Monday, 14 November 2016

Pythagoras and the beans #1: hands off beans!

Those wacky Pythagoreans! They loved them some numbers: they gave us a famous theorem (actually that isn’t true) and executed people for talking about irrational numbers (that isn’t true either). But at the same time, they were a weird cult, with doctrines about reincarnation, that classes should take place in caves, and about how Pythagoras’ thigh was made of solid gold.

Oh, and they absolutely forbade any contact with broad beans.

Broad beans (a.k.a. fava beans: vicia faba).

Wait, can that really be true? Well, it kind of looks like it is. ‘Abstain from beans’ (κυάμων ἀπέχου) is a widely reported doctrine of the Pythagoreans. In some stories, they weren’t even allowed to touch beans.
The bean ban as a Pythagorean teaching: Aristotle fr. 195 ed. Rose; Callimachus fr. 553 ed. Pfeiffer; Cicero On divination 1.62, 2.119; Pliny NH 18.118; pseudo-Plutarch On educating children 12f; Diogenes Laertius 8.19, 24, 33-4; Iamblichus Life of Pythagoras (24) 109, Protrepticus 21.§37.

Our earliest source on the subject is Aristotle (reported by Diogenes Laertius 8.34):
φησὶ δ’ Ἀριστοτέλης <ἐν τῷ> Περὶ τῶν <Πυθαγορείων> παραγγέλλειν αὐτὸν ἀπέχεσθαι τῶν κυάμων ...
Aristotle says in On the Pythagoreans that he told them to abstain from beans ...
-- Aristotle fr. 195 ed. Rose
(Note: the exact wording is doubtful, but the reference is secure. The title On the Pythagoreans appears only in Andronicus’ list of Aristotle’s works: other witnesses call it by different names. But there’s no doubt about which book Diogenes had in mind, or about the fact that Aristotle was talking about Pythagoras.)

Elsewhere we’re told a story of one of Pythagoras’ miracles: how he persuaded an ox to leave a beanfield ... and it never ate beans again! And that one Zaratas, supposedly a Pythagorean guru of Babylonian origin -- no, there’s no reason to think he was real -- forbade eating beans. And that a group of Pythagoreans, or in some versions, Pythagoras himself, were killed by soldiers because they were unwilling to escape through a beanfield. And the 2nd century CE satirist Lucian frequently mocks the Pythagorean ban on beans.
The ox story: Iamblichus Life of Pythagoras (§13) 60. Zaratas: Hippolytus Refutation of all heresies 1.2.14-15. Beanfield story: Diogenes Laertius 8.39-40, 45; Iamblichus Life (§31) 191-3. Lucian: The dream or the cock 4, Dialogues of the dead 20.3, Auction of lives 6, True histories 1.14, 2.24.

The real question is: why did the Pythagoreans declare that beans were taboo?

When I was a student, the explanation I heard was that it was about Pythagorean teachings on reincarnation. Supposedly, according to the Pythagoreans, eating beans was tantamount to eating the souls of dead people.

Just recently I found out that popular perception tends to go for a different explanation nowadays (though the souls one is still standard among scholars): it’s more hip to interpret the bean ban as a safeguard against favism, an illness that can be provoked by some chemicals in raw broad beans.

Can we dig down and work out what true and what’s just rumour? Yes, we can have a go, but don’t expect a really convincing solution. A complete explanation would require more information, and better information, than we have. Some of the theories floating around are unfounded and tendentious; others are OK, but not compelling enough to persuade someone who’s already a fan of a different theory.

It would take too long today to go through all of the theories that have been suggested, so I’ll split this over two posts. Today is set-up: the introduction I’ve just given, and some methodological points. Next time we’ll move on to actual explanations for the bean ban.

Before we set out, I’d better point out that the vast majority of ancient references to beans are not warnings. They’re just ordinary discussions of a commonplace and nutritious food item. Ancient medical writers and herbologists give us plenty of reports on beans, but those writers make no mention of any taboo, health risks, or any other cautions.

