Pythagoras and the Oracle at Delphi – an Ericksonian-style Teaching Tale

According to the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras, three is the first true number and the first number that forms a geometrical figure – the triangle.

pythagorasWhat is not often known about Pythagoras is that he had trouble sleeping. One day he thought, “I can use my talents to help myself,”

So he decided to put his imagination and mathematics to good use and count backwards from 100, imagining each number was a sheep jumping over a fence.

It didn’t take long before he’d begin to lose track of the sheep until there just weren’t any more to count well before he reached the last number.

In fact he couldn’t even remember the last number he counted because he was so sleepy.

One day Pythagoras heard about the Oracle at Delphi – which was a temple dedicated to the Greek sun-god Apollo.

People would come to the Oracle to discover something about themselves. The Oracle would go into trance and give them an answer.

Often the answer was ambiguous so it was up to the person asking the question to then figure out the meaning of the answer.

Since Pythagoras was curious fellow, he decided to go and see the Oracle and ask what he needed to do to become the best mathematician in the world.

When he got to Delphi, he found that there were a lot of people waiting in line to see the Oracle.

He had plenty of time and so he decided to wait and while he waited he decided to count the pilgrims. As he counted he became quite drowsy and before long he had fallen asleep.

Later, when he awoke, he found all the pilgrims had gone.  All except for an old man sitting on the temple steps.

“Where ia everybody?” he asked the old man.
“Gone,” said the old man.
“Where?” said Pythagoras.

The old man shrugged his shoulders as if to say…I don’t know and don’t care.

“What about the Oracle?” asked Pythagoras.
“The Oracle’s still inside the temple,” replied the old man, “but before I go in can you please do something for me?”

Why not? thought Pythagoras. “Yes, I’ll help you,” he said with a smile.
“Thank you. Do you know how to read?”
“Of course I do.”
“I can’t read. So could you please tell me what is written above the entrance to the temple?”

Pythagoras looked up and saw some large letters etched in stone that he had not noticed before.

Know thyself

“Gnothis afton,” he said, reading the letters in Greek.
“Oh, thank you,” said the old man with big grin, “Now I know why I had to wait so long.” He stood up and started walking away.

Pythagoras looked surprised. “Aren’t you going to see the Oracle?” he called out to the old man.
“No. I don’t need to see the Oracle after all.”
“Why not?” said Pythagoras even more surprised.
“Gnothis afton…know thyself,” replied the old man. “You have all the answers already, don’t you?”