[~ 6 minutes]

Listening to: Sleepthief feat. Jody Quine, Eurydice

It was the beans’ fault, of course.

Had it not been for the philosopher’s strange obsession with them, Pythagoras would’ve probably been filed away in my memory alongside other mathematically inclined Greek figures.

But he did have something for fava beans (Vicia faba L.), or so the ancients wrote, and everybody has been trying to explain it away ever since. This means he crops up in the most unexpected of places, such as a book on the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) in which ’tis suggested that Pythagoras’ ‘beans’ were not broad beans, as it has been assumed for centuries, but lotus seeds instead.

(This sounds a lot more plausible when you realise that the Greek word for sacred lotus was, indeed, “Egyptian bean”, kyamos Aigyptios. Although I cannot fathom how they possibly found them remotely similar. Of course the Greeks apparently used the word kyamos rather… indiscriminately. They also called henbane ‘pig bean’, hyos-cyamus, and there is NOTHING bean-ish about henbane —or lotus-ish, for that matter).


Pythagoras, frankincense and divination: what we (don’t) know

However, I was not expecting to encounter my legendary philosopher-mathematician during my research on olibanum (frankincense, Boswellia sacra). As it turns out, at least one of his biographers, the Roman Porphyry, pointed at him as the introducer of the art of libanomancy* in Greece.

*Divination through incense smoke, from líbanos + manteia, (frank)incense + divination.

Bearing in mind that nine centuries separated Pythagoras from his biographer, I for one would have qualms in accepting Porphyry’s testimony as entirely reliable. However, and regardless of its veracity, our bean-averse philosopher was commonly believed to have imported libanomantic practices —or was, at the very least, perceived as having had something to do with burning plants to the gods (which is what olibanum was mainly used for in the Classical world, after all).

And so ’tis said that

“Having proscribed bloody sacrifices, Pythagorism created what might be defined as plant empyromancy* —or at least gave it a new impulse.”

*Empyromancy was a divination method based on interpreting the behaviour and appearance of burning sacrifices. Of course these were mostly animal offerings, but if you were Pythagoras and had explicitly forbidden animal sacrifice, plants must’ve come to the rescue.

Sounds poetic, doesn’t it? Perfumed smoke swirling up, up into the heavens carrying mortals’ desires and aspirations into the bosom of the gods. Wise and keen-eyed men (in all likelihood it would’ve been men…) peering into the smoke folds to discern the future.

Less messy and bloody than looking into entrails (eg extispicy), more ethereal than staring at oil blobs floating atop the water surface (lecanomancy).

(And doesn’t the latter sound eerily similar to some methods to diagnose the Evil Eye I’ve already written about?)

Leaves and flowers of bay laurel (Laurus nobilis).

It seems that the plants burnt in sacrifice had for the most part already been considered sacred to the gods, such as bay laurel or the olive (Olea europaea). Yet just as one could argue that the gods associated with each of these plants would be glad to receive them in lieu of animal sacrifices, a strong case could also be made against it: if the plant was sacred, wasn’t burning it akin to a sacrilegious act?

Both opinions existed, as attested by the fact that we know the crackling of bay laurel thrown to the flames was a good omen, and that yet Pliny had read that one must not, under any circumstance, burn plants that were sacred. ’Tis possible that one could, at least, burn the leaves (…).

Another philosopher (and Porphyry’s contemporary), the Syrian Neoplatonist Iamblichus, had nothing to say about Pythagorean libanomancy, but frankincense was featured as an acceptable offering to the gods alongside cakes, honeycombs, millet and myrrh in his work De vita pythagorica. (Then again, let’s remember that Pythagoras had been dead and buried for more than eight centuries when Iamblichus was born…)

Be as it may, and unlike the famous bean prohibition, the mystery of Pythagoras’ attitude concerning plants burnt to the gods appears to have worried no one (except me) of recent.

The Delphic Oracle’s inspired prophecies: were plant hallucinogens involved?

The role of burnt plants at Delphi as divine inspiration to the Pythia though, that has sparked the attention of researchers looking for the possibility of altered states of consciousness and their role in (pre)history.

Priestess of Delphi, by John Collier (1891)
See the chasm? It’s been inflaming imaginations for ages. Painting by John Collier (1891), freely available via Wikipedia Commons.

Delphi was the centre of the oracular world in ancient Greece and Rome — indeed legend claimed it was The Centre of the earth tout court, marked by an ancient conical stone —the omphalos— where Zeus’ eagles, flying from opposite ends of the world, had met. Lauded as the most truthful and accurate oracle by virtually all ancient writers, since its rise in the 8th century BC it survived fires (548 BC) and earthquakes (373 BC) for well over a millennium of uninterrupted oracular operation.

The god that made his will known at Delphi was the god of prophecy, Apollo, and his mouthpiece was a female prophetess or Pythia, inspired or enthused by the divine.

