed a hecatomb of oxen. Since that time all dunces (Ochsen: in the German vernacular a dunce or blockhead is called an ox) tremble whenever a new truth is discovered.

The same pun was employed by another German named Adelbert von Chamisso, botanist and poet, in his short verse:

Truth lasts throughout eternity,
When once the stupid world its light discerns:
The theorem, coupled with Pythagoras’ name,
Holds true today, as’t did in olden times.

A splendid sacrifice Pythagoras brought
The gods, who blessed him with this ray divine;
A great burnt offering of a hundred kine,
Proclaimed afar the sage’s gratitude.

Now since that day, all cattle [blockheads] when they scent
New truth about to see the light of day,
In frightful bellowing manifest their dismay;

Pythagoras fills them all with terror;
And powerless to shut out light by error,
In sheer despair, they shut their eyes and tremble.

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About Edmark M. Law

My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. I blog at learnfunfacts.com. You can find me on Twitter @EdmarkLaw and Facebook. My email is edmarklaw@learnfunfacts.com
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16 Responses to A Hecatomb Of Oxen Or: Pythagoras’s Sacrifice

  1. Reblogged this on At Sunnyside – Where Truth and Beauty Meet.

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  2. willo says:

    I think I will now forever recall the German word for a dunce. Danke schön. 🙂

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  3. So descriptive yet intriguing one!

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  4. Your posts always give something to learn. Thanks enlightening us

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  5. Abigail says:

    Lewis Carroll’s observation was my favorite, calling the time in which he lived “degenerate days” and acknowledging the satisfaction of “a beefsteak and a bottle of wine” with a friend or two. Yes, quite an inconvenient supply of beef indeed that Pythagoras may have sacrificed! Not an eater of beef myself, I especially agree with this observation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jason Frels says:

    Still working on my formula for a left triangle. The oxen are standing by.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. geetssaini says:

    Pythagoras fills them all with terror;
    And powerless to shut out light by error,
    In sheer despair, they shut their eyes and tremble….
    haha… so do kids in algebra class

    Liked by 1 person

  8. delphini510 says:

    First, I do love your image of the painting above. Beautiful.
    As to the celebration of Pythagoras big discovery I can just say, poor oxen…and how many survived eating that many. Very clever scientists being quite barbaric.
    Thank you for interesting facts and verses.
    miriam

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ellie894 says:

    Fantastic share! Thanks 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Jack Shalom says:

    Ever-Reliable Wikipedia tells us: “In ancient Greece, a hecatomb (/ˈhɛkətuːm/ or /ˈhɛkətoʊm/; Ancient Greek: ἑκατόμβη hekatómbē) was a sacrifice to the gods of 100 cattle (hekaton = one hundred, bous = bull). In practice, as few as 12 could make up a hecatomb.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow, what a great poem too!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. masercot says:

    I imagine that John Entwistle would’ve been likewise concerned…

    Liked by 1 person

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