Vampires and Beans

September 13th, 2010 · 12:08 pm @ admin  -  One Comment

While I was working on my piece on cemeteries for the upcoming “Cities” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, I came across a number of random facts and other historical detritus that caught my eye—while none of it was suitable for the Lapham’s piece, a couple of interesting finds stayed with me, and with a little more time on my hands, I’ve been going back and following up with some of those finds.

Among other things, one fascinating piece of cultural belief turned up in an issue of The Classical Review from 1921 that I turned up while trying to find more information on Roman burial practices.

After an article by W. R. Halliday on the likelihood of adult burial within cities in Roman practices, came another piece titled “Quaestiones Romanae,” written by F. A. Wright; the first such “quaestione” was this: “Why are beans taboo?”

As you can imagine, this caught my attention. The answer was even more bizarre: the Greek word for “bean” was κναμος, which Wright points out, is a noun derived from the verb κνεω, “to be pregnant.” In other words, a bean is, literally, a “pregnant thing,” or “the thing big with life.” As he explains, “anyone who has watched the rapid and mysterious pushing forth of the young bean from the parent womb will understand why the bean was a symbol of sexual fertility.” This is perhaps a matter of some debate, though I’m willing to grant Dr. Wright this point, I suppose.

He also points out that the Pythagoreans, who were vegetarians, also abstained from eating beans, since “in its growth has almost the vitality of the animal kingdom”—beans, it could be said, were viewed as something of a hybrid creature, part vegetable, part animal—the classical world’s equivalent to slimemold, I suppose.

The bean, then, is an object which suggests an uncanny sexuality, and in the same way that pregnant women would have been seen to be unclean, so too were beans.

As a final note, though, it appears that beans, by virtue of this anomalous appearance, had a very specific usage: they could be used to deceive vampires, who would mistake beans for humans, or pregnant women….

So to the stake, the garlic, the mirror and the cross, one can also add…the bean.

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One Comment → “Vampires and Beans”

  1. Cheri

    7 years ago

    This is really interesting. I’m fascinated by historical understandings of sexuality. Until recently, very recently, it wasn’t believed the woman’s body played much of any part in conception, besides providing a place for a man’s ‘seed’ to grow. It was generally believed a man placed his ‘seed’ in a woman and it simply grew there into a little person. They believed men’s seed literally contained little people, much the way I suppose a bean contains a little plant. Modern medicine brought the ovary to light, and the part a woman’s eggs play in conception. Without that, I can imagine how uncanny a sprouting bean would seem to people who were more likely to directly relate that to sexual activity. We don’t see sex when we look at a bean, or it’s a stretch to imagine, since we understand the part of the ovum. But for historical people, there wasn’t much of a mental leap. Crazy stuff!

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