I had various ideas for a post this week, but then something happened that was just too good not to blog. Two weeks ago, my friend L. gave me some runner beans from her garden. My family ate the beans and found them tender and very tasty. L.’s husband, S., did too apparently, tucking into big platefuls of the stuff, just cooked al-dente. Unfortunately, this had some rather unfortunate effects. S. felt very ill indeed, ran a fever, was clammy, and had terrible belly cramps. This might not be particularly charitable, but I started laughing as soon as L. uttered the first few words of her story. You see, my love of ancient science and medicine has quite a lot to do with bean poisoning (albeit of a different type), and I knew what was coming.
As an undergraduate at Brussels Free University, I wrote my final-year dissertation on Pythagorean women: the women who, throughout antiquity, followed the doctrines of Pythagoras, the sixth-century BCE philosopher. Now, on the whole, Pythagoreans were vegetarians (which was considered rather odd in the ancient world), but they also abstained from the common fava bean, a staple of Greek diet. Scholars have tried to explain this strange phenomenon in a ‘scientific’ way: Pythagorean societies, in which reproduction with close kin may have been common, may have had a congenital form of favism, that is, an allergy to the alkaloids in broad bean. They instinctively avoided the humble bean because it would poison them.
Perhaps! But to be honest, the explanations the ancients gave for the bean taboo are far more entertaining than all this alkaloids business. The Pythagoreans allegedly worried about beans because they might contain the souls of dead relatives. Pythagoreans believed in metensomatosis, that is, the migration of the soul from one body/object to another. They conceived of souls as ‘winds’ (exhalation might be the posher word). And since beans are very windy (I kid you not: the ancients also talked of garlic and onions as being windy), it is entirely reasonable to assume they may contain the souls of dead people. QED.
But that is not all. The Pythagorean bean taboo is also linked to sexuality and birth – in the great cycle of metensomatosis, birth and death are closely interlinked. They allegedly argued that crushed beans smell of human sperm, or looked like testicles. The author John Lydus (sixth century AD) reports the following Pythagorean ‘experiment’:
Diogenes, in the thirteenth book of Unbelievable Things says that… When the bean is in bloom, take some of the maturing flower; place it in a ceramic pot; put a lid on it; and bury it in the earth. Take care to leave it there for 80 days. After that, dig it out; remove the lid; and you will find, instead of the bean, either a well-formed head of a child or the sex of a woman. (On Months 4.42)
Clearly, you would not eat beans if you believed they contained the souls of your relatives, the face of your kids, and the sex of your wives! However, all these explanations for the Pythagorean bean taboo are highly spurious (just in case you had not figured that out). They most probably do not come from the Pythagoreans themselves who were sworn to secrecy on this very important matter.
And they certainly took that secret very seriously. Iamblichus, a third/fourth-century CE philosopher, who wrote a Life of Pythagoras, tells a long story on the matter (Life 189-194). It happened in the fourth-century BCE, at the time of the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse. The Pythagorean Myllias, his wife Tymicha, and a small group of their friends, were walking from Tarentum to Metapontum (both in Southern Italy, where the Pythagoreans were based), when they were ambushed by a friend of the tyrant Dionysius. The Pythagoreans fled and would have managed to escape, had they not found themselves at the edge of a field of beans in bloom. As they refused to cross it, they were all killed, with the exception of Myllias and Tymicha, who were slower, since Tymicha was pregnant. Both were brought to the tyrant. Dionysius promised to set them free if they revealed the secret of beans. They refused. Myllias was killed and Tymicha tortured:
Dionysius ordered Tymicha be tortured, for he thought that, being a woman, and a pregnant and widowed one at that, she would blurt out easily by fear of the torment. But this noble woman gnashed on her tongue, cut it out with her teeth, and spat it at the tyrant, thus showing that, if her female nature be vanquished under torture, she were forced to reveal something she ought to keep silent, at least she had cut away what must serve for the deed. (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 194)
You have to admire the lady! The moral of the story: eat undercooked beans at your own peril!
Note: S. suffered from a form of bean poisoning caused by lectin, one of the proteins in beans. When fully cooked (and soaked when needed), such poisoning should not usually occur. See here for more detail.