Of Incense & Beans: elusive plants in Greek religion

[~ 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. Continue reading

Of perfumes & gods: Olibanum in a flask

[~ 10 minutes]

Listening to: Irfan, In the gardens of Armida

{Spanish version can be read here}

Fire has fascinated us since the dawn of time.

Metamorphosis are cooked on a slow heat, ideas flare like flames in the darkness, love smoulders like embers. The gods quietly hover above the flame.

As a rule, plants rarely engage in prolonged affairs with fire. Whereas the inhabitants of the ancient mineral kingdom can usually survive its touch, plants —like any living being— cannot resist the fiery onslaught for too long: it’s too extreme, too violent. Life succumbs to the flames’ embrace in a smoky sigh.

Yet sometimes a strange alchemy occurs. In some cases, destruction may become liberation, and the soul pulsing inside vegetable matter is set free. Fire becomes the threshold through which the substance being burnt is transmuted — from matter, to spirit. Everything becomes smoke, and the essence revealed therein emerges imbued with mysterious powers that are both divine, and perfumed. Continue reading