Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mathematician, did not himself eat fava beans in any form; in fact, he banned his followers from eating them. Cultural geographer Frederick Simoons disputes the contention that Pythagoras established that ban because he recognized the danger of favism, a disease that afflicts genetically-predisposed individuals who consume fava beans. Contradicting more deterministic explanations of history, Simoons argues that ritual considerations led to the Pythagorean ban.
In his fascinating and thorough new study, Simoons examines plants associated with ritual purity, fertility, prosperity, and life, on the one hand, or with ritual impurity, sickness, ill fate, and death, on the other. Plants of Life, Plants of Death offers a wealth of detail from not only history, ethnography, religious studies, classics, and folklore, but also from ethnobotany and medicine. Simoons surveys a vast geographical region extending from Europe through the Near East to India and China. He tells the story of India's giant sacred fig trees, the pipal and the banyan, and their changing role in ritual, religion, and as objects of pilgrimage from antiquity to the present day; the history of mandrake and ginseng, “man roots” whose uses from Europe to China have been shaped by the perception that they are human in form; and the story of garlic and onions as impure foods of bad odor in that same broad region.
Simoons also identifies and discusses physical characteristics of plants that have contributed to their contrasting ritual roles, and he emphasizes the point that the ritual roles of plants are also shaped by basic human concerns—desire for good health and prosperity, hopes for fertility and offspring, fear of violence, evil and death—that were as important in antiquity as they are today.
“It dazzles as a piece of scholarship.”—Daniel W. Gade, University of Vermont