Hailed as a classic when initially published in 1961, Eat Not This Flesh was the first book that explored, from a historical and cultural perspective, taboos against eating certain kinds of flesh. Frederick J. Simoons's research remains original and invaluable, the only attempt of its kind to reconstruct the origin and spread of food avoidances while challenging current Western explanations. In this expanded and updated edition, Simoons integrates new research as he examines the use and avoidance of flesh foods—including beef, pork, chicken, and eggs, camel, dog, horse, and fish—from antiquity to the present day.
Simoons suggests that Westerners are too ready, even in the absence of supporting evidence, to cite contemporary thinking about disease and environmental factors to explain why certain cultures avoid particular kinds of meat. He demonstrates how historical and archaeological evidence fails to support such explanations. He examines the origin of pork rejection in the Near East, explores the concept of the sacred cow in India and the ensuing ban on beef, and reveals how some African women abstain from chicken and eggs, fearing infertility.
While no single explanation exists for food taboos, Simoons finds that the powerful, recurrent theme of maintaining ritual purity, good health, and well-being underlies diet habits. He emphasizes that only a full range of factors can explain eating patterns, and he stresses the interplay of religious, moral, hygienic, ecological, and economic factors in the context of human culture. Maps, drawings, and photos highlighting food avoidance patterns in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific provide additional information throughout the book.
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