Judeans, Syrians, Indians, and others: Porphyry of Tyre on abstinence from meat (third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans, Syrians, Indians, and others: Porphyry of Tyre on abstinence from meat (third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 14, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=8967.

Ancient authors: Numerous authors employed by Porphyry, De abstinentia, on On Abstinence from Killing Animals, most of book 4 (link; link to Greek).

Comments: In this work, the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry of Tyre (third century CE) extensively employs ethnographic materials (while often expressly citing the authors used) in order to argue a particular ethical position on abstinence from killing animals and eating meat. One of the more noteable features of his approach is that standard Greek perspectives regarding the origins of an ideal society among the earliest Greek peoples (the so called golden race or golden generation narrative that ultimately goes back to Hesiod) or the superiority of early Spartan society stands side by side with a lengthy discussion of non-Greek peoples who are considered pious and ethical, including Judeans (Jews), Egyptians, Persians, Syrians, and Indians.

However, it is important to notice that Porphyry does not consider all non-Greek peoples equal. He still has room for the notion that there are certain “barbarian” peoples who are beyond the pale, and he puts forward Massagetians (usually a subset of Scythians), Scythians, and Baktrians as instances of peoples who not only engage in violence against animals but also against fellow human beings and their own families. No mention is made of Celtic peoples, even though Porphyry is writing at a time when those northwestern peoples were often cited as brutal barbarians. So standard negative stereotypes about certain (northern) peoples stand side by side with positive stereotypes of other peoples (in this case mostly eastern and southeastern peoples).

While the force of the discussion throughout is rooted in ethnographic descriptions of non-Greek peoples, there is a sense in which this post would readily also fit under the rubric of philosophers speculating about “wise barbarians,” of course (see also this link involving Porphyry on Chaldeans and Hebrews, for instance). Porphyry’s list of which non-Greek peoples are the most wise sometimes overlaps with lists by some other philosophers cited under the wise barbarian category on this website.

Porphyry also discusses the Persian sage Zoroaster in his discussion of the cave as a symbol of the cosmos (link).


Book 4

[Introduction and the centrality peoples’ customs to the argument against eating meat]

1 In the preceding books, Castricius, we have nearly refuted all the arguments used to defend meat-eating. This practice arises due to lack of self-control and moderation. People present shameless apologies for this practice by ascribing a greater need to our nature than is appropriate. However, two particular questions still remain, one of which is the promise of what is advantageous, which especially deceives those who are corrupted by pleasure. Moreover, we will refute the assertion of our opponents that no wise sages or people (ethnos) have rejected meat since this leads those who hear such a view to great injustice through ignorance of true inquiry. We will also try to give solutions to the question of what is advantageous, and to reply to other questions.

[Greeks as the earliest humans and golden descent group (golden race), drawing on Dikaiarchos as a source]

2 Now we will begin with abstinence from certain things, proceeding people by people. The Greeks will claim our attention first since they are closest to us and the most appropriate of all the witnesses that can be produced. Dikaiarchos, the Peripatetic philosopher [a student of Aristotle in the fourth century BCE], is among those who have concisely and, at the same time, accurately compiled accounts on Greek customs. In narrating the lifestyle of Greeks in ancient times, Dikaiarchos says that the ancients, who were born close to the gods, were naturally most excellent and led the best life. The result was that they were considered a golden generation (genos; or: golden race) when compared to people today who are made from worthless and most inferior matter, and that golden generation killed no animal whatsoever. He also says that the truth of this is testified by the poets who called these ancients the golden generation and who assert that every good thing was present with them: “The grain-giving soil bore its fruits spontaneously in abundance, while they quietly harvested their fields in contentment with abundance.” [Hesiod, Works and Days 116]. In fact, Dikaiarchos explains what life was like in the era of Kronos, if we assume that such a generation existed and that this has not been remembered pointlessly and if we may reduce it to a physical account by setting aside what is very mythical.

[1. Leisurely and moderate lifestyle]

It is appropriately said that everything needed for living was spontaneously produced at that time. For men did not get anything by labour, because they were unacquainted with the agricultural skill and, in short, they had no knowledge of any other skill. This is exactly what caused them to lead a life of leisure, free from labours and cares. If it is appropriate to affirm the viewpoint of the most skilful and elegant of physicians, it was also the cause of their being liberated from disease. For there is no precept of physicians which contributes more to health than the advice that we should avoid producing too much excrement. Those people in ancient times always preserved their bodies pure from that. For they neither consumed food that was stronger than the nature of the body could handle (but only food that could be naturally dealt with), nor did they eat more than was moderate because of the difficulty in finding food. Rather, for the most part they ate less than was sufficient on account of the paucity of food. Moreover, there were neither wars among them, nor factions with each other. This is because there was no significant reward for contention that might lead them to engage in such dissensions. The result was that the principal thing in that life was leisure and rest from necessary occupations, together with health, peace, and friendship.

[2. Nomadic lifestyle]

But for those in later times who, through aspiring after things which greatly exceeded moderation, encountered many evils, this ancient life became desirable, as it was reasonable to suppose it would. The proverbial saying “enough with the acorns (or: oaknuts)!” was probably introduced by the person who first changed the ancient diet. A nomadic (or: pastoral) lifestyle followed on this, with people procuring for themselves excess possessions and involving themselves with animals. For when they perceived that some of them were harmless but others were harmful and wild, they tamed the former but attacked the latter. At the same time war was introduced along with this lifestyle. Dikaiarchos says that these things are not asserted by him but by those narrating ancient history.