Salvator Rosa, Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld, 1662
(Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)

1. Non-Pythagorean bean bans

When ancient sources refer to a bean ban, they’re not necessarily talking about the Pythagoreans. So when Heracleides of Pontus, a scholar contemporary with Aristotle, references a ban (fr. 41 ed. Wehrli) but without mentioning Pythagoras, we can’t be sure who laid down the ban: the editor of the Heracleides fragments infers that it’s Pythagoras, but that really isn’t secure. Callimachus, though he mentions Pythagoras’ bean ban (fr. 553 Pfeiffer), makes it clear that he disapproves of eating beans in his own right too: ‘keep your hands away from beans, distressing foodstuff, / I too say, as Pythagoras used to command’ (κἠγώ, Πυθαγόρης ὡς ἐκέλευε, λέγω).

More specifically: some other varieties of mysticism around the 5th century BCE banned beans too, notably Empedocles and Orphic religion.

Empedocles was a mystic-cum-philosopher-cum-miracle-worker who was active in the second half of the 5th century BCE. He’s best known for canonising the ‘four elements’: earth, fire, water, and ... a fourth one. (Number four is traditionally received as air, or aēr, but apparently Empedocles himself had it as the bright aithēr of the upper reaches of the cosmos.) He was not a Pythagorean, himself. But an isolated fragment of his poetry warns against beans --
δειλοί, πάνδειλοι, κυάμων ἄπο χεῖρας ἔχεσθαι
wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands away from beans
--Empedocles fr. B.141 ed. Diels-Kranz
Our information about the Orphic religion(s) is very fragmentary, and refers to religious texts strewn across centuries. Among the surviving snippets we find the following --
ἶσον τοι κυάμους τε φαγεῖν κεφαλάς τε τοκήων ...
ψυχῆ<ι>σ’ αἰζηῶν βάσιν ἔμμεναι ἠδὲ ἀνάβαθμον
ἐξ Ἀΐδαο <δόμων>, ὅταν αὐγὰς εἰσανίωσιν
I tell you, eating beans is the same as eating your parents’ heads ...
(the bean) is a path and stairway out of Hades’ house
for the souls of the strong, whenever they ascend into the light
-- Orphica fr. 648 ed. Bernabé (first line by itself = fr. 291 Kern)
This comes from a lost poem from no later than the 4th century BCE: line 1 is linked to Heracleides fr. 41. (Lines 2-3 may come from a separate poem: they are given together with line 1 in only one very late writer, Eustathius, who may well have got them from a separate source.)

The Orphic bean ban, in turn, is connected to a comparable teaching in the Eleusinian Mysteries. A travel guide links them together in passing:
On this road there is a temple, not big, dedicated to Kyamites (‘beaner’). I can’t say for sure if he was the first to sow beans, or whether they declared someone a hero because they aren’t allowed to attribute the invention of beans to Demeter. (Someone who has seen an Eleusinian initiation or read the Orphic texts knows what I’m talking about.)
It’s a pity Pausanias was so tight-lipped: no one will ever again be able to witness an Eleusinian initiation or read the Orphic texts. So the meaning of his allusion is lost forever.

Pythagoras as hyper-rationalist: detail from Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509-1511
(Vatican City)

