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Spice-Ox

Pythagoras gave voice to two well-known maxims; ‘Everything is numbers’ and ‘Eating beans is a crime equal to eating the heads of one’s parents’. Scholars concerned with the origins of modern science study his mathematics. Those concerned with the working of the Greek mind study his ideas on gastronomy.

Like the Pilgrim Fathers of a later age, Pythagoras was a religious dissenter, and sailed away from his native Samos to found a sectarian colony in Magna Graecia. There he found the freedom to apply his religious theories, among other things to food and diet. His central contention sprang from the concept of metempsychosis, ‘the transmigration of souls’, which could pass after death from person to person, or from persons to animals. As a result, he was opposed in principle to the custom of animal sacrifices, and held that the perfume of heated herbs and spices was a more fitting offering to the gods than the stench of roasted fat.

But if spices formed the link with Heaven, beans were the link with Hades. Broad beans, whose nodeless roots relentlessly push their way to the sunlight, were thought to act as ‘ladders for the souls of men’ migrating from the underworld. Beans propagated in a closed pot produced a seething mess of obscene shapes reminiscent of sexual organs and aborted foetuses. Similar taboos were placed on the consumption of the noble meats, especially of beef. Some creatures like the pig and the goat, which root around and damage nature, were judged harmful, and hence edible. Others, like the sheep, which gives wool, and the ‘working ox’, man’s most faithful companion, were judged useful, and hence inedible. Joints of ignoble meat could be eaten, if necessary, but the vital organs such as the heart or the brain could not. Once, an ox rescued by Pythagoras from a beanfield was given a lifelong pension of barley meal in the local Temple of Hera.

More famously, when Pythagoras’ disciple, Empedocles of Akragas, won the chariot race at Olympia in 496 BC, he refused to offer up the cutomary sacrifice of a roasted ox. Instead, he burned the image of an ox made from oil and spices, saluting the gods amidst a billowing cloud of frankincense and myrrh. The Pythagoreans believed that diet was an essential branch of ethics. ‘So long as men slaughter animals, ‘the master said, ‘they won’t stop killing each other.’

From: Europe: A History by Norman Davies

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