[3. Agricultural lifestyle]

Since possessions were now significant enough to merit attention, some ambitiously endeavoured to obtain them by collecting them and calling on others to do the same. But other people gave attention to preserving what they collected. Therefore, as time gradually passed and men always directed their attention to what appeared to be useful, they became familiar with the third, agricultural lifestyle. This is what Dikaiarchos says in his account of the customs of the ancient Greeks and the blessed life which they then led, to which abstinence from meat contributed no less than other things. For this reason, in that period there was no war, because injustice was exterminated. But afterwards, together with injustice towards animals, war was introduced among men and competition with each other over the quantity of possessions. For this reason, those who say that abstinence from animals is the mother of injustice are amazingly audacious, since both history and experience testify that war and injustice were introduced together with the slaughter of animals.

[Spartans, drawing on Theophrastos as a source]

3 So when this was later perceived by the Lakedaimonian Lykourgos [legendary law-giver] – even though the eating of animals then prevailed – he arranged the civic organization (politeia) in a way that would significantly reduce the need for food of this kind. For the assigned property for each individual did not consist in herds of oxen, flocks of sheep, or an abundance of goats, horses, and money; rather, property was in the form of land which might produce for a man seventy measures (medimnoi; about 52 litres in each medimnos) of barley, for a woman twelve, and a comparable quantity of fresh produce. For Lykourgos thought that this quantity of food was sufficient to produce a healthy body and that nothing else would be required. This is where the story comes from that, on returning to his country after Lykourgos was away for a while and perceiving (as he passed through the fields) that the wheat had just been reaped and that the threshing-floors and the heaps were parallel and equable, he laughed and said to those that were present that all Lakonia seemed to belong to many brothers who had just divided the land among themselves.

Lykourgos added that, since he had expelled luxury from Sparta, it would be necessary to also end the use of money – both golden and silver – and to introduce iron alone as its substitute (this of a great bulk and weight but of little value). In this way ten minai’s worth of coins would require a large receptacle to hold it and a cart drawn by two oxen to carry it. After this was arranged, many kinds of injustice were eradicated from Lakedaimon. For who would attempt to steal or bribe or defraud or plunder someone else when it was not possible for him to conceal what he had taken? Who would possess it in order to be envied by others? Who would derive any advantage from coining it? Together with money, the useless crafts were discarded because the works of the Lakedaimonians were not sellable. For iron money could not be exported to the other Greeks, nor was it valued by them, but iron money was ridiculed. For this reason it was also not lawful to buy anything foreign or intrinsically worthless. Nor did ships loaded with merchandise sail into their ports. Nor was any verbal sophist, paid diviner, pimp, or artisan of gold and silver ornaments permitted to come to Lakonia, because money was useless there.

In this way, luxury disappeared by itself because it was gradually deprived of what inspired and sustained it. Similarly, those who possessed much derived no greater advantage from it than those who did not. This is because there was no room for excess since it was so hindered by impediments that it was forced to remain harmlessly inert. For this reason the types of household furniture that were consistently useful and necessary, such as beds, chairs, and tables, were produced by them in the best manner. . . . [sentence omitted]. As we are informed, however, by Plutarch, the law-giver was the cause of these things. For the craftspeople, who were liberated from useless works, exhibited the beauty of art in things of a necessary nature.

4 In order to oppose luxury even more and to take away energetic attempts to obtain wealth, Lykourgos introduced a third and most beautiful civic arrangement (politeuma): the practice of citizens eating and drinking together publicly so that they could share in the same prescribed food together. This was instead of eating at home; instead of reclining on sumptuous couches and in front of elegant tables through the work of craftspeople and cooks; and, instead of being fattened in darkness like voracious animals and corrupting their bodies together with their morals by falling into every kind of luxury and excess. Such a mode of living would require much sleep, hot baths, abundant quiet, and the sorts of attention that is given to those who are diseased. This arrangement by Lykourgos was truly a great thing.

But there was something even better than this: As Theophrastos says, Lykourgos caused wealth to be neglected and to be worthless by means of the citizens eating at common tables and the simplicity of their food. For there was no use for, or enjoyment of, riches. In short, there was nothing to please the eyes nor any ostentatious display in the whole set-up because both the poor and the rich sat at the same table. This is why it was universally said that, in Sparta alone, Ploutos [Wealth personified as a god] was seen to be blind and lying like an inanimate and static picture. For it was not possible for the citizens, having previously feasted at home, to go to the common tables with appetites already satisfied with food. For the rest carefully observed the person who did not eat and drink with them and reviled him as an indulgent person, and as one who conducted himself effeminately with respect to the common food. This is why these common tables were called phiditia either as being the causes of friendship and benevolence, as if they were philitia, assuming a “delta” [“D”] for a “lambda” [“L”] or as accustoming men to a spare [pheidos] and slender diet. But the number of those that assembled at the common table was fifteen, more or less. Every month, each person brought (for the purpose of supplying the table) a dry measure (medimnos) of flour, eight liquid measures (choai) of wine, five pounds of cheese, two and a half pounds of figs, and, besides all these, a little bit of money.

5 So the children of those who ate sparingly and self-controlled like this came to these common tables as if they were coming to schools of self-control, where they also heard discussions about civic matters and witnessed the culture of free men. Here they also learned to have fun and joke around without being vulgar and to be the subject of a joke without showing anger. For this appeared to be extremely Lakonic to be able to endure a roasting. Even so, the person who could not take it was permitted to refuse hearing them, and the scoffer was immediately silent.

Such, therefore, was the simplicity of the Lakedaimonians’ diet, even though it was legally instituted for the sake of the multitude. This is why those who came from this civic organization are said to have been more brave and self-controlled and to have paid more attention to what is right than those who came from other communities whose souls and bodies are corrupted. It is clear that perfect abstinence is adapted to such a civic organization as this, but luxurious food is characteristic to corrupt communities.

