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Commentary on Emblem 17

Pythagoras of Samos was the remarkable 6th century BCE philosopher noted for his work in mathematics (the Pythagorean theorem), religion (above all, for an idea of transmigration of souls), and moral teachings. Among many bits of information about his life and sayings (though silent on the matter of the cranes), Diogenes Laertius (8.22) gives this:
He is said to have advised his disciples as follows: Always to say upon entering their own doors:
Where did I trespass? What did I achieve?
And unfulfilled what duties did I leave?
Erasmus wrote about this verse in Adages 3.10.1 (Quo transgressus) as a warning to youth.

Alciato's commentators, after Philostratus and Jerome, interpreted the flight of cranes as a sign of the alphabet (roman A or greek upsilon being the approximate shape).

Pliny, Natural History 10.23 explains how the crane uses a stone for ballast. That Pythagoras in particular spoke about this seems to be Alciato's invention. Aristotle, History of Animals 8.12 (597b1), rejects the idea: "Of birds, the crane, as has been said, migrates from one end of the world to the other; they fly against the wind. The story told about the stone is untrue: to wit, that the bird, so the story goes, carries a stone by way of ballast, and that the stone when vomited up is a touchstone for gold" (trans d'A.W. Thompson in Complete Works ed Jonathan Barnes, I, 934).

Another saying in Pythagoras (one his ten symbola) was the famous "Don't sit on your choinix (or grain-measure)" featured in Emblem 80.

The emblem first appeared in the edition of 1546, with the illustration on folio 29r.

Last modified 25 November 1997