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The legend says the Pythagoreans never ate beans because they contained the spirits of dead people. My maths teacher told me this was known because a bean and an embryo are about the same size and shape. They both have two lobes that become the head and body.

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I find this hard to believe because the Pythagoreans did not have the technology to build an ultrasound and see the bean nature of the 8 week foetus:

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What is the real reason the Pythagoreans never ate beans? Is it because beans make you go toot toot, and the Pythagoreans naturally assumed this is the toot of the recently dead escaping from your body?

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    I've seen both the fetus and fart theories from an Internet search. I personally believe it's a combination of both: Little fetus shaped beans (the musical fruit) cause a body to expel gas and thus expel the "breath of life". A very unpleasant visual experience with the bonus of a foul odor. Not the marketing campaign I'd use to sell fava beans.
    – user64314
    May 15, 2023 at 1:38
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    See William K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy. Volume I: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, page 184 for a review of different opinions of ancient historians about this strange taboo. May 15, 2023 at 9:48
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    @StevanV.Saban I ate his toot liver, with some toot fava beans and a toot nice toot Chianti.
    – Daron
    May 15, 2023 at 10:44
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    "I find this hard to believe because the Pythagoreans did not have the technology to build an ultrasound and see the bean nature of the 8 week foetus" well, did they have the technology of a knife? May 15, 2023 at 11:21
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    "I find this hard to believe because the Pythagoreans did not have the technology to build an ultrasound and see the bean nature of the 8 week foetus". They would have known about miscarriages, though. I understand that some women were Pythagorians: it is possible that some of these ladies may have experience as midwives. May 15, 2023 at 21:20

2 Answers 2

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The prohibition concerned specifically fava beans (vicia faba), associated with hemolytic response (rupturing of red blood cells) in some people, called favism. In a milder form, it causes excessive gas that Diogenes Laertius described as "disturbing".

Reasons for the taboo were controversial already in antiquity, with Aristotle, Diogenes, Iamblichus and Varro giving different explanations, and modern scholars argue that the taboo was supported by a combination of medical, mythological and ritualistic factors they cite. However, the shape of the fetus was not among them, see Scarborough, Beans, Pythagoras, Taboos, and Ancient Dietetics for a survey of ancient sources and modern scholarship:

"On the one hand, Schumacher and Lieber have given a series of carefully documented arguments detailing the social context of the taboo, and the ancient sources from Aristotle to Iamblichus support this approach and the consequent interpretations. Yet this conclusion... is but one part of the intricate matrix that led to the formulation of the bean prohibition, among numerous other dicta followed by the Pythagoreans.

There is also some evidence to show that ancient medical dietetics recognized a form of favism, but that this did not necessarily cause Greek and Roman physicians to forbid the eating of beans. Added is the ancient evidence which indicates how much debate raged in classical antiquity about why the Pythagoreans proscribed beans, ranging from Aristotle's statement that beans are "like the gates of Hades" to Varro's report that beans contain the souls of the dead. Ancient observers of the strict rituals of the Pythagorean community did assume an "explanation" of occasional magic, but modern scholars who presume these ancient guesses (perhaps mainly from pique) correct have ignored the historical and social context of those negative views held by observers outside the tightly-knit Pythagorean community.

Neither a strictly medical nor a completely magico-religious explanation is satisfactory, since even ancient critics of the Pythagoreans acknowledge the aspects of Pythagoreanism that spanned the range of human knowledge from pure magic to pure mathematics... One can, therefore, add to Lieber's succinct piece the collection of multifarious data assembled by Burkert, who argues for the bean taboo on the basis of the Pythagorean "seer" being incredibly sensitive to "small physical disturbances".

Favism, as Lieber writes, would fit nicely here, but one must also presume, in the words of Burkert, that "the Pythagorean taboos are closely connected with ritual, either taken over from it or set up in opposition to it." Thus, combining Lieber's penetrating analysis with Burkert's painstaking assembly of ancient evidence and close readings of the multiple interrelationships among the varying aspects of Pythagoreanism, one has an interpretation of the Pythagorean bean taboo that combines the medical, dietetic, epidemiological, magico-religious, and historico-contextual evidence."

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  • That's really something May 15, 2023 at 10:50
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    Masturbating at the marketplace in a barrel, no problem. Farting? Outrage.. Diogenes was a funny chap..
    – CriglCragl
    May 15, 2023 at 10:58
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    @CriglCragl Different Diogenes. This is Diogenes Laertius, who wrote Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, you are thinking of Diogenes the Cynic.
    – Conifold
    May 15, 2023 at 17:40
  • @Conifold Ah Diogenes Laeritus! I know him well. I went to school with him!
    – Daron
    May 15, 2023 at 19:57
  • A first association would be beans like (red) kidney beans (common bean), but they didn't arrive in Europe before the 16th century. May 15, 2023 at 22:35
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Because many times since ancient era people in Greece saw with sadness the discredit of the political world and suffered the consequences of the worst policy, Pythagoras is always relevant with the historical quote "kyamon aphechestai" which means "stay away from politics".

The kyamis, the beans, were used by the ancient Greeks for voting, that's why the elected rulers were called "kyameytos".

To this day Greeks use the phrase "counted kyamis (beans)", which means calculated, sure votes.

Therefore Pythagoras with this prohibition ("kyamon aphehesthei") must have made a hint, that no one should get involved in politics if he is not honest, moral and capable.

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    This is fascinating speculation, but without supporting sources, that's all it is - do you have any evidence that Pythagoras or his contemporaries made this connection?
    – IMSoP
    May 15, 2023 at 16:59
  • This is an interesting speculation. Has anyone else proposed it or is it your own idea? It could be part of an answer that discussed other ideas, preferably including ancient ideas. On its own, it doesn't help.
    – Ludwig V
    May 15, 2023 at 18:22

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