[Introduction to other peoples]

If, likewise, we direct our attention to other peoples (ethnē) that paid attention to good order, civilized behaviour, and piety towards the gods, it will be evident that abstinence was arranged by them with a view to safety and what is advantageous to most if not all citizens. The citizens who sacrifice to the gods and serve the gods on account of the city might appease the gods with respect to the failures of the majority. For, in the mysteries, a “boy from the hearth” who attends the altar succeeds (by performing accurately what he is commanded) in making the gods favourably disposed towards everyone who has been initiated. Similarly, among peoples and in cities, priests are able to succeed (by sacrificing for all the people and through piety) in inducing the gods to be attentive to the well-being of those that belong to them. With respect to priests, therefore, the eating of all animals is prohibited to some priests but certain animals are forbidden to other priests. This is the case whether you consider the customs of the Greeks or the customs of the barbarians, but restrictions are different from one people to the next. So if you consider them collectively, it will be apparent that some priests from all places abstain from all animals. If, therefore, those who preside over the safety of cities and are responsible for the performance of piety towards the gods abstain from animals, how can anyone dare to claim that abstinence is disadvantageous to cities?

[Egyptians, drawing on Chairemon as a source]

6 In his account of the Egyptian priests, Chairemon the Stoic, who says that these priests were considered philosophers by the Egyptians, informs us that they chose temples as places to engage in philosophy. For dwelling with the statues of the gods is akin to their whole desire to contemplate the divine. It provided them with safety because everyone, out of reverence for the divine, honoured these philosophers as if they were specific sacred animals. They also led a solitary lifestyle as they only interacted with other people in solemn sacrifices and festivals. But at other times the priests were almost inaccessible to any one who wished to converse with them. Anyone that approached was required to be purified first and abstain from many things. This is, so to speak, a common sacred law regarding the Egyptian priests.

After giving up every other type of human employment and labour, the priests devoted their entire life to contemplation and close observation of divine matters. Through close observation they acquired for themselves honour, security, and piety; through contemplation they acquired knowledge; and, through both they acquired a discipline of customs that was secret and venerable. Continually engaging with divine knowledge and inspiration removes people from all greed, suppresses the emotions (or: passions), and inspires an intellectual life. But they practised simplicity in their diet and clothing, as well as self-control and endurance. They were also attentive to justice and free from greed in every matter. They were likewise made holy by rarely interacting with other men. For during the time of what they called “purifications,” they scarcely interacted with their nearest family members and those of their own order, nor were they to be seen by anyone unless it was essential for the purposes of purification. The sanctuary was inaccessible to those who were not purified, and they dwelled in holy places for the purpose of performing divine activities. But at all other times they associated more freely with those who lived like themselves. They did not, however, associate with anyone who was not involved in sacred activities. Rather, they were always seen close to the gods or the statues of the gods, either carrying them or preceding them in processions or carefully putting them away with modesty and reverence. None of these actions was empty display, but each action was an indication of some natural principle.

Their noble reverence was also apparent from their behaviour. Their walking was orderly and their demeanor was calm. They were so careful to preserve the seriousness of their gaze so that, if they chose, they did not even wink. They rarely laughed and, when they did laugh it went no farther than a smile. But they always kept their hands within their garments. Each likewise wore a symbol indicative of which order he was given in sacred matters, because there were many orders of priests.

Their diet also was modest and simple. With respect to wine, some of them did not drink it at all. But others drank very little because it injures the nerves, oppresses the head, impedes study, and leads to sexual desires. In many other things they likewise conducted themselves with caution. They neither used bread at all during the purifications and, when they were not engaged in purifying themselves, they were used to eating bread with hyssop cut into small pieces, for they said that hyssop really purifies the power of bread. Some of them abstained from oil most of the time, and the majority of them did so all the time. If they did use oil with vegetables, they took very little of it and only enough to make them taste milder.

7 It was not lawful for them to touch food and drink produced outside of Egypt, and this contributed considerably to the exclusion of luxury for these priests. But they abstained from all the fish that was caught in Egypt; from such four-legged animals that had solid hooves or fissured hooves; and, from animals without horns. Similarly they abstained from all carnivorous birds. Many of them, however, entirely abstained from all animals. During purifications, every one of them abstained, and they did not even eat an egg. They also refused to eat some of the animals without being required to do so: So, for instance, with oxen they rejected the females and also those among the males that were twins, or were speckled, or had a different colour, or had a different shape, or had been yoked (because they had already been devoted to working), or resembled animals that are honoured, or resembled the sacred images, or had only one eye, or appeared similar to the shape of a person.

There are also countless other observations regarding the expertise of those called “the ones who mark calves with a seal” (moschosphragistai), about which books have been composed. But these observations are even more curious with respect to birds: for instance, that a turtle-dove should not be eaten because they say that a hawk frequently rejects this bird after he has captured it and preserves the turtle-dove’s life as a reward for having had interaction with the hawk. So to avoid accidentally coming into contact with a turtle-dove of this kind, the Egyptian priests avoided the whole species of those birds.

These were some of the communal modes of worship. But there were different sacred rites which varied according to the class of the priests that engaged in them, and these rites were adapted to each god. But all the priests participated in the purifications. When the time came to perform something pertaining to the sacred worship, they spent a number of days in preparation: some priests did so for forty-two days, more or less, yet never less than seven days. During this time they abstained from all animals and likewise from all vegetables and legumes. Most importantly, they abstained from sexual intercourse with women. They never at any time had intercourse with men. They likewise washed themselves with cold water three times every day: when they got out of bed, before dinner, and when they got ready to sleep. But if they happened to have a seminal emission, they immediately purified their body by washing. They also washed in cold water at other times, but not as often. Their bed was woven from the branches of the palm tree (which they call bais), and a smooth semi-cylindrical piece of wood is used to support the head. They practised endurance through hunger and thirst and were accustomed to minimal food throughout their whole life.

