Tag Archives: pyramid


You know what a pyramid scheme is, right? One guy recruits several who give him a bit of money and who in turn recruit others who pass money to them, some of which they pass on up, and so on. The higher up you are, the richer you get, even though everyone puts in the same amount, and the people at the bottom – the ones who don’t find anyone new to recruit – put in value and receive none back at all. So the number of people at each level broadens out like a pyramid as you go down from the top; the amount of money at each level is the opposite, zero at the bottom increasing to a huge amount at the top – an inverted pyramid.

It’s illegal when you do it so blatantly with money, of course, but how about if you do it with other kinds of value? Say you have a large number of people contributing value at the bottom level for little or no return, while at the top there’s one or a few people getting huge returns for comparatively little contribution of value. The contribution of value can be through, for instance, work done.

Think of it: thousands slaving away, moving large stones, building up a grand structure; one person or a few people watching them slave away and actually receiving the use and value of the grand structure. The original pyramid scheme: the building of the pyramids.

Of course, any social structure is a sort of pyramid if many put in value for little return, others above them get more and more return, and one or a few at the top get massive return for the same or less value put in. Recruit below, send value up. But only the starkest and frankest examples are illegal pyramid schemes; many others are simply companies. And whereas illegal pyramid schemes collapse or stop producing return once the recruitment peters out, the pyramid structure of a company can be sustainable for a long time because it relies on not just recruitment but the ongoing value creation of those in it.

Fair enough. A pyramid is a highly stable structure. There’s a reason pyramids of various sizes have been built by indigenous cultures on almost every continent. Pyramid schemes may have some unsustainability because they draw from the bottom to feed the top, but pyramid structures just hold everything in place and outlast the ages. They are associated with things metaphysical and with timeless rituals.

And so, of course, with death. The pyramids of Egypt are huge mausoleums. Pyramids in Mexico often had human sacrifices done on them. A pyramid is not a living, branching thing like a tree, ever reaching out and multiplying its ramifications; it is a solid thing, fixed and tidy and contained, the epitome of inertia. It does not shake.

No, shaking is extrapyramidal. Or, well, it can be. So can inability to initiate movement. Shakes, sudden jerks, writhing, and lack of intentional control of movement can all be extrapyramidal symptoms of conditions and side effects of medications. Why extrapyramidal? Are they beyond sacrificing, are they deathless, are they from somewhere outside your temple, are they characteristic of someone who knows he’s about to be dragged to the top and slain? Hmm, no, they just happen to affect the extrapyramidal system, a part of the motor nervous system that doesn’t involve the pyramidal tracts of the brain, which so called because they are shaped roughly like pyramids.

And why are pyramids so called? The word comes from Greek πυραμίς puramis, which named those Egyptian structures and their similars; the Greek word may have come from a word for fire, or it may come from a word for wheat or grain, which formed into another word, also πυραμίς, naming a kind of cake (the shape of which is a matter of speculation). Or it may come from an Egyptian word.

Well, whatever. The shape of the word has a couple of reminders – the invertibility of p to d and vice-versa, and the inverted-pyramid-like shape of the y. It also carries a reminiscence of Pyramus, famous for his ill-fated love of Thisbe; of pyromaniac, a person likely stymied by the stone of the pyramid; and of pyrrhic, what your victory is when you have extracted so much value from the labours of others and you find that it has all just built your tomb.