Why beans were an ancient emblem of death: Fava beans can be lethal.


Pythagoras, pictured here next to a fava bean plant, might have had good reason to fear them. PHOTO/Public Domain

The Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, who you might remember from geometry class, had his very own cult. Followers lived communally, studied the cosmos, and ate vegetarian. But unlike today’s vegetarians, they also avoided beans. This wasn’t just a quirk. Like the Ancient Egyptians and Romans, they considered broad beans (also known as fava beans) a supernatural symbol of death. And due to a deadly allergy, the beans likely deserved their reputation.

Fava beans remain common in Greece, but other popular beans, such as green beans, kidney beans, and lima beans, only reached Europe and Asia after 1492. “When the word bean is used in European texts prior to 1492, it is almost always the fava,” writes food historian Ken Albala. Cultivated for millennia, they were an important source of protein across the classical world.

Despite being one of the first cultivated crops in history, many cultures had mixed feelings about favas. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Egyptians refused to cultivate beans at all. Though this was untrue, beans were often used for sacrifices, and in later Rome, priests of Jupiter couldn’t touch or even mention beans, due to their association with death and decay. For Roman funerary feasts, or silicernium, certain ritual foods were served: eggs, lentils, poultry, and favas.

Pythagoras’s aversion to beans, though, always got a lot of attention, even from ancient writers. According to Pliny, Pythagoreans believed that fava beans could contain the souls of the dead, since they were flesh-like. Due to their black-spotted flowers and hollow stems, some believers thought the plants connected earth and Hades, providing ladders for human souls. The beans’ association with reincarnation and the soul made eating fava beans close to cannibalism. Aristotle, writing earlier, went much further. One possible reason for the ban, he wrote, was that the bulbous shape of beans represented the entire universe. Nevertheless, other Greeks ate plenty of fava beans, and Pythagorean beliefs were mocked. The poet Horace tauntingly called beans “relations of Pythagoras.”

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