8 It is a testimony to their self-control that, even though they never exercised by walking or riding, they nonetheless lived a life free from illness and were sufficiently strong for enduring labours. They withstood many burdens in the performance of sacred tasks and accomplished many forms of service which required above average strength. They divided the night into observing the heavens and sometimes part of it for purification, and they divided the day into times for worshipping the gods, according to which they sang hymns three or four times: in the morning and evening, when the sun is at noon, and when it is setting in the west. They devoted the rest of their time to the study of arithmetic and geometry, always working to achieve something and to make some new discovery. In short, they continually practised their skill. On winter nights, they were likewise occupied in the same activities, being carefully engaged in literary pursuits for they paid no attention to acquiring things and were free from servitude to that bad master, extravagance. So their unhindered and incessant labour testifies to their endurance, but their self-control is manifested by their freedom from material things.

They considered it a most impious thing to sail away from Egypt because they were so careful to avoid foreign luxury and pursuits. To them travelling away was only lawful for those who were forced to do so on behalf of the king. In fact, they were very anxious to continue to abide by ancestral customs [i.e. Egyptian customs], and those who were found to have violated them, even to a small degree, were expelled. True philosophy was practised by prophets (prophētai), by those in charge of the sacred robes of the deity (hierostolistai), by sacred scribes (hierogrammateis), and also by astronomers (hōrologoi). The other priests, the shrine-bearers (pastophoroi), the group of temple-wardens (neōkoroi) and the servants of the gods (hypourgoi) observed the same rules of purity, but without the same strictness and self-control.

[Porphyry’s overview about Egyptians]

[Meaning of the worship of animals as gods]

9 That is the testimony regarding the Egyptians by a man who was a lover of truth and an accurate writer and who was deeply engaged in Stoic philosophy. Through their discipline and closeness with the deity, they knew that the deity is not only present in man and that the soul does not only dwell in man. Rather, it is almost the same soul that is present in all animals. For this reason, they used every animal in fashioning the images of the gods and, for this purpose, mixed together the human form with the forms of wild beasts and the bodies of birds with the human body. For a certain deity was represented by them in a human shape up to the neck but the face was that of a bird, a lion, or some other animal. Again, another divine resemblance had a human head, but the other parts were those of certain other animals, some of which had an inferior position but others a superior position.

In this way, they showed that animals and humans were in community with each other through the decision of the gods and that tame and savage animals are nurtured together with us, but not without some divine plan. So a lion is worshipped as a god, and a certain part of Egypt (which is called Nomos) has the designation Leontopolis (Lion-city), another is called Bousiris (Ox), and another Lykopolis (Wolf-city). For they worshipped the power of god which extends to all things through animals which are nurtured together, and which each of the gods imparts.

They also reverenced water and fire most among the elements since they are the principal causes of our safety. These things are exhibited by Egyptians in temples. Even now, when they open the sanctuary of Sarapis, the worship is performed through fire and water. The one who sings the hymns makes a libation with water and displays fire, when he invokes the god in the ancestral language of the Egyptians as he stands on the threshold of the temple. Therefore, since they venerate these elements, they especially reverence those elements which participate in what is sacred.

But after these, they venerate all animals. In Anabis village, they worship a man and also make sacrifice to him. Victims are also burned there in honour of him on an altar. Shortly after, that man eats only what was procured for him as a human being. So one must abstain from human being, and likewise from the others [i.e. animals]. Furthermore, as a result of their transcendent wisdom and association with the deity, they [Egyptians] discovered what animals are more acceptable to the gods than human beings: so they found that a hawk is dear to the Sun, since its entire nature consists of blood and spirit. The hawk pities humans, laments over a corpse, and scatters earth (in which they believe a solar light resides) on the corpse’s eyes. They likewise discovered that a hawk lives many years and that, after it leaves the present life, it possesses a divining power. They discovered that the hawk is most rational and prescient when freed from the body, that it sanctifies statues, and that it dwells in temples.

A scarab-beetle will be hated by someone who is ignorant and unskilled in divine concerns, but the Egyptians venerate it as an animated image of the Sun. For every beetle is a male and, emitting its semen in a muddy place and making it spherical, it turns round the seminal sphere in a way similar to that of the sun in the heavens. A beetle likewise receives a period of twenty-eight days, which is a lunar cycle.

In a similar manner, the Egyptians have philosophical interpretations of the ram, the crocodile, the vulture, and the ibis, and, in short, of every animal. The outcome of this is that, from their wisdom and transcendent knowledge of divine concerns, they finally came to venerate all animals. An ignorant person would not even suspect that they have avoided the influence of the common people who know nothing; that they do not walk in the way of ignorance but pass beyond the illiterate population which everyone encounters at first; and, that they have revered things which are considered worthless by the common people.

10 No less than the details mentioned above, this also induced them to believe that animals should be reverenced. They discovered that the soul of every animal, when freed from the body, was rational, had knowledge of the future, possessed an oracular power, and caused everything which man is capable of accomplishing when separated from the body. So they very appropriately honoured them and abstained from them as much as possible. Since the cause of the Egyptians’ veneration of the gods through animals requires an extensive discussion beyond the limits of the present writing, what has so far been outlined about this particular issue is sufficient for our purpose.

[Egyptian burial customs, drawing on Euphantos as a source]

Nevertheless, this should not be omitted: when the Egyptians embalm those of noble birth, they draw out the entrails and place them in a chest. During the other actions which they performed for the sake of the dead, they elevated the chest towards the Sun, invoking the Sun as a witness. At the same time, an oration for the deceased was delivered by the person in charge of taking care of the funeral. The oration which Euphantos [perhaps an otherwise unknown Euphantos, if not Euphantos of Olynthos, ca. 320 BCE] has translated from the Egyptian language was as follows:

“O Sovereign Sun, and all you gods who give life to humans, receive me, and deliver me to the eternal gods as a cohabitant. For I have always piously worshipped those deities which were pointed out to me by my parents as long as I lived in this age, and I have likewise always honoured those who procreated my body. With respect to other men, I have never killed anyone, nor defrauded anyone of what he deposited with me, nor have I committed any other atrocious deed. If, therefore, during my life I have acted erroneously by eating or drinking things which it is unlawful to eat or drink, I have not erred as a result of my own will, but because of these [entrails].”

