Ahimsa Grove

Ahimsa Grove is a resource for vegan pagan living. It will include personal experiences and musings, recipes, shopping tips, vegan ethical and dietary considerations, and ideas for pagan practice including spells, rituals, and herbcraft.

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Ahimsa Grove History of Vegan (Paganism): Transmigration of Souls (Part Two)


            One of the most obvious candidates for a Vegan Pagan ancestor is Pythagoras. Whether he fully abstained from all animal products (and at what point in his life) we cannot know, but he had enough to say about the practice to make “Pythagorean” the term for a person who abstained from flesh up until the term “vegetarian” was coined, around the 1850s.


Born in approximately 580BCE, Pythagoras was a Greek philosopher who has been very influential on Western cultures across theology, ethics, law, mathematics, music, astronomy, and more. He also clearly referenced Transmigration of Souls in his ethical and dietary practices.


Philostratus (170-250 CE) wrote of Pythagoras in his biography of Apollonious of Tyana, who was Pythagorean. The biographer said of Pythagoras that he “…had a certain secret wisdom [that] enabled him to know, not only who he was himself, but also who he had been; and I saw that he approached the altars in purity, and suffered not his belly to be polluted by partaking of the flesh of animals; and that he kept his body pure of all garments even of dead animal refuse.”


He later mentions that the Pythagorian lifestyle demands that he not wear wool shorn of a living animal, and that he must wear shoes of bark (instead of leather).


Whatever exact practices Pythagoras followed, we know that they were ethically motivated, and regulated by a belief in the Transmigration of Souls. Pythagoras knew who he was, but also “who he had been.” The Pythagorean mystery schools were set apart from the mainstream society of their time. It would certainly seem that his students not only studied math, music, and magic—but also practiced some form of vegetarianism.


In his work “Purifications,” Empedocles (495-435BCE) shows his belief in the Transmigration of Souls, and warns against the moral incorrectness of animal sacrifice. His account makes it pretty clear why belief in Transmigration would make you think twice about slaughtering and eating other creatures:


“Will you not cease from the din of slaughter? Do you not see that you are devouring each other in the heedlessness of your minds?


The father lifts up his own son changed in form and slaughters him with a prayer, blind fool, as he shrieks piteously, beseeching as he sacrifices. But he, deaf to his cries, slaughters him and makes ready in his halls an evil feast. In the same way son seizes father and children their mother, and tearing out the life they eat the flesh of those they love.


Alas, that the pitiless day did not destroy me first, before I contrived the wretched deed of eating flesh with my lips.


For I have already been once a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a leaping journeying fish.”




Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) is known as one of the greatest epic poets of Greco-Roman history. His poetry influenced later poets, like the vegetarians Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Ovid’s best known work, “Metamorphosis,” is very influential in establishing our modern views on the pantheon of Roman mythology.


Ovid was also a strong voice in opposition to mainstream practices of religious sacrifice. As already mentioned, his belief in the Transmigration of Souls informed his ethics:


“We also change, who are a part of creation, since we are not bodies only but also winged souls, and since we can enter wild beast forms and be lodged in the bodies of cattle. We should permit bodies which may possibly have sheltered the souls of our parents or brothers or those joined to us by some other bond, or of men at least, to be uninjured and respected, and not load our stomachs as with a Thyestean banquet! What an evil habit he is forming, how surely is he impiously preparing to shed human blood, who cuts a calf’s throat with the knife and listens all unmoved to its piteous cries! Or who can slay a kid which cries just like a little child, or feed on a bird to which he himself has just given food! How much does a deed as that fall short of actual murder? What is the end of such a course? …Have done with nets and traps, snares and deceptive arts. Catch not the bird with the limed twig; no longer mock the deer with fear-compelling feathers, nor conceal the barbed hook beneath fair-seeming food. Kill creatures that work you harm, but even in the case of these let killing suffice. Make not their flesh your food, but seek a more harmless nourishment.”




            These ancestors are credited with giving us the stories we use to understand many of the deities that we still relate to today in Neo-Pagan practices--especially the Greek and Roman Pantheons. They also gave us many occult practices. Pythagoras’ mystery school, for instance, established practices around the elements, the pentacle, and ideas at the core of the Hermetic Laws.


I was very surprised, and very intrigued, to learn the extent to which they all contemplated our relationships with other living things, especially other animals. And this is just a scratch on the surface. Other ancient Pagans (to use the modern designation) who wrote about what we would see as vegetarianism include Hesiod, Plato, Plutarch, Plotinus, and Porphyry. Porphyry, for instance, wrote two tracts on this topic: “On Abstinence from Animal Food” and “On the Impropriety of Killing Living Beings for Food.”


            As those of us who identify as Vegan Pagans move into the future, we have much to learn from in the past. In the next post, I will reference these ancestors further when I discuss the classical ideal of the Golden Age.


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Leslie earned her Master of Divinity Degree at Vanderbilt University and is a Wiccan Priestess, Ordained Interfaith and seeking ordination through the Temple of the Feminine Divine in Bangor. Her column in SageWoman, “Child of Artemis,” deals with women and our relationship with animals. Leslie considers herself a cultural worker, dealing with issues of violence and oppression as they impact humans and other species. She has worked at a rural domestic violence prevention program since 2001 and is a board member on VegME, Maine’s vegan advocacy group.  


  • Stephanie
    Stephanie Thursday, 09 July 2015

    I love Pythagoras, thank you for sharing! It's easy to forget we've had compassionate, awake people for hundreds of years. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has a lot of great podcasts covering animal rights proponents throughout the ages.

  • Leslie J Linder
    Leslie J Linder Friday, 10 July 2015

    cool! I'll look into those podcasts. :)

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