Field Guide

Knights of Pythias

If you see a heraldic shield coupled with a suit of armor on a tombstone, chances are it marks the spot of a fallen Knight of Pythias. Usually, the letters F, C and B, which stand for Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence, accompany the shield. It has been said that the Pythians have used upwards of 20,000 different symbols, so it's not unusual to find an array of symbols on one of their tombstones.

The Knights of Pythias was officially founded in 1864 as a secret society for government clerks. The name Pythias is a misspelling of the Greek name Phintias, a Pythagorean philosopher from Syracuse whose story dates to the fifth century B.C. Evidently, the infamous tyrant Dionysius was about to put Phintias to death for questioning his rule. Phintias' friend Damon requested that he be held as a hostage so Phintias could go out and say goodbye to his friends and put his house in order before he died. At the appointed time of execution, Phintias was nowhere to be found, so Damon offered himself in Phintias' stead. But Phintias arrived at the last minute, prepared to accept his fate. Dionysius was so impressed with the trust and loyalty of these two men that he stayed the execution and asked both of the men to join him in friendship.

One Justus H. Rathbone was so favorably influenced by the tale, which he had seen as a play, that he formed a fraternal society (albeit misspelled) based on the traits of friendship, benevolence, and charity. It took a while for the Knights of Pythias to get started, including expulsion, (on two occasions) of Rathbone. At its peak in 1923 the society boasted more than 900,000 members, but the Great Depression took its toll, and by the end of the twentieth century, membership had dropped to less than 10,000.

Taken from Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography written and photographed by Douglas Keister, published by Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 2004.