What the Hecatomb?

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR

The sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse (a² + b² = c²).

Sounds simple, doesn't it?  Someone just looking at a diagram of the problem can pretty much assume it's true — a "no-brainer," as they say.

So, prove it.

Oops... easier said than done, isn't it?  That problem confounded scholars for ages until Pythagoras (c. 569 BC - c. 475 BC) became — allegedly — the first to prove it. Today, it still confounds high school geometry students everywhere.  

Imagine, then, how happy Pythagoras must have been when he finally solved the problem, known today as the Pythagorean Theorem (or, the 47th Problem of Euclid).  Anderson's Constitutions (1723), gives this account:

“The Greater Pythagoras, provided the Author of the 47th Proposition of Euclid's first Book, which, if duly observed, is the Foundation of all Masonry, sacred, civil, and military…” and in the Third Degree lecture: “This wise philosopher (Pythagoras) enriched his mind abundantly in a general knowledge of things, and more especially in Geometry, or Masonry. On this subject he drew out many problems and theorems, and, among the most distinguished, he erected this, when, in the joy of his heart, he exclaimed Eureka, in the Greek language signifying, "I have found it," and upon the discovery of which he is said to have sacrificed a hecatomb. It teaches Masons to be general lovers of the arts and sciences.”

Let's leave the actual proof to geometricians while concentrating on another problem: he sacrificed a... what the heck is a hecatomb?

Hecatomb: it's not a word you hear in everyday conversation and, in fact, I had never heard it before I witnessed a Third Degree lecture.  In context, I assumed it to be some kind of animal. After all, Pythagoras sacrificed it.  "Maybe," I thought, "it's a mammal... now extinct... perhaps something resembling a wild boar, only the size of a rhinoceros... yeah, that's it... a wild hecatomb."

Not even close.

Animal sacrifice to the gods was a common practice in ancient Greece.  On occasion, the ceremony took on a much more auspicious meaning to the point it required a major statement.  In these cases the Greeks sacrificed as many as a hundred animals, usually cattle, and generally followed with a feast.  The sacrifice and feast was a hecatomb.

In The Iliad, Homer describes a hecatomb as follows:
[455] ...When they had done praying and sprinkling the barley-meal, they drew back the heads of the victims and killed and flayed them.

[460] They cut out the thigh-bones... and then Chryses laid them on the wood fire....When the thigh-bones were burned and they had tasted the inward meats,

[465] they cut the rest up small, put the pieces upon the spits, roasted them till they were done ...and the feast was ready, they ate it, and every man had his full share, so that all were satisfied. As soon as they had had enough to eat and drink,

[470] ...all day long the young men worshipped the god with song, hymning him and chanting the joyous paean, and the god took pleasure in their voices;

 A Greek Hecatomb

The hecatomb's history is elusive.  There remain only a few documented instances of such ceremonies, according to Sandrine Huber, Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Lorraine in France.  "The landscape of the Greek Hecatombs," she says, "is a religious and civic landscape, in some cases of Panhellenic importance. [It involves] numerous and simultaneous sacrificial animals... It is... a soundscape, an olfactive landscape and finally a gustative landscape." In other words, it's noisy and smelly but can result in one heck(atomb) of a big barbeque.

Proving the theorem that today bears his name was a big deal to Pythagoras; and so was his reaction to it.  He sacrificed a hecatomb.


Bro. Steve Harrison, 33°, is Past Master of Liberty Lodge #31, Liberty, Missouri. He is the editor of the Missouri Freemason magazine, author of the book Freemasonry Crosses the Mississippi, a Fellow of the Missouri Lodge of Research and also its Worshipful Master. He is a dual member of Kearney Lodge #311, St. Joseph Missouri Valley of the Scottish Rite, Liberty York Rite, Moila Shrine and a member and Past Dean of the DeMolay Legion of Honor. Brother Harrison is a regular contributor to the Midnight Freemasons blog as well as several other Masonic publications. His latest book, Freemasons: Tales From the Craft & Freemasons at Oak Island. Both are available on amazon.com.

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