At this point the speaker pointed to the chest in which the entrails were contained. After speaking in this way, he threw the chest into the river [Nile] but buried the rest of the body as being pure. In this manner, they thought a speech of defence should be made to the deity for what they had eaten and drank, and for the violent conduct which they had been led to through the belly.

[Judeans (Jews) and Essenes, drawing on Josephos as a source]

11 But among those who are known by us, the Judeans – I mean the Judeans before they first suffered the subversion of their customs under Antiochos [IV Epiphanes, reigned ca. 175-164 BCE] and later under the Romans, when the temple in Jerusalem was also captured and became accessible to anyone who had previously not been permitted to enter, and the city itself was destroyed [70 CE] . Before all this took place, the Judeans always abstained from many animals but especially, as they still do now, from the meat of pigs.

In that period, there were three kinds of philosophy among them. The Pharisees led the first kind of philosophy, the Sadducees led the second, and the Essenes led the third, which was considered the most holy. The communal organization (politeuma) of the third was as follows, as Josephos frequently testifies in many of his writings. In the second book of his Judaic History [link (coming soon) to the passage], which he has completed in seven books, and in the eighteenth book of his Account of Ancient Matters (Archaiologia) [now known as Jewish or Judean Antiquities, link (coming soon) to the passage], which consists of twenty books, and likewise in the second of the two books which he wrote Against the Greeks [i.e. Against Apion; link], he speaks about these Essenes.

Josephos says that they are from the descent group (genos) of the Judeans and that they are friendly to one another more than the others [i.e. other Judeans]. They stay away from pleasures, considering them to be evil, but they assume that self-control and not giving in to the emotions (or: passions) is virtuous. They also despise marriage yet, accepting the children of other persons and instructing them in disciplines while they are young, they consider these children as their own family and instruct them in their own customs. They do this not for the purpose of subverting marriage and the offspring arising from marriage, but in order to avoid the sexual immorality of women. They are likewise despisers of wealth, and their participation in the common ownership of possessions is wonderful. Nor is any one to be found among them who is richer than the rest. They have a law that those who wish to belong to their sect (hairesis) must give up their possessions to the sect, with the result that neither the debasement of poverty nor the primacy of wealth is found among them. Instead, the possessions of everyone are combined together into one as if they had been brothers. They likewise consider oil impure. If anyone, even accidentally, comes into contact with oil, he wipes his body. For they think it is good to be dry and always to be clothed in white garments. Supervisors of the communal possesions are elected by a show of hands and chosen from among everyone without distinction.

They do not live in one city but in every city many of them live together. If a member of the sect comes from somewhere else, that person equally shares their possessions with them, as if they were his own. Similarly, those who first perceive these visitors relate towards them as if they were an intimate acquaintance. For this reason, when they travel they take nothing with them to cover costs. They do not replace their clothes or shoes until they are entirely torn or destroyed. They neither buy nor sell anything. Instead, each person gives what he possesses to the one who is in need and receives in return what is useful for him. Nevertheless, each member freely supplies to others of their sect what they need without any remuneration.

12 Moreover, they are particularly pious towards the deity. Before the sun rises, they say nothing unholy. They do say certain ancestral prayers to the deity, as if requesting him to rise. Afterwards, they are sent by their supervisors to engage in several skills which they know. Once they have worked hard on these skills until the fifth hour, they then gather together in one place. Wearing linen garments, they wash their bodies with cold water. After this purification, they enter into their own room where others who do not hold the same beliefs are not permitted to enter. Being pure, they enter this dining room as if they are entering into a holy sanctuary. When all of them are seated in silence in this place, the baker distributes the bread and the cook distributes to each of them one dish containing one kind of food. However, before they eat the food which is pure and sacred, a priest prays. It is not lawful for anyone to taste the food prior to the prayer. After dinner, likewise, the priest prays again. In this way, they honour the god both when they begin and when they stop eating.

After laying down their sacred garments, they again go back to their work until evening. Returning from there, they eat and drink in the same manner as before with visitors sitting with them if there are visitors present at the time. No noise or clamour ever defiles the house in which they live. Instead, their conversation with each other is performed in an orderly manner. To anyone outside the house, the silence of those within appears as if it was some awesome mystery. Yet the cause of this quietness is their constant sobriety, and the fact that their meat and drink is measured by what is sufficient. Now those who are eager to join their sect are not immediately admitted into it. Instead, they must remain out of the sect for one year while adopting the same diet, and the Essenes give them a rake, a belt, and a white garment. If, during that year they have provided sufficient proof of their self-control, they proceed closer to the mode of life and use purer water for the purpose of sanctity, even though they are not yet permitted to live with the Essenes. After this demonstration of endurance, their way of life is tested for two more years, and the person who appears to deserve to associate with them is admitted into the group after this period .

13 However, before the one who is admitted touches his common food, he takes a frightening oath, swearing that: first, he will piously worship the deity; second, he will preserve justice towards fellow humans and that he will neither intentionally injure any one nor follow a command to do that; third, he will always hate unrighteous people but strenuously assist righteous people; fourth, he will act faithfully towards all people but especially towards the leaders of the land, since no one becomes a ruler without the permission of god; fifth, if he is a leader, he will never employ his power to engage in violently harmful purposes, nor will he surpass those that are in subjection to him in his dress or any other splendid ornament; sixth, he will always love the truth and be hostile to liars; seventh, he will keep his hands free from theft and his soul pure from unholy gain; and, eighth, he will conceal nothing from those of his sect nor divulge any thing to others pertaining to the sect even if someone tried to force him to reveal such things by threatening him with death. In addition to these things, they also swear that they will not pass on the teachings of the sect to anyone in a way that is different from the way they received them; and, they will likewise abstain from robbery and preserve the books of their sect with the same care as they preserve the names of angels. Those are their oaths.

