The achievement of Pythagoras is hard to grasp and, once grasped, hard to believe. He ranks with Einstein and Newton as one of the three great thinkers who completely changed the way we look at the world in which we live. This sixth century BCE mathematician-mystic was the first to say that number is the primordial substance of the universe—that is, so to speak, that God, or the Nature of the Universe, thinks in numbers. To this Pythagoras added the discovery of the musical scale and the correspondences between it and simple numerical ratios. Aristotle summed it all up: “Pythagoras thought . . . that the whole cosmos is a scale and a number.” Both discoveries left their mark upon the world, even to today.
Yet if Pythagoras was one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, he also professed beliefs that seem to some of us to be outlandish, at best incomprehensible, and no more than the residue of the archaic world of myth, ritual, and terror of the night out of which Pythagoras, taken as a whole, made a mighty leap forward for mankind—or at least such has been the standard belief. Nothing seems to demonstrate better the archaic nature of a part of the Pythagorean endeavor than the way in which the Master met his death. The second century Roman writer Diogenes Laertius tells that, in fleeing his enemies, Pythagoras “got as far as a certain field of beans where he stopped, saying he would be captured rather than cross it, and be killed rather than prate about his doctrines; and so his pursuers cut his throat.”
It was the well-known Pythagorean interdiction against eating beans or harming them in any way that had stopped its formulator in his tracks and brought about his death. His strange choice—provided the story is true—was as bewildering to his contemporaries as it is to us today. Diogenes lamented: “Woe! Woe! Whence, Pythagoras, this deep reverence for beans? Why did he fall in the midst of his disciples? A bean field there was he durst not cross; sooner than trample on it, he endured to be slain at the crossroads.”
This interdiction against eating beans is somehow an integral part of the high strangeness of the Pythagorean endeavor, which also included the achievement of the discovery of the unchanging matrix of number and music underlying the visible universe. Can we make any sense of the former in the whole context of Pythagoras’s life?
By all accounts Pythagoras was an individual of superb gifts. Diogenes Laertius tells us that his students believed he was the god Apollo come back to Earth. Plutarch says he taught an eagle to come at his command and swoop down to him in flight. Pythagoras could talk to the animals (he once made a bear swear to stop marauding the countryside, and the bear kept its word) and could talk to rivers: the Neo-Platonist commentator Iamblichus records that, “once, passing over the river Nessus with many of his associates, he spoke to it, and the river in a distinct and clear voice, in the hearing of all his followers, answered, Hail Pythagoras!” Pythagoras was a master of bilocation; his contemporaries asserted confidently that in one and the same day he conversed with his disciples at Metapontum in Italy and those in Tauromenium in Sicily “though these cities are separated from each other by many stadia both by land and sea.” Pythagoras was personally captivating; the poet Timon speaks of him as “inclined to witching works and ways, Man-snarer, fond of noble [subtle words].”
The tremendous efflorescence of being that was Pythagoras expressed itself throughout a lifetime that began on the island of Samos, in Ionia, Greece, in 570 BCE, and ended near a bean field in Croton, Sicily, in 495 BCE. (Perhaps; there is another version of Pythagoras’s death, as we will see.) Pythagoras spent nearly all his 20s and 30s in Egypt, Chaldea, and Phoenicia, a Foreign Student Abroad imbibing the essence of mystery religions so old (or so it was thought) that their first rites had been carried out by the gods themselves. He returned to Samos in time to flee to the Greek colony of Croton in Sicily in the face of the advance of the Persian army into Asia Minor. Here he set up a school, or, more accurately, a mystical fellowship, which included women (not least Pythagoras’s wife, Theano, who was a philosopher in her own right) and adhered to the rule of communal ownership.
Such was the power of Pythagoras’s mind and soul that he almost immediately attracted 500 followers. He taught reincarnation and claimed to remember 22 of his past lives. This magician-mathematician enjoined his students to harm nothing living, eat only vegetables, say little, and strive for salvation through assimilation to and the knowledge of God. A modern commentator tells us that Pythagoras was even “reputed to cure diseases and modify passions through the power of his singing and playing on the lyre, instrumental skills he possessed because of his unparalleled knowledge of harmony in nature.”
