Pythagoras’ Beans


It is widely believed that Pythagoras thought it was a bad idea to eat beans. As all his writings are lost, there is no direct evidence. The Pythagoreans by all reports followed the injunction strictly, as Bertrand Russell reported, although he didn’t seem to take it all very seriously:

[Pythagoras] founded a religion on which the the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. His religion was embodied in a religious order, which, here and there, acquired rule of the state … But the unregenerate hankered after beans, and sooner or later rebelled.1

But we don’t have to rely on Russell, there is plenty of historical documentation. The Pythagorean poet Callimachus certainly appeared to uphold the prescription:

Keep your hands from beans, a painful food:
As Pythagoras enjoined, I too urge.2

His fellow poet, Empedocles, concurred:

Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans.3

As did the Christian ‘heresiologist’ Saint Epiphanus in his collection the Panarion (‘Medicine Chest’) or Adversus Haereses:

Pythagoras the Samian, son of Mnesarchos, said that the monad is god, and that nothing has been brought into being apart from this. He was wont to say that wise men ought not to sacrifice animals to the gods, nor yet to eat what had life, or beans, nor to drink wine.4

Cicero too:

So Plato bids us go to our beds with our bodies so composed that there is nothing that brings distraction of disturbance to the mind. That, it is thought, is why the Pythagoreans are forbidden to eat beans which cause considerable flatulence and are thus inimical to those who seek peace of mind.5

Yet despite the evidence stacking up, something begins to smell funny when Pythagoras’ followers start to disagree over the reason for the prohibition. The following is what Hippolytus, a third century Christian ecclesiastical writer, had to say of the Pythagorean Zaratas:

And it is said that Zaratas forbade men to eat beans because he said that at the beginning and composition of all things when the earth was still a whole, the bean arose. And he says that the proof of this is that if one chews a bean to a pulp and exposes it to the sun for a certain time (for the sun will affect it quickly). It gives out an odour of human seed. And he says that there is another and clearer proof: if when a bean is in flower we were to take the bean and its flower, and putting it into a pitcher moisten it and then bury it in the earth, and after a few days dig it up again, we should see in the first place that it had the form of a womb, and examining it closely we should find the head of a child growing with it.6

Given the number of figures testifying to the various evils of beans, it’s surprising to find a dissenter. However, according to Aristoxenus, musical scholar and student of Aristotle, Pythagoras was no vegetarian and certainly had no problem with beans:

Pythagorus esteemed the bean above all other vegetables; for he said that it was both soothing and laxative – that is why he made particular use of it.7

What, exactly, is going on here? Jonathan Barnes, author Warhol liked beansof Early Greek Philosophy, concludes that it’s all just a self-perpetuating myth based on a misinterpretation. The term ‘beans’ [kuamoi] was to refer to the vegetable, obviously, but it was also used symbolically in place of ‘testicles’. The above quote from Empedocles was, upon closer inspection, using it in this fashion. “Empedocles wanted to deter men not from eating beans but from sexual indulgence.”8 A reference to the temptations of the flesh rather than dietary concerns would certainly explain why the poet got so worked up over the issue: “Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans.” It’s hard to imagine someone becoming so impassioned over, well, beans

Pythagoras may have had no problem with beans, but the misconception lingers on. Two modern scholars apparently argued in 1980 that “the Pythagorean prohibition of beans is best understood as a commonsense injunction aimed at preventing acute hemolytic anemia in individuals with a hereditary deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase in their red blood cells. They claim that only this hypothesis makes the extension of the prohibition to walking through bean fields ‘seem reasonable.’”

Not being an expert on “acute hemolytic anemia”, I’m not inclined to wade into this battle. I do, however, question the extent to which pre-Christian-era Pythagoreans were concerned with any possible “hereditary deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase in their red blood cells.” It’s not like they could google it.


CITATIONS:

1.  Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Suffolk: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1961, pXX
2.  Callimachus Fragment 553, quoted in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy. Second Edition. London: Oxford, 2001. p.165.
3.  Quoted in Barnes, p.166.
4.  Epiphanus, Adversus Haereses iii. 8 ; Dox. 390. [This reference comes from the very bottom of this page.]
5.  Cicero, On Divination, I xxx 62, quoted in Barnes, p.165-6.
6.  Hippolytus, Philosophical Problems, quoted in Morton Donner et. al. The Intellectual Tradition of the West, Volume 1: Hesiod to Calvin. Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1967, pp.64-5. [Also here, fourth entry from bottom.]
7.  Aristoxenus, Pythagoras fragment 25, quoted in Barnes, p.166.
8.  Barnes, ibid.

Comments

2 Comments so far

  1. Katerina Deligiorgi on April 3, 2007 4:17 am

    On Pythagoras and beans: whilst other aspects of Pythagoras’s contributions have come in for criticism and debunking, the interdiction of beans can be plausibly connected to the condition of ‘favism’, a potentially lethal desease that effects Mediteranean males with a particular genetic script.

  2. Mark Barrows on September 7, 2008 7:03 pm

    Could it have been as simple as small classrooms with poor ventilation ?

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