Now those who are caught [breaking the oaths or rules] and thrown out die an evil death. This is because, since they are bound by their oaths and their customs, they are not able to receive food from others. Instead, feeding on vegetables and having their body emaciated by hunger, they die. Because of this danger, the Essenes have brought some offenders back in pity when they were in dire straits, thinking that they have been punished sufficiently for their offences in suffering torture to the brink of death.

Now they give a shovel to those who intend to join their sect so that, when they relieve themselves, they can dig a trench that is a foot deep. They also completely cover themselves with their garment in such situations, in order that they may not offend the rays of the Sun. So great, indeed, is their simplicity and frugality with respect to diet, that they do not require evacuation till the seventh day after consuming food.

That seventh day is the day they spend in singing hymns to god and in resting from labour. But from this exercise they acquire so much power of endurance that – even when tortured and burned or suffering every kind of excruciating pain – they cannot be influenced to either speak against their law-giver or eat their customary food. The truth of this was demonstrated in their war with the Romans. For then they neither flattered their tormentors nor shed any tears. Instead, they smiled in the midst of their torments, derided those that inflicted them, and happily emitted their souls since they knew that they would possess them again. For the following opinion was firmly established among them: their bodies were indeed corruptible and the matter from which their bodies were constituted was not stable, but their souls were immortal and would endure forever and, proceeding from the most subtle ether, their souls were drawn down by a natural flux and complicated with bodies. They also held the opinion that, when they are no longer detained by the bonds of the flesh, they will then rejoice as if freed from a long slavery and ascend to the heavenly regions. Due to this mode of living and being disciplined in truth and piety, there were many among them (as it is reasonable to suppose there would be) who had foreknowledge about future events. This was because they were conversant from their youth with sacred books, different purifications, and the declarations of the prophets. Such is the division of the Essenes among the Judeans.

[Porphyry’s overview about Judeans generally]

14 All of the Judeans, however, were forbidden to eat the meat of pigs or fish without scales (which the Greeks call scale-less) or to eat the meat of any animal that has solid hoofs. Similarly, they were forbidden not only from eating but also from killing animals that fled to their houses as supplicants. Nor did the law-giver permit them to kill animals that were parents together with their young. The law-giver ordered them to spare and not put to death animals that assist us in our labours (even in a hostile land). Nor was the law-giver afraid that the class of animals which are not sacrificed would, through being spared from slaughter, increase so much as to produce famine among men. For he knew, in the first place, that prolific animals live only a short time and, secondly, that many of them perish unless attention is paid to them by men. Moreover, he likewise knew that other animals would attack those that increased excessively. Another indication of this is that, although we abstain from many animals (such as lizards, worms, flies, serpents, and dogs), at the same time we are not afraid of perishing through hunger by abstaining from them, even though they reproduce abundantly. In the next place, it is not the same thing to eat and to kill an animal. For we destroy many of the above-mentioned animals, but we do not eat any of them.

[Syrians / Phoenicians, drawing on Neanthes and Asklepiades as sources]

15 Furthermore, it is likewise related that the Syrians formerly abstained from animals. On this account, they did not sacrifice them to the gods. Yet later on they sacrificed them for the purpose of averting certain evils. Still, they did not at all adopt a diet with meat. Neanthes of Kyzikos and Asklepiades of Cyprus (FGrHist 752) say that – around the time of Pygmalion, who was born a Phoenician but reigned over the Kyprians (or: Cyprians) – as time progressed, however, the eating of meat was introduced from an illegal action of the following kind, which Asklepiades, in his book On Kypros and Phoenicia, relates as follows: In the first place, Kyprians did not sacrifice anything animated to the gods. Yet there was not any law pertaining to this kind of thing because it was prohibited by natural law. However, on a certain occasion in which one soul was required in exchange for another, they are said to have sacrificed a victim for the first time ever. After this took place, the entire victim was then consumed by fire. But afterwards, when the victim was burned, a portion of the meat fell on the earth. This portion was taken by the priest, who burned his fingers while doing so and then involuntarily moved his fingers to his mouth to sooth the pain which the burning produced. After tasting the roasted meat in this way, he also wanted to eat a lot more and could not refrain from giving some of it to his wife. Pygmalion, however, becoming acquainted with this circumstance, ordered both the priest and his wife to be hurled headlong from a steep rock, and gave the priesthood to another person. That next priest, soon performing the same sacrifice and eating the meat of the victim, fell into the same disasters as his predecessor. This sort of thing proceeded still farther, however, and as people used the same kind of sacrifice and yielded to desire by not abstaining from but rather eating meat, the act was no longer punished. Nevertheless abstinence from fish continued among the Syrians till the time of Menander, because he says: “The Syrians for example take, since these / When by intemperance led of fish they eat, / Swollen in their belly and their feet become. / With sack then covered, in the public way / They on a dunghill sit, that by their lowly state, / The goddess may, appeased, the crime forgive.”

[Persians, drawing on Euboulos and Pallas as sources]

16 Among the Persians, those who are wise concerning the deity and who worship the deity, are called Magians (Magoi) because that is what Magos means in the Persian language. Now the Persians consider these men so great and so worthy of reverence that Darius the son of Hystaspes [reigned 522-486 BCE] had the fact that he had been a master of the Magians inscribed on his own tomb, among other things.

