Did Pythagoras’ Bizarre Fear of Fava Beans Contribute to his Death?
The ancient Ionian Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c.570-495 BC) is widely credited with many foundational mathematic and scientific discoveries. An ardent ascetic vegetarian, several myths emerged surrounding the death of the man credited with the geometric formula that bears his name, the ‘Pythagorean Theorem’. Pythagoras had a cult of followers, who followed these ascetic principles in a commune and ate only vegetarian foods, but they avoided one particular item – the fava bean. Incidentally, one of the theories surrounding his death involves the fava bean, and the irony is apparent!
The Pythagorean Brotherhood and the Myth of Soul Reincarnation
The cult had its own peculiarities compounded by Pythagoras’ own quirks, that extended beyond vegetarianism and bean avoidance. The followers could not use public roads, bake bread, put on the left shoe before the right, speak about the divine, wear white clothes or wool, or engage in any sexual behavior. The cult was a ‘Brotherhood’, so entry was restricted to men. Violation of any of these rules merited an expulsion through a mock funeral, where the offender was treated as if they were dead.
‘Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise’ (1869) by Fyodor Bronnikov. ( Public Domain )
One of his many theoretical contributions included ‘metempsychosis’, which largely believed in the transmigration of souls, holding that every soul is immortal. Upon death this soul enters into a new body, a human being or animal. This perhaps explains his aversion to meat, so he could avoid the scenario of unknowingly eating a loved one.
To put his theory to the test, Pythagoras obtained some beans and buried them, waiting for them to grow for a few weeks. Apparently, when he dug them up again, they looked a bit like human fetuses! He concluded that eating beans was tantamount to cannibal behavior, as they contained the ‘souls of the dead’.
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There is a legend that says Pythagoras took time out of his busy schedule to explain to an ox that it should never eat beans again. This was while some onlooking herdsmen giggled and questioned Pythagoras’ sanity, before acting shocked when the ox actually stopped eating the beans! Not only this, but the ox, on his new beanless diet, lived to a very ripe old age, much past time the lifetime of any other ox, acquiring a sacred status.
Pythagoras: A Pre-Medicine Genius?
Aristotle wrote that Pythagoras proscribed fava beans “either because they have the shape of testicles, or because they resemble the gates of hell, for they alone have no hinges, or again because they spoil, or because they resemble the nature of the universe, or because of oligarchy, for they are used for drawing lots.”
French manuscript from 1512/1514, showing Pythagoras turning his face away from fava beans in revulsion. ( Public Domain )
The mysteries and stories surrounding his death are also intriguing. While this 6th century BC Greek philosopher had an obvious disdain for the bean, the most commonly found vegetables in his area and time, the speculation is rife for the reason(s) he did this. Some scholars suggest reincarnation, whilst others suggest sexual symbolism. Regardless, fava beans acquired the status of being a supernatural symbol of death.
Modern scholars believe, however, that he may have been onto something, and wasn’t just a cult leader who forced his followers to abide by his peculiarities. For a great many people, fresh fava beans can be poisonous, a common genetically transmitted condition called favism, which became a part of the lexicon of medical science only after the ‘60s.
Diogenes proposed that the Pythagoreans rejected favas because they cause thought-disturbing flatulence, saying, “One should abstain from fava beans, since they are full of wind and take part in the soul, and if one abstains from them one’s stomach will be less noisy and one’s dreams will be less oppressive and calmer.”
‘Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism’ (1618–1630) by Peter Paul Rubens. ( Public Domain )
The Legend of Pythagoras’ Death
There are several theories that explain how Pythagoras died, none more convincing than the others. Pythagoras was alleged to be a believer in oligopoly, and after a political victory that resulted in the demand for a democratic constitution, things turned sour for him. Cylon/Kylon and Ninon, supporters of democracy and rejects from the brotherhood, roused popular sentiment against the Pythagoreans. The pro-democracy supporters attacked the Pythagorean building, set it on fire, and some accounts suggest that Pythagoras perished in the fire.
Other accounts contradict this, either by arguing Pythagoras was never present in the building, or he managed to successfully escape. However, some stories say that he was refused sanctuary from the nearby city of Locris with his followers, and they perished from starvation at the temple of the Muses in the city of Metapontum.
Yet another account says that as the building was on fire, Pythagoras’ students created a path for him by lying down on the ground one after another, creating a bridge for Pythagoras to walk across. So despondent was Pythagoras that he escaped, but he was so ridden with guilt after the event that he committed suicide.
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Another legend, this one related to beans, also has been doing the rounds with great conviction. It says that the same Kylon/Cylon, who was the son of a nobleman, was eager to join the brotherhood. However, he was rejected for his inability to follow the rulers of the order, and formed a mob to burn the brotherhood building in retaliation.
As the members of the cult fled, the mob stabbed them, though Pythagoras managed to escape thanks to the generosity of his followers forming a human bridge. His path, however, took him into a bean field, which he refused to trample upon. Sticking to his principles, resolutely, Pythagoras remained outside the field, where he met his fate.
The Difficulty of Historical Reconstruction: Pythagoras and his Aversion for Physical Records
Pythagoras also forbade his followers from keeping written records of his teachings, with his followers sworn to secrecy. This has created a larger-than-life portrait of a man whose life is shrouded in myths, distortions, exaggerations, and outright lies, making the job of a historian doubly difficult. Most of what we know about the man was written hundreds of years after his death.
Many scholars have put their neck on the line and argued for certain versions of his life to be celebrated as historically accurate, despite a lack of evidence. Thus, Pythagoras’ death remains shrouded in mystery, and is composed of romantic tales and fragments of tales that have been told and retold ad nauseum , to assume a certain kind of historical factualism.
Maybe Pythagoras actually died from favism and indigestion caused by the broad bean. Or, befittingly, Pythagoras died in a bean field to save the souls of his dead ancestors because it aligned with his political and spiritual beliefs, which seems as believable a tale as any.
Top Image: French manuscript from 1512/1514, showing Pythagoras turning his face away from fava beans in revulsion. Source: Public Domain
By Sahir Pandey
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