Plants of Life, Plants of Death. – Review

Plants of Life, Plants of Death. – Review – book review

Gabrielle Hatfield

Plants of Life, Plants of Death. By Frederick J. Simoons. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. 568 pp. $65.00. ISBN 0-299-15904-3

The scope of this book in time and place is enormous. Its well-referenced contents will provide a reservoir of information for scholars of folklore, religion and history of plant use. The section on “tulsi” (Ocimum sanctum, Holy basil), a plant held sacred throughout the Indian subcontinent for millennia, is particularly interesting. There follow chapters on the sacred fig trees of India (Ficus religiosa, Ficus bengalensis), on mandrake (Mandragora spp.), on garlic (Allium sativum) and its relatives, on the urd bean (Vigna mungo) and on the fava bean (Vicia faba). Each chapter is a treasure-house of information. Indeed, there is so much diverse information here that the book does not form a convincingly coherent whole: perhaps the material would have been better presented as several books.

Tulsi (basil) is discussed as a plant sacred throughout much of the east, venerated and used medicinally. Among the section on trees, the pipal and the banyan were regarded as sacred or even as deities themselves in both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. They are such spectacular trees, in a region that produces few large ones, that this alone could account for their important role. Mandrake–a plant similarly venerated in the west– was used as a talisman, an aphrodisiac and fertility aid, a sleep-inducer and an anaesthetic. The author suggests that the mandrake tradition may have originated in Persia, and other plants may have been previously similarly used in NorthErn Europe (e.g. bryony, Bryonia dioica) and in China (ginseng, Panax ginseng). The author contrasts the discouragement of mandrake’s use by Christianity with the Indian use of tulsi, encouraged by the Hindu religion.

Onions, garlic and leeks are found to have conflicting images throughout much of the world. Valued for both food and medicine, they also have an association with death and the underworld and with the forces of evil, yet they are thought to increase vigour and sexual drive. Simoons discusses these attributes separately, but it may well be that the onion and its relatives have always been regarded with ambivalence, as valuable articles of food and medicine, but with an anti-social smell. Both the urd bean and sesame seem to have been associated, because of their black colour (wild sesame seeds can be black), with death, pollution and bad luck. But there was ambivalence here too, since in some parts of India the bean was an offering to the gods, or was used at wedding ceremonies and was associated with fertility.

Simoons discusses the Pythagorean ban on fava beans which dates back to the sixth century B.C. and has caused controversy ever since. In Pythagoras’s day, fava beans were small, round and probably black-skinned. Our present-day elliptical, large, light-skinned broad bean did not appear before A.D. 500. Pythagoras was not alone in his rejection of fava beans. Both the Orphics and the Romans believed that human souls resided in beans, so that to eat them would be a form of cannibalism. Such beliefs may well have been shared by dwellers in the Indo-European homeland, and have variously been attributed to the flatulence they cause, the hollowness of their stems (joining them with the underworld), or, perhaps more likely, the prominent black spot on their flowers and the black colour of the ancient fava bean coat.

The idea that Pythagoras banned beans because of their ability to provoke the condition now known as “favism” (sometimes fatal in children) is countered by the argument that there is no description of the disease earlier than the nineteenth century, despite the fact that its present-day distribution overlaps those parts of Greece served by the Hippocratic doctors. Some have suggested that Pythagoras, and perhaps his followers too, suffered from favism, hence the bean ban. Against this, the gene for favism is, at least today, rare on his native Samos and is not unduly common in those areas settled by his followers. The favism gene is linked with resistance to the most vicious form of malaria, and there has therefore been genetic selection for it; however, this form of malaria seems to have arisen in Magna Graecia only at or after the time of Pythagoras. The author concludes that Pythagoras’s views on beans were magico-religious in origin, and nothing to do with favism.

Throughout the book, ritual, religious and folkloric uses of the plants are emphasised, whilst food and medicinal uses are sidelined. Yet where a plant has a central religious or folkloric role in a community, it has often been important prior to that as food or medicine or both. To take mandrake as an example, it seems likely that the ritual and folklore surrounding its harvest arose after it had been found to be a potent narcotic and pain-reliever. An analogy would be that, in English folklore, the elder plant has been used in countless different ways medicinally and for food. Even now the superstition remains that it is unlucky to cut the boughs of elder, and that if one does so one risks developing rheumatism (one of the ailments it was used to treat), and/or the wrath of the Druids. These superstitions seem more likely to be accretions to its importance in medicine; the same could be true of other plant rituals such as those described by Simoons for tulsi, mandrake and onions.

Simoons evidently regards the medicinal use of plants as secondary to their use in ritual, a view that is unproven. Indeed, if this were the case, when one looks at the medicinal value, assessed in modern scientific terms, of plants used medicinally in the past, one would expect no more than random effectiveness. This does not seem to be the case. Where such plants have been investigated, they often prove to be medicinally active for the purpose described.

Gabrielle Hatfield, Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2000 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group