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The earliest European references to a vegetarian diet are actually a reflection of Greek travels throughout Africa. The early anecdotes occur in Homers Odyssey and the writings of Herodotus , who mention the Lotophagi (Lotus-eaters), an indigene people on the North African coast, who according to Herodotus lived on nothing but the fruits of a plant called lotus. Diodorus Siculus transmits tales of vegetarian peoples or tribes in Ethiopia, and further stories of this kind are narrated and discussed in ancient sources.

The earliest reliable evidence for vegetarian theory and practice in Europe dates from the 6th century BC. The Orphics, a religious movement spreading in Greece at that time, and Pythagoras, a philosopher and religious leader in the area of Southern Italy colonized by Greek settlers, abstained from the flesh of animals. Pythagoras, a believer in the transmigration of souls, is considered to have presented the first ethical argument against eating animals. He warned that eating animals might involve eating a human soul; therefore, he argued, human beings ought to regard all living things as kindred souls.

The followers of Pythagoras (called Pythagoreans) did not always practice strict vegetarianism, but at least their inner circle did. For the general public, abstention from meat was a hallmark of the so-called Pythagorean way of life. Both Orphics and strict Pythagoreans also avoided eggs and shunned the ritual offerings of meat to the gods which were an essential part of traditional religious sacrifice. In the 5th century BC the philosopher Empedocles distinguished himself as a radical advocate of vegetarianism specifically and of respect for animals in general.

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