Some ancient sources alluded to the possibility of a pneuma enthusiastikon, often translated as “vapours that cause enthusiasm”, rising from a chasm next to (or underneath) the temple chamber where the Pythia prophesied… and wondered:

could such “vapours” explain the Oracle’s inspired prophecies?

Researchers have been trying to answer that question ever since (as well as trying to establish whether the “vapours” are to be classified as fact, or as ancient speculation in the fist place!).

Although the most debated theories look for a geologic origin for our controversial and enthusiasm-provoking pneuma (eg. ethylene, benzene), hallucinogenic plants have also been suggested as potential culprits for the Pythia’s inspiration.

Papaver somniferum (opium poppy, adormidera)
Yup. Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum). Gorgeous blooms.

Alas, this firmly rules out olibanum, as it has no psychotropic effects; but many other plants have been proposed, such as cannabis (which was indeed inhaled by one of the Greek’s neighbouring cultures, the Scythians, as told by Herodotus, c. 446 BC) or opium.

And yet another group of plants that has been suggestively nudged forward and under the omphalos (that would’ve, according to these theories, served as some sort of brazier under which plant material would’ve been burnt) have been the nightshades, particularly thornapple (Datura stramonium) and… our very un-bean-ish Hyoscyamus, or henbane.

White henbane (Hyoscyamus albus)
Flower of white henbane (H. albus).

One of this plant’s common names seems to have been “Apollos’ herb” (erba apollinaris), and was once much used in Eurasia (Europe, but also Turkey, Iran, North Africa) as a remedy to induce sleep and numb pain. It may also cause hallucinations, and has been traditionally considered part of the ‘hexing herbs’ of medieval witches alongside thornapple, mandrake and deadly nightshade.

However, most ancient sources’ description of what consulting the Pythia was like paint a remarkably sober and un-ecstatic picture, and there is no definite proof that the pneuma enthusiastikon was a physical vapour, instead of an ‘immaterial flow’ of divine spirit. The only plant mentioned in connection to the Pythia as she prepared herself to receive the god was Apollo’s sacred bay laurel, burnt and chewed for inspiration.

No hallucinogenic properties there either, I’m afraid.

Whether other plants were used indeed at some point during the many centuries of oracular activity at Delphi remains, at least for now, a mystery—as does the use of entheogenic* substances in another cult that arose around the same time (c. 8th century BC), and that has been much discussed: the Eleusinian Mysteries.

*ie hallucinogenic; “The term was coined by ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology to describe substances that were considered to have the “god within them” and thus facilitate the experience of the presence of the god, giving access to his/her wisdom”.

Suggestive… but still inconclusive.

Those in the know, in true Pythagorean fashion, never spilled the beans.

Lack of proof doesn’t demonstrate lack of use, of course… and therein might lie the beauty of peering into ancient rites and secrets: we are forced to open our minds to possibility.

Only then can we explore the uncertain edges of our knowledge, where mysterious kyamos grow and elusive incense grains may be burnt to see into the future… or not.




– The book on the sacred lotus mentioned is Mark Griffiths’ marvellous The Lotus Quest: In Search of the Sacred Flower (2010, Vintage Books). I wholeheartedly recommend reading it if you enjoy cultural histories of plants! And, although it had nothing to do with beans, I’ve written about my lotus-filia before, over here.

On a slightly related subject, I’ve talked about beans, favism and henna over here; fascinating subject…

– All I know about libanomancy, sources an’ all, I have shared on my book Of Perfumes & Gods: Tales of Olibanum (2016).

Porphyry’s work Vita Pithagorae can be read here.

Iamblichus’ text, translated into English is freely available here.

– All quotes on burnt plants in honour of the gods come from Bouché-Leclercq, A. 1879. Historie de la Divination dans l’antiquité vol 1. (E. Leroux, Éditeur, Paris).

– The history of Delphi and the Pythia are fascinating subjects, on which I’m no expert, granted. The texts I’ve read listing all the ancient and modern sources for interpretations of the prophetess’ mantic sessions come from the highly informative master dissertation by Rosemary Lewis, The Role of the Pythia at Delphi: Ancient and Modern Perspectives (2014, University of South Africa). She also has clear descriptions of many divination practices in ancient Greece.

– On the subject of entheogenic vapours of plant origin, see Littleton, C. S. 1986. The Pneuma Enthusiastikon: On the Possibility of Hallucinogenic “Vapors” at Delphi and Dodona. Ethos 14 (1): 76-91.

I mention thornapple because ’tis cited as part of the article, but… y’already know how things stand on Eurasian thornapples before Columbus. If henbane is possible but improbable, thornapple’s presence in the pneuma enthusiastikon appears to be entirely impossible.

I’ve written about henbane elsewhere, eg. here (Nightshade Flights; henbane is mentioned among other nightshades).


As mentioned underneath the painting, the Pythia image is a 19th century (1891) painting by John Collier, taken from Wikipedia Commons. All other images are by Yours Truly.


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