They are also divided into three groups, as we are informed by Euboulos, who wrote the Investigation of Mithras in many books. In this work, he says that the first and most learned group of the Magians neither eats nor slays anything animated, but adheres to the ancient abstinence from animals. The second group does use some animals for food, but does not kill any that are tame. Nor do those of the third group, like others, lay their hands on any animals. For the most important belief with all of the groups is that there is a transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), which appears to be indicated in the mysteries of Mithras. For in these mysteries, obscurely signifying that we have something in common with animals, they are accustomed to call us by the names of different animals. So they designate the male initiates in the rites “lions” but the females “lionesses,” and they designate those who are servants in these rites “crows.” With respect to the “fathers” [lacuna in the manuscript] . . . for these are designated by them “eagles” and “hawks.” The one who reaches the rank of “lion” takes on all kinds of animal forms. In his book On Mithras, Pallas [ca. 117-138 CE] explains the cause of this, saying that it is common opinion that these things refer to [lacuna in manuscript] . . . the circle of the zodiac but that, truly and accurately speaking, they obscurely signify something pertaining to human souls, which, according to the Persians, are invested with bodies of various forms. Euboulos also says that somes Latins are called (in their language), “boars,” “scorpions,” “lizards,” and “blackbirds.”

They [likely Persians rather than Latins] call the world-creating (demiourgoi) gods the causes of these: for they call Artemis a she-wolf; the Sun a bull, a lion, a dragon, and a hawk; and, Hekate a horse, a bull, a lioness, and a dog. But most of those who engage in discussing the gods (theologoi) say that Pherephatta is called this because she feeds (pherbei) a ring-dove (phatta), for the ringdove is sacred to this goddess. So also the priests of Maia dedicate to her a ring-dove. And Maia is the same as Persephone, since she is a nurse and nurturer. This goddess is an earth-goddess, and so is Demeter. Also, a cock is consecrated to this goddess and for this reason those that are initiated in her mysteries abstain from domestic birds. At Eleusis, likewise, the initiated are ordered to abstain from domestic birds, fish, beans, pomegranates, and apples. These fruits are as equally defiling to the touch as a woman who recently delivered or a dead body. But anyone who is familiar with the nature of apparitions knows the reason why it is required to abstain from all birds, and especially for a person who is eager to be freed from earthly concerns and to be established with the heavenly gods.

But as we have frequently said, bad behaviour is sufficiently able to defend itself, especially when it presents itself to ignorant people. For this reason, in the case of those that have only some bad behaviour, some think that a call to avoid it is pointless babbling and, according to the proverb, “idle talk of old women.” Others feel that it is like fear of the lower spirits (or: superstition). But those who have progressed considerably in wickedness are prepared not only to speak against those who address and demonstrate the propriety of this abstinence [from meat], but reproach purity itself as if it was enchantment or pride. However, these wicked people are rightly paying back both the gods and humans for their failures, and they have first of all been given punishment by having a wicked disposition of this kind. Now we still have to discuss another case among the peoples (ethnē) of other tribes (allophyloi) that have been remembered as honorable and just, and that have been considered pious concerning divine matters, and then pass on to other matters.

[Indians, drawing on Bardaisan of Edessa as a source]

17 Although the communal organization (politeia) of the Indians is divided into many parts, there is one descent group (genos) among them that is wise about the gods, whom the Greeks are accustomed to calling “naked wise men” (“gymnosophistai”). Now among these there are two sects (haireseis), one of which is led by the Brahmans and the other by the Samanaians. While the Brahmans receive this kind of wisdom about the gods by descent (in a manner similar to a priesthood), the Samanaians are chosen and consist of those who choose to obtain wisdom about the gods.

Their way of life is like this, according to the Babylonian Bardasain [link to the Book of Laws of Countries, although that is not the work cited here], who lived in the times of our fathers [died ca. 222 CE, while Porphyry was born around that time] and was familiar with those Indians who were sent to Caesar [likely emperor Elagabalus, ca. 218-222 CE] together with Dandamis. Bardaisan writes:

All the Brahmans are a single descent group (genos), because all of them derive from a single father and a single mother. But the Samanaians are not of the same descent group, but have been brought together from the people of the Indians, as we have said.


A Brahman is not ruled by any government, nor does he pay any taxes to the others. Among these, there are philosophers who live in the mountains and those who live around the Ganges river. The ones in the mountains consume fruit and cows’ milk sprinkled with herbs, and the ones around the Ganges also eat fruit that grows in abundance around the river. The land likewise nearly always bears new fruit, together with plenty of rice, which grows naturally and which they use when there is a lack of fruit. Eating other food or even touching a living being [i.e. animal meat] is considered the equivalent of extreme impurity and impiety.

This is their doctrine: they worship the deity and they are pious towards the deity. They spend the day and most of the night in hymns and prayers to the gods, with each of them having a cottage to himself and living alone as much as possible. For the Brahmans cannot stand being with others, nor can they stand speaking much. But when they do speak, they withdraw themselves and do not speak for many days afterwards. They also frequently fast.


Now the Samanaians are, as we have said, chosen. Whenever someone wants to be enrolled in their order, that person proceeds to the leaders of the city, renouncing the city or village that he inhabited along with wealth and all the other property that he possessed. After shaving the hair off of his body, he receives a garment and goes away to the Samanaians. However, he does not return to his wife or children (if he happens to have any) and does not pay any attention to them or think that they are at all important to him. In fact, the king provides what is necessary for the man’s children, and the relatives provide for the wife. Such is the lifestyle of the Samanaians.

But they live outside of the city, and spend the whole day discussing the deity. They also have houses and sanctuaries that are built by the king, in which they are managers who receive a certain prescribed payment from the king which is used to supply food for those that live in them. Now their food consists of rice, bread, fruits, and vegetables. When they enter into their house, a bell sounds to indicate that non-Samanaians need to leave and the Samanaians immediately begin to pray. But having prayed, again, on the bell sounding as a signal, the servants give to each Samanaian an individual platter (for two of them do not eat out of the same dish) and feed them with rice. For those who want greater variety of food, a vegetable is added or some fruit. After eating only what is necessary, they immediately proceed to their customary activities. All of them likewise are unmarried and have no possessions. Both the Samanaians and the Brahmans are revered so much by the other Indians that the king also visits them and asks them to pray and supplicate the gods or to advise the king on what action to take when any disaster happens in the country.

