How to Mellify A Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition
By Vicki Leon
Paperback, 336 pages
Walker & Company
List price: $17
Philosophical Fava Phobia
Even in his lifetime, he was called a miracle man and god-like. Awestruck groupies tried to sneak peeks at Pythagoras' supposedly golden thighs, a sure sign of divinity. After his death, rumors flew that his mother, Phythais, had hooked up with the god Apollo to produce her offspring. Alive or dead, the vibe around philosopher-teacher Pythagoras was celebrity-frenetic. (Like so much else, Greeks invented frenzy and its spinoff, frenetic; they come from phrenitis, "madness" or "delirium of the brain.")
Born around 582 B.C. on Samos, the son of a gem engraver, Pythagoras soon vagabonded off to Egypt, Persia, and other sites of esoteric learning, studying with sages, gathering secret lore, and getting initiated into mystery religions such as Greek Orphism.
Like the followers of Orphism, Pythagoras came to believe in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. (Truth be told, at times he could be a real snooze, prattling on about his former lives as a fisherman and one of Jason's Argonauts.)
He moved to Crotona in southern Italy to found his philosophical school. His teachings and charismatic personality soon attracted hundreds of followers -- and he made a special effort to encourage the participation of women, who were traditionally left out of such opportunities.
The founder ran his school on a two-tiered system. In the three-year "Pythagoras lite" program, participants only got to hear lectures. In contrast, the mathematics students endured a five-year probation and vow of silence, their property meanwhile managed by Pythagorean officials. At the end of probation, disgruntled students, if any, got their assets back plus interest, the world's first (maybe only) philosophical guarantee.
The regimen was strenuous. Besides the study of numbers, geometry, philosophy, and holistic medicine, everyone took part in group exercise and ate a vegetarian diet. Pythagoras had his contradictions. Big on nutrition and an avowed vegetarian, he also coached an Olympics winner by putting him on an all-meat diet. He also bragged about his knack of communicating with animals wild and tame, including an ox he once persuaded to swear off green beans for life. (A hint of what was to come? Perhaps.)
On many issues, he took unusual stands compared to other teachers. He was for ethics in business, against abortion and suicide. Conservative when it came to sexuality, Pythagoras insisted on minimal hanky-panky among his flock. Coitus was for procreative purposes only; his advice was to take up the lyre or take a cold shower. Despite his hard line on sex for other people, Pythagoras fell for a local teen named Theano and married her when he was fifty-six. In short order, they began producing a houseful of young Pythagoreans.
The man wrote copiously, although nothing remains that can be securely attributed to him except for a few sayings. As teacher and mentor, Pythagoras displayed a rational and compassionate mind, which makes it even harder to understand his Great Bean Taboo.
Long before Pythagoras, beans were viewed as magical. Taking beans to an auction was thought lucky; soothsayers put beans and salt in front of their customers before divining; legumes were offered to the dead at certain Roman festivals. But beans were also condemned as unlucky; finding a white bean or smelling the blossom of a broad bean was a sign of imminent death.
When Pythagoras announced to his flock his own ban on the fava bean, he gave at least five reasons for abstaining. "Beans produce flatulence and interfere with the clear functioning of body and mind," he said. After that, the logic started to unravel. "Beans make women sterile," he proclaimed. "Oh, and they look like genitals. Or the gates of hell."
Reason number five, however, was the sublime head-scratcher. At the beginning of the world, Pythagoras taught, men and women sprouted from the same putrefaction. "Eating a bean, then, is like eating the head of your parents," he asserted. "Crush a bean with your teeth and put it in the sun for a while. When you return, you'll find that it smells just like a murdered man."
Imaginative and puzzling claims indeed, from the same thinker who reputedly revealed the secrets of the hypotenuse.
What was at the heart of his beans-are-murder taboo? One clue has emerged from modern research. Scientists now know that the red blood cells of certain individuals lack an enzyme, G6PD, needed to break down a substance in fava beans called peptide glutathione. People who are G6PD-deficient may get dire reactions to bean pods and even to the plant's pollen, ranging from hemolytic anemia to jaundice, high fever, and death. Pythagoras, it's hypothesized, may have been a secret sufferer of favism.
There are still other chapters being written in the fava bean saga. Some years ago, researchers in Africa uncovered a relationship between sickle-cell anemia and malaria, showing how people who carried one gene for sickle cell (and were largely healthy, as opposed to people who had two such genes and developed severe disease) were more resistant to malaria, endemic in the same regions. Exciting research on G6PD deficiency now hints that this condition, like carrying a gene for sickle-cell anemia, may have survival value against malaria.
For millennia around the southern Mediterranean, consumers of fava beans, including those who have a negative response to them (an inherited trait genetically passed through females), have also lived in mosquito-infested, malaria-prone areas. The negative impact of having G6PD deficiency may be offset by the positive value of enhanced protection against the greater of two evils, malaria.
Oh, and the final irony of Pythagoras' bean ban? Centuries after Pythagoras' death, a number of his more fanatical followers honored the taboo assiduously, to the point of sacrificing their lives rather than tread on fava bean plants. Unlike Pythagoras, chances are good that none of them even had favism.
Excerpted from How to Mellify A Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition by Vicki Leon. Copyright 2010 by Vicki Leon. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company.