Pythagoras encouraged asceticism and, beyond any doubt, abstention from eating beans—and the more we learn about this strange interdiction, the stranger the story gets. Iamblichus tells us that, while walking along the road one day, Pythagoras espied an ox eating beans in a pasture. He admonished the herdsman to tell the ox not to eat this forbidden fruit. The herdsman laughed in Pythagoras’s face and said he didn’t speak ox-language. The seer went up to the ox himself, whispered in its ear, and went away; the bovine never ate beans again. “He survived many years near Hera’s temple at Tarentum, until very old,” writes Iamblichus, “being called the sacred ox, and eating any food given him.”
Another incident regarding Pythagoras and beans, one taking place directly after Pythagoras chose death over trampling down a bean field, is equally enigmatic but not humorous at all. The man behind the killing of Pythagoras was a wealthy and tyrannical Crotonian noble named Cylon, who was furious because the seer had refused to admit him to the Pythagorean fellowship. Cylon’s guards set fire to Pythagoras’s school, then chased the fleeing Pythagoreans and slaughtered them all, including the Master, in the vicinity of the bean field.
Or, not quite all. Two of Pythagoras’s followers, Myllias and his wife Timycha, had lagged behind the fleeing band of acolytes because Timycha was six months pregnant. They escaped notice at first but were finally rounded up and taken before Cylon. The tyrant told them that if they didn’t explain to him why the Pythagoreans put such stock in beans, he would have them killed. If they explained, he would reward them.
Myllias refused, declaring that he would rather trample down a bean field than reveal the secret. Cylon had him taken away, believing that if he put Timycha to the torture, she, a mere woman, pregnant, and suddenly without her husband, would quickly weaken and talk.
But Cylon was wrong. Iamblichus tells us: “The heroic woman, however, grinding her tongue with her teeth, bit it off, and spit it at the tyrant; evincing by this, that though her sex being vanquished by the torments might be compelled to disclose something which ought to be concealed in silence, yet the member subservient to the development of it, should be entirely cut off.”
Can this story be true? It seems incredible to us that someone would mutilate herself in this way just so she wouldn’t have to explain why the religious group she belonged to held beans in the greatest respect. Are we missing something? Given Pythagoras’s godlike brilliance, attested to by all his contemporaries, mustn’t there have been some profound and important reason (which was not be revealed to outsiders) why this particular plant should not be harmed in any way?
Fava beans have cropped up here and there throughout history as objects of veneration. Herodotus tells us that some Egyptians weren’t allowed to eat beans and some weren’t even allowed to look at them. Researcher Layla Eplett writes in Scientific American that, “Pharaoh Ramses III offered 11,998 jars of fava beans to the god of the Nile.” In medieval Sicily, she says, “a drought kept the plants from coming up and forced Sicilians to pray to Saint Joseph for rain. It came; but the only crop to come up was hearty fava beans. This was enough to keep the populace from starving, and ever since Sicilians have included in their Saint Joseph’s Day celebrations the reverent placing of fava beans on church altars.” Moreover, on All Souls Day, cakes called fave dei morti (“beans of the dead”) are baked in the shape of fava beans to honor those souls.
Pythagoras’s injunction to abstain from eating beans exercised the mind of many an ancient thinker. Aristotle came up with several explanations. He wondered if, since fava beans were sometimes used in casting votes, it wasn’t all just a hidden injunction against getting involved in politics. Aristotle suggests enigmatically that the Pythagoreans didn’t eat beans “because they are destructive.” Was he referring to a hereditary disease, called favism, which is found worldwide but most often in the Mediterranean region, and which causes an allergic-like reaction when individuals lacking G6PD (an enzyme needed to break down peptide glutathione) are exposed to fava beans? One modern commentator has gone so far as to suggest that Pythagoras’s renowned school was simply a hospital specializing in the treatment of sufferers from favism.
It may be, though, that Aristotle was referring to the reason given by Plato, and summed up in the first book of Cicero’s work On Divination, as follows:
“Plato therefore bids us go to our sleep in such bodily condition that there may be nothing to cause delusion and disturbance in our minds. It is thought to be for that reason too that the Pythagoreans were forbidden to eat beans, a food that produces great flatulence, which is disturbing to those who seek mental calm.”
Aristotle also put forth the opinion that the Pythagoreans didn’t eat beans “because they are like genitals.” Not to eat them was to pay symbolic homage to human life and generation. The Pythagoreans imagined they saw correlations between beans and human beings. A modern commentator sums up that, for them, “A chewed bean placed in the sun smells of human semen or of murderously spilt human blood; beans and men arose together from within the primeval earth; and a bean or bean blossom put into a container and buried is eventually transformed into blood or a human head.”
The intimation of a mystical connection between beans and human generation leads on to the beguiling notion, emphasized by Aristotle and other commentators, that the Pythagorean injunction against eating beans was somehow bound up with the process of reincarnation. Pythagoras placed great store in this process. He told his students that, before he was born, Apollo had given him the choice of reincarnating with the memory of his past lives or becoming immortal in this lifetime; Pythagoras chose the former. (Readers interested in the subject of reincarnation will find Pythagoras’s lives spelled out by a dwarf named Nano in Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson’s play Volpone. Nano believes he is the modern-day [i.e., Elizabethan] incarnation of Pythagoras; the lives he lists include the Homeric warrior Euphorbus who was killed by Achilles’ boon companion Patrocles during the Trojan War.)
Crucial to establishing a link between reincarnation and fava beans is the nature of the bean stock itself. The stem of this plant is not only hollow but also undifferentiated, that is, without segments—an attribute not belonging to any other plant. Hades (the abode of the dead) was thought by ancient peoples to be at the center of the earth; Aristotle speculated that, since the Pythagoreans believed in reincarnation, and since they declared that fava bean plants were “like the gates of Hades,” then they must believe that reincarnating souls passed up to new life in the sunlight through the stems of these plants.
This, opined Aristotle, was perhaps why the Pythagoreans made the extraordinary statement that “eating beans is the same as eating the heads of one’s parents.” Aristotle speculated that the Pythagoreans might have feared they might be eating the reincarnating soul (or some part of the essence thereof) of their father or mother, or one of their relatives, or of a friend—or just any human being. They therefore regarded eating beans as a sort of psycho-cannibalism—something totally inimical to the totally pacifistic beliefs of the Pythagoreans.
A modern commentator has remarked that, once beans are looked at in this way, “the primary concern for believers in reincarnation would not be about what beans might do to us, but rather about what we might do to them, or to the souls of the departed in them.” This explains why Pythagoras admonished an ox not to eat beans—and perhaps whispered in the bovine’s ear that all animals are included in the cycle of reincarnation and that the ox must then beware of eating the soul of his mother or brother.
And this, of course, is why Pythagoras didn’t want to run across a bean field: It would have caused the wholesale slaughter of a troupe of rising souls. Pythagoras, a man of the highest respect for life and the strictest morals, would have drawn back from committing so evil an act.
Perhaps all the talk of souls reincarnating through bean stocks was only a metaphor, or a symbol, for something the Pythagoreans intuited on a much deeper level but couldn’t find words for themselves. We should not forget that, however outlandish some of the applications of the mystical ideas of the Pythagoreans seem to us today, these ancient savants were sometimes able to come to extraordinarily prescient conclusions using these applications. The second generation of Pythagoreans, led by Philolaus, was, for example, the first thinkers to displace the earth from its location at the center of the universe. They did not replace it with the sun, but rather with a “central fire,” around which the sun and the earth orbited. Still, they were the first to get on this futuristic track—and they based their conclusions not on observation, or rational deduction as we know it today, but by deciding that: fire was the most precious object in the universe; the center was the most precious location in the universe; the most precious object should be in the most precious location; and therefore fire was at the center of the universe.
Pythagoras may never have been faced with the cruel decision of whether to kill a field of souls and therefore lose his own (as he saw it), or lose his life and save his soul. Some sources suggest he died in quite another way, declaring that his death was due to “grief at the loss of all his friends who, when the house in which they were gathered was burned, in order to make a way for their Master, they threw themselves into the flames, to make a bridge of safety for him, whereby indeed he escaped.”
These two different versions of the end of his life only compound our sense of wonder at this astonishing man, for whom the mysteries of beans were as compellingly important as the mysteries of the unchanging numbers that hold up the universe.