2. A dissenting voice: Aristoxenus and Aulus Gellius

According to the 2nd century CE writer Aulus Gellius, not only did the bean ban not exist, the Pythagoreans actually encouraged people to eat beans. He based this view on his readings of Empedocles (see above) and Aristoxenus (4th century BCE), a student of Aristotle who also studied under a Pythagorean, Xenophilus. Here’s his report of Aristoxenus:
sed Aristoxenus musicus, vir litterarum veterum diligentissimus, Aristoteli philosophi auditor, in libro quem De Pythagora reliquit, nullo saepius legumento Pythagoram dicit usum quam fabis, quoniam is cibus et subduceret sensim alvum et levigaret. verba ipsa Aristoxeni subscripsi: Πυθαγόρας δὲ τῶν ὀσπρίων μάλιστα τὸν κύαμον ἐδοκίμασεν· λειαντικόν τε γὰρ εἶναι καὶ διαχωρητικόν· διὸ καὶ μάλιστα κέχρηται αὐτῷ.
But Aristoxenus the musician, a man thoroughly versed in early literature, a pupil of the philosopher Aristotle, in the book On Pythagoras which he has left us, says that Pythagoras used no vegetable more often than beans, since that food gently loosened the bowels and relieved them. I add Aristoxenus’ own words: ‘Pythagoras among vegetables especially recommended the bean, saying that it was both digestible and loosening; and therefore he most frequently made use of it.’
-- Aulus Gellius 4.11.4 (tr. Rolfe; alternative translations 1, 2)
Gellius goes on to conclude that most of what we hear about Pythagorean food taboos is complete bollocks. The Pythagoreans ate beans: they ate meat too, even though the popular image of them is vegetarian. Gellius thinks the bean ban was a result of people mistakenly conflating Empedocles’ teachings with Pythagoreanism.

His idea is worth considering. Ancient sources on Pythagoras have a sharp split: from the 1st century CE onwards, the vast majority of our surviving sources are ‘Neo-Pythagorean’, a movement kicked off by figures like Moderatus of Gades and Apollonius of Tyana, who took a literalist view of pretty much all invented traditions about Pythagoras, and in Apollonius’ case, wrote about him as a vehicle for his own brand of mysticism. Their writings don’t survive intact, but the sources that do survive, like Diogenes Laertius and Iamblichus, draw on them heavily. Most of the surviving testimony about Pythagoreanism -- and about Pythagoras himself -- comes to us through a thick Neo-Pythagorean filter. So Gellius’ focus on early sources like Aristoxenus and Empedocles has a lot going for it.

Like Pythagoras, Empedocles had a persona as a miracle-worker. The story of his death is a good illustration: supposedly, to prove that he could walk on air, he tried to levitate across a volcano crater and was never seen again. Neo-Pythagorean sources co-opt him as a might-as-well-be Pythagorean, along with other miracle-workers like Epimenides (who went to sleep for fifty years) and Abaris (who rode around on a giant magic arrow).

But Gellius’ theory has difficulties. The bean ban is linked to the Pythagoreans long before the Neo-Pythagorean New Wave, in Aristotle and Callimachus. The disagreement between Aristotle and Aristoxenus is a problem. Assuming they were both trying to write honestly, the truth lies with, or somewhere between, these two views:
  1. Early Pythagorean doctrines were, at heart, based on religious practices. Reports that focus on the rational and mathematical aspects of Pythagoreanism are efforts to rationalise away the mysticism and make sense of it. (See Kingsley 1995: 289-316 for an exposition of this view.) In that case, Aristoxenus was acting as an apologist, while Aristotle’s report is more investigative.
  2. Early Pythagoreanism had both mystical and rationalist elements. In that case the difference between Aristoxenus and Aristotle is just about emphasis: Aristoxenus is relatively sympathetic, and Aristotle is just being cynical. (Zhmud 2012 comes pretty close to this view of Aristoxenus.)
These views aren’t hugely different. Either way, Gellius’ theory can’t explain everything: we can’t simply ignore Aristotle’s report. And even if the bean ban did originate with Empedocles rather than Pythagoras, it’d still be nice to know the thinking behind the ban.

So much for the introductory discussion (if you can call something introductory when it’s this long). As I said, next time we’ll move on to what various people, both ancient and modern, have suggested as explanations for the bean ban.


  • Kingsley, P. 1995. Ancient philosophy, mystery, and magic. Empedocles and Pythagorean tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Zhmud, L. 2012. ‘Aristoxenus and the Pythagoreans.’ In: Huffman, C. (ed.) Aristoxenus of Tarentum. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. 223-49.

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