18 Regarding their attitudes about death, they unwillingly endure the entire length of their lives since they consider it as a certain service to nature. Therefore they are eager to liberate their souls from the bodies. As a result, frequently they depart from life [i.e. take their own life] when they seem to be well and are neither oppressed nor driven to desperation by anything evil. Even though they announce to others that it is their intention to commit suicide, no one hinders them. Proclaiming that those who leave this life are happy, they instruct the members of the household of the dead on certain things. They steadily and truly believe (as does the population generally) that souls associate with each other in another life. But as soon as the members of the household (to whom they have proclaimed that this is their intention) have heard the instructions given to them, they burn the body in fire so that they may separate the soul from the body in the purest manner. They die in this way, celebrated by all the Samanaians. For these men dismiss their dearest friends to death more easily than others part with their fellow-citizens when going on the longest journeys. They themselves lament that they continue living, but proclaim that those who are dead are blessed because they have now obtained an immortal appointment.

There are no sophists “such as men now are” [cf. Homer, Iliad 1.272] among the Greeks – neither among these Samanaians nor the previously mentioned Brahmans – who would be seen to doubt and to say: “If everyone imitates you [the Samanaians who commit suicide], what will happen to us?” Human affairs are not in chaos because of these Samanaians, for not everyone imitates them and those who have may be considered the causes of equitable legislation rather than chaos to the different peoples. Moreover, the law did not force the Samanaians and Brahmans to eat meat. Instead, permitting others to eat meat, the law allowed these groups to be autonomous and respected them as though they were superior to law. Nor did the law subject these men to the punishment which it inflicts, as if they were the primary perpetrators of injustice, but it reserved this for others. And so to those who ask, “What would be the consequence if all men imitated such characters as these,” the saying of Pythagoras must be the answer: if all men were kings, the passage through life would be difficult, yet royal leadership is not to be avoided for this reason. If all men were virtuous, no communal organization (politeia) would be found in which worthiness was decided by virtue. Nevertheless, no one would be so insane that they would think that all men should earnestly attempt to become virtuous characters.

Indeed, the law grants to the common people many other things [beyond permission to eat meat] which, nevertheless, it does not grant to a philosopher or even to one who conducts the affairs of government in an appropriate manner. The government does not accept every craftsperson into the administration, even though it does not forbid the exercise of any craft, nor does it forbid it for men of other occupations. But the government excludes from leaderhship those who are occupied in handwork and, in short, all those who are lacking in justice and the other virtues. Thus, likewise, the law does not forbid the common people from associating with prostitutes, on whom at the same time it imposes a fine. Yet it is considered disgraceful and base for men that are moderately good to have any connection with prostitutes. Moreover, the law does not prohibit a man from spending the whole of his life in a tavern. Yet at the same time this is most disgraceful even to a moderately worthy man. It appears, therefore, that the same thing must also be said with respect to diet. The things that are permitted to the majority of the population must not likewise be allowed for the best men. For the man who is a philosopher should especially establish for himself those sacred laws which the gods and people who follow the gods have instituted. But the sacred laws of peoples and cities appear to have established for sacred men purity, and to have forbidden meat. They have also forbidden the majority of the people to eat certain animals, either because of motives of piety or concern about the damage which would be caused by the food. The result is that it is required either to imitate priests or to be obedient to the mandates of all law-givers. Either way, the one who carefully follows the laws and is pious should abstain from all animals. For if some who are only partially pious abstain from certain animals, the person who is pious in every way will abstain from all animals. . . [omitted example involving Cretans].

[Peoples who by necessity eat meat: Nomads, Troglodytes, and Ichthyophagians]

21 Those persons who contrast the nomads, Troglodytes (Cave-dwellers), or Ichthyophagians (Fish-eaters), on the one hand, to the customs of the peoples which we have presented, on the other, are ignorant about how these peoples were led to the necessity of eating animals through the infertility of the regions they inhabit. These regions are so barren that they do not even produce vegetables but have instead shores and sands. This necessity is further indicated by the fact that they are not able to make use of fire because of a lack of combustible materials. Instead, they dry their fish on rocks or on the shore. These people certainly live in this way out of necessity.

[“Savage” peoples: Massagetians, Derbikians, Scythians, Baktrians and others]

Yet there are certain peoples who are wild and savage (thēriōdēs) by nature. However, it is not appropriate for intelligent persons to use such instances to slander human nature. For doing that would call into question not only whether it is appropriate to eat animals, but also whether it is appropriate to eat human beings and give up all other civilized behaviours. They report that the Massagetians and the Derbikians consider most miserable those among their relatives who die naturally. So to prevent their closest relatives from dying naturally, they kill them when they are old and eat them. The Tibarenians hurl from rocks their nearest living relatives when they are old. With respect to the Hyrkanians and Kaspians [both living near the Caspian Sea], one people exposed the living and the other exposed the dead to be devoured by birds and dogs. But the Scythians bury the living with the dead, and cut their throats on the pyres of the dead by whom they were especially beloved. The Baktrians [in what is now northeastern Iran] likewise cast to the dogs those among them that are old even while living. And Stasanor, who was one of Alexander’s governors, nearly lost his government through endeavouring to destroy this custom.

However, since we do not give up civilized behaviours towards other human beings on account of these examples, nor should we imitate those peoples that eat meat because of necessity. Instead, we should imitate the pious and those who devote themselves to the gods. For Demokrates says that to live in an evil manner – rather than in a wise, self-controlled and pious manner – is not really living but dying for a long time.

22 Still remaining is to put forward individual testimonies of abstinence from meat . . . [remaining discussion of individuals who refrained from eating meat omitted].


Source of translation: T. Taylor, Select works of Porphyry (London: T. Rodd, 1823), public domain, used as a base for a translation by Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *