The (semi)circle of life

“As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health
or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed
of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”

attribution to Pythagoras by Ovid

19th century: Charles Darwin visits the Galapagos Islands, Napoleon is defeated in Waterloo, the first
Vegetarian Society of the modern western world is established in England in 1847. Up until this day, a
diet that excluded animal flesh was known as “Pythagorean diet”. And I thought vegetarianism was waaaay more recent!

The figure of Pythagoras is surrounded by myths and legends: depicted as a god-like being, at that time
people attributed divine powers to the mathematician, to the point that in the Roman era he was considered the son of Apollo.

Born in Samos around 570 BC, he started travelling at an early age and allegedly received most of his
education in Egypt. In 525 BC, during the battle of Pelusium between the Kingdom of Egypt and the
Achaemenid Empire, Pythagoras was taken prisoner and brought to Babylon, where he spent allegedly 3
years before being released, for reasons that are still unclear nowadays. When he returned to Samos, he
founded a school known as “the semicircle”, where Pythagoras and his followers would discuss politics,
astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. The school had a sensational success, but due to the political nature of some of its activities, might be the reason why Pythagoras had to leave Samos and move to a small city in the South of Italy, Crotone.
There, he founded a philosophical and religious school that resembled a modern cult: Pythagoras was allegedly a very charismatic figure, and in no time he became the head of this community. The men and women who followed him, known as mathematikoi, were bound by a vow of secrecy and loyalty to the principles established by Pythagoras – one of which was the abstention from the consumption of meat and beans.

Pythagoras believed in metempsychosis, a theory that describes the soul as an immortal entity, able to
transmigrate from one body to another after death. In a satirical poem from 6th century BC, Xenophanes of Colophon narrates the story of a man that was beating his dog, stopped by Pythagoras who recognised in the dog’s whining the voice of his departed friend.
The very thought that animals could have been human beings in their previous lives determined the banning of any activities that could cause suffering for any creatures: sacrifices, slaughtering and eating animals were considered unacceptable practices.
Pythagoras and his mathematikoi would therefore follow a strict diet based on seeds, fruits, honey, bread and vegetables. Well, not all vegetables, as Pythagoras considered beans, and in particular fava beans, equals of meat. To prove his point, Pythagoras buried some beans in the soil, and when he retrieved them after a few weeks, their resemblance to human fetuses gave him the “final proof” of the link between human beings and beans. As beans were made of the same flesh as men and women, not only they couldn’t be eaten, but any form of harm towards them was banished: touching, crushing, throwing beans was considered equal to hurting a person.

The mysteries around Pythagora’s life are nothing compared to the ones regarding his death: it is not clear where or when he died, but there are several myths and legends behind it.
Diogenes Laërtios, an ancient Greek historian from the 3rd century AD, wrote the book “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers”, which contains a biography of Pythagoras that is still considered the most attendible source of information about his life (despite it contains several speculations and bizarre episodes regarding the mathematician).
The book has then been translated by R. D. Hicks, and Pythagoras’ death is described as follows: “Pythagoras met his death in this wise. As he sat one day among his acquaintances at the house of Milo, it chanced that the house was set ablaze out of jealousy by one of the people who were not accounted worthy of admittance to his presence, though some say it was the work of the inhabitants of Crotone anxious to safeguard themselves against the setting-up of a tyranny. Pythagoras was caught as he tried to escape; he 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
So, according to Diogenes Laërtios, Pythagoras preferred to get caught and killed rather than walking across a field of fava beans.

The aversion to fava beans might have a more scientific rationale, that was fully understood only in the
20th century with the discovery of a genetic condition called Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, otherwise known as favism. This disease – particularly common in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean area – determines the breakdown of red blood cells under some specific trigger elements: stress, infections, some drugs like primaquine, and fava beans. The symptoms may vary from jaundice to hemolytic crisis.
Only in 1843, for the first time, a Lisbon magazine published a report describing favism symptoms: in
this article, Manuel Pereira de Mira Franco reported the case of a patient who presented jaundice every
time he ingested fava beans. Other reports with similar clinical scenarios were published in the following years, but more details came to light only when some malaria drugs (containing primaquine) were tested on American prisoners.

It is not clear if Pythagoras was affected by favism or if he witnessed some episodes of haemolytic anaemia in people ingesting fava beans, but this theory has been explored in 2001 by British doctor Gerald Hart, in an article describing blood disorders before the advent of laboratory studies.

Unfortunately there is no way to find out, as there are no authentic writings from Pythagoras and no verified sources about his life – the fact that this disease is particularly common in the South of Italy (where fava beans are common) could confirm the favism theory and explain his aversion towards the vegetable. The irony is that fava beans were easily accessible for him and his mathematikoi, but they had to rely on other sources of nutrients, not necessarily equally available, to be able to support their Pythagorean diet without breaking their vow.

The aversion for fava beans died along with Pythagora, as the rest of the mathematikoi re-introduced this food in their diets after his death.


31 thoughts on “The (semi)circle of life

  1. Thank you for this very interesting history. I didn’t know about favism. I am allergic to peanuts, which despite the name is a legume, a member of the bean family, and not a nut at all. When my allergy was confirmed, I was warned to only eat beans very sparingly, as I might develop an allergy to them as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ciao Irene, another great post with fascinating stuff about Pythagoras. Have been to Samos twice and there is a good museum in Pythagorion, his birthplace, which is a beautiful little town. I say is and hope that’s still true as, being on the south coast it shouldn’t have suffered badly in the recent earthquake. Must try the fava bean recipes as I don’t think I have any allergy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a very informative post. Pythagoras was an exceptional mind. Being a non violent man he shouldn’t have met an unnatural death. Leonardo Da Vinci was also a vegan and one of the finest minds in his times. The information about fava beans is new to me. Pythagoras also created mystery schools after he participated in some of them in India as per what I have read. Thanks.


  4. Definitely a very interesting story- I always learn something new with your posts! I am currently taking a course called The History Of Food and I always remember your posts whenever I have a class!

    Liked by 1 person

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