My last post, on bean poisoning, received some very good responses on Twitter. In particular @HistorianJen pointed out to me that, in the early modern period, beans were used as aphrodisiacs because of their similarity with the sexual organs. This is a clear instance of the doctrine of signatures, whereby something that resembles a part of the body is thought to be effective to treat that part of the body. Thus, a bean that looks like the sexual organs can treat/arouse the sexual organs. Now the Greeks and Romans often used similars to treat similars, but they did not have the fully-fledged doctrine of signatures we find in the early modern period.
I was intrigued: I could not recall any example of beans as aphrodisiacs in ancient texts. I had a little browse, and still I could not find any (but of course I may have missed some). On the other hand, I stumbled across examples of beans as contraceptives among the Greek Magical Papyri:
Contraceptive: take a bean that has a little insect in it, and attach it as an amulet
Contraceptive: take a bean that has been pierced, tie it up in a mule skin, and attach it as an amulet (PGM 63.24-28)
These are clearly contraceptives (asyllempta literally means: ‘in order not to have conception/pregnancy’) rather than abortives, even though the boundary between contraception and early abortion is rather blurred in antiquity. These products are amulets to be worn to prevent conception. There is of course some rich symbolism here. In the first recipe, the little bug might represent a child in the womb; while the hole in the bean of the second recipe might symbolize the female sexual organs.
So why would beans act as contraceptives? Is it again because they look like the sexual organs – opposites to treat opposites? Or is there something more? I was turning this over in my head, when I suddenly remembered some Hippocratic recipes (dating from the end of the fifth- beginning of the fourth-century BCE) to ‘create a wind in the womb’ or ‘prevent a wind in the womb’:
If you want to create a wind in the womb: add to pessaries a head of garlic and the juice of silphium. [Sterile Women 239, 8.454 Littré].
If a wind arises in the womb, there is strong pain, and the gas does not come out: apply cumin as a pessary. Or chop sage and cyperus; place in water for the entire night; drain in the morning; pour the transparent liquid into a vase; knead some wheaten flour with white wine, and add one cyathus of silphium; heat up the mixture; give it to drink lukewarm. [Diseases of Women 2.211, 8.406 Littré].
Both recipes contain silphium, a plant (now believed to be extinct) similar to asa-foetida. Like beans, onions, and garlic (which is also included in the first recipe), silphium was described as ‘windy’ (read: causing flatulence). ‘Wind in the womb’ might have been a painful ailment, but it appears that sometimes one may have wanted to cause such a wind in the womb. I have a sneaky suspicion that ‘creating a wind in the womb’ is a euphemism for ‘inducing an abortion’ or ‘preventing conception’. The second recipe might have had for purpose to treat the side-effects of an abortion, although it might also have treated an ailment which has no equivalent in modern medicine. In favour of my interpretation, I can say that silphium does appear as an ingredient in some recipes to expel a dead foetus.
So, could it be that in the magic recipes, the ‘windy’ quality of the bean is called upon rather than – or in conjunction with – its similarity with the sexual organs? As I was getting more and more convinced by my explanation (always dangerous), I came across (note the role of serendipity in my research) this passage in Theophrastus’ Causes of Plants. Theophrastus was a philosopher, a student of Aristotle, active in the fourth century BCE. His works on plants (Enquiries into Plants and Causes of Plants) are preserved in full. Theophrastus writes that ban pods can kill growing trees:
Bean pods thrown onto the roots and shoots destroy not all trees, but those that are just growing, because they are weaker. The pods destroy them by taking away the food by reason of their hardness and dryness, drawing up some of the food themselves and keeping out the rest, for when trees are not fed, they are destroyed [Theophrastus, Causes of Plants 5.15.1].
Here, the beans have an ‘abortive’ effect on the tree by preventing it from being fed. They may have played a similar role in human conception (or rather contraception/abortion): they might have absorbed the food necessary for the development of a foetus.
Note that the three possible explanations I have given for the use of beans in contraception/abortion – similarity with sexual organs; windy quality; destructive quality through absorbing the nutriment essential for growth – are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It was quite common in antiquity to have various explanations for the effects of a medicament. Why that is would take me too far from beans and wind…
This blog post is illustrated with pictures of a knitted womb and beans. I got the – admittedly rather weird – idea of knitting a womb by reading Helen King’s blog on the topic. The pattern I used is that found on Knitty, the free online knitting magazine. I would say that one needs intermediate knitting skills to produce this type of knitted womb: you need to be able to use double pointed needles and be confident with decreases/increases. Putting pipe-cleaners into the ‘Fallopian tubes’ was also a bit fiddly. My knitted womb (and other organs) might make regular appearances on this blog.