Doing research for this post reminded me of why I have trouble with history.
I dunno if you’ve looked at my ‘About Me’ blurb, but I’m a huge math nerd. I’m a very concrete thinker, and love the idea of there being a right and a wrong answer to a question (admittedly, this isn’t always true in math), but history just doesn’t hold such simple answers.
Take Pythagoras, for example. What do you know about him? He was Greek. Verifiable. He was a philosopher. Probably. He was the first to call himself a philosopher. Debated. He founded a school of thought, Pythagoreanism. Definitely. He discovered the relation between the sides of a triangle literally called Pythagoras’ theorem. This is debated. The actual concrete math theorem from which I learned of Pythagoras’ very existence is not even definitively related to him! According to Wikipedia, “[s]ome accounts mention that the philosophy associated with Pythagoras was related to mathematics and that numbers were important, but it is debated to what extent, if at all, he actually contributed to mathematics or natural philosophy.”
So this philosopher and mathematician may have not even had a hand in either of those disciplines.
Frustrating stuff. So much for math being concrete and undebatable!
So, moving on from that author-shaking revelation, let’s look at how Pythagoras died. Or may have died.
The story (or, one story) goes (according to Frederick J. Simoons’ Plants of Life, Plants of Death) that Pythagoras and some of his followers were gathered in a meeting place when somebody set fire to the building . In his book Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, Charles H. Kahn points out that there are reports that “the political role of the Pythagorean society . . . resulted in violence against the Pythagoreans,” and that this fire was one such act of political violence. Those who managed to escape the fire fled from the enemies who had set the fire. Pythagoras was on the brink of escape when he was chased to the edge of a bean field. Instead of continuing on and making good on his escape, he refused to tread on the beans and was captured and subsequently killed.
Before we go ahead and dig into the meat (beans?) of this post, let me be clear that this is only one version of this tale. According to the same source, there exist versions where Pythagoras escapes successfully (we can only guess that it was because of the absence of that pesky bean field) as well as version where he was not present for the fire in the first place.
However, as with any myth (and with the lack of hard verifiable facts and the abundance of exaggerated and fanciful stories about Pythagoras, his history may as well be myth), there are grains of truth and Pythagoras’ (and his followers’) veneration of the humble bean is something that repeats itself over and over enough to warrant some investigation.
Let’s look at some of the proposed possibilities first. As this 1888 article by H.L Sumner points out, beans were used in ancient Greece as a means of casting your vote in an election. The author argues that Pythagoras teaching his followers to “Abstain from beans” was an allegorical way of him teaching them to abstain from politics. The author also claims that Pythagoras did, in fact, eat beans, but has no citations to back this claim up. I find this possible explanation interesting, especially considering that the reason fires were being set to Pythagorean meeting places was a political one. If this was truly what Pythagoras was trying to preach, to abstain from politics, he and his followers don’t seem to have practiced it very well!
Another possible reason behind the bean restriction is covered in a Philosophy Now article titled The Death of Pythagoras, written by Bruce Pennington. The author hypothesizes that Pythagoras and his followers believed that all people should strive for peace, harmony, and tranquility. However, most of us learn pretty quickly that eating too many beans can cause frequent interruptions to tranquility later. Another flatulence-related theory is put down by an article on Classical Wisdom Weekly titled The Cult of Pythagoras. It is claimed here that Pythagoras believed that humans lost a part of their soul whenever they passed gas. There is no citation for this claim, and even the author admits it’s anecdotal. As fun as it is to imagine a philosophical food ban based on an (alleged) philosopher’s distaste for gas being passed in his presence, it does not explain why Pythagoras refused to tread on still-growing, as yet unconsumed, bean plants.
A more interesting (to me, at least) theory is that when Pythagoras traveled to study in Egypt (an event that may or may not have even actually occurred, thanks history) he picked up the Egyptian veneration of beans as a symbol of death. An Atlas Obscura article bye Anne Ewbank titled Why Beans Were an Ancient Emblem of Death covers this briefly. Ewbank also points out that Ken Albala writes (in the book I’m so happily waiting for!) that “[w]hen the word bean is used in European texts prior to 1492, it is almost always the fava.” This is important to note, considering there is a genetic metabolic disease called favism that is particularly common in the Mediterranean and that can cause red blood cell breakdown upon contact with fava beans. In her article, Ewbank points out that not only does eating fava beans cause such a reaction, but merely inhaling the pollen from the plant’s flowers can cause a person to suffer the effects.
This is fascinating because it not only explains the ban on eating the beans, but also explains Pythagoras’ hesitance to walk through a field of growing beans!
There are a few other ideas, from many sources, of what was caused Pythagoras to hold beans in such high regard including that they are too phallic-looking, they look too much like a fetus — meaning they are a possible vessel into which a human soul might be reborn — and that they produce blood.
This last one is, again, very interesting if you’ve read or watched anything about the impossible burger and how it’s made. It turns out that the roots of legumes, including beans, turn pink or red when they have begun fixating nitrogen. This is caused by leghemoglobin in the roots, a protein very similar to the hemoglobin that gives our blood its red color and transports oxygen through our bodies.
I thought that was a pretty cool connection between an ancient Greek maybe-philosopher-and-mathematician and a contemporary maybe-almost-meat-food!
To finish off, let’s remember from the last post that the word bean could originally refer to the pod-borne seed of any plant. If he saw seeds as the fetuses of the plant world, that might also explain his reluctance to injure them. Don’t eat babies, people!