The University of Wisconsin Press

Geography / Botany / Religion / Medicine / Folklore / Anthropology


Plants of Life, Plants of Death
Frederick J. Simoons

“A most exciting, erudite, and stylish work. I can think of no one other than Simoons who could have written it.”—Robin Donkin, Cambridge University

Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mathematician, did not himself eat fava beans in any form; in fact, he banned his followers from eating them. Cultural geographer Frederick Simoons disputes the contention that Pythagoras established that ban because he recognized the danger of favism, a disease that afflicts genetically-predisposed individuals who consume fava beans. Contradicting more deterministic explanations of history, Simoons argues that ritual considerations led to the Pythagorean ban.

In his fascinating and thorough new study, Simoons examines plants associated with ritual purity, fertility, prosperity, and life, on the one hand, or with ritual impurity, sickness, ill fate, and death, on the other. Plants of Life, Plants of Death offers a wealth of detail from not only history, ethnography, religious studies, classics, and folklore, but also from ethnobotany and medicine. Simoons surveys a vast geographical region extending from Europe through the Near East to India and China. He tells the story of India’s giant sacred fig trees, the pipal and the banyan, and their changing role in ritual, religion, and as objects of pilgrimage from antiquity to the present day; the history of mandrake and ginseng, “man roots” whose uses from Europe to China have been shaped by the perception that they are human in form; and the story of garlic and onions as impure foods of bad odor in that same broad region.

Simoons also identifies and discusses physical characteristics of plants that have contributed to their contrasting ritual roles, and he emphasizes the point that the ritual roles of plants are also shaped by basic human concerns—desire for good health and prosperity, hopes for fertility and offspring, fear of violence, evil and death—that were as important in antiquity as they are today.

It dazzles as a piece of scholarship.”
—Daniel W. Gade, University of Vermont

Frederick J. Simoons is professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, adjunct professor of geography at Eastern Washington University, and adjunct research associate in anthropology at Washington State University. His other books include Eat Not This Flesh and A Ceremonial Ox of India (with the assistance of Elizabeth S. Simoons), both published by the University of Wisconsin Press; and Food in China.

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  cover of Plants of Life is green and black with a black and white drawing of a woman performing an honoring ritual in front of a small tree.

October 1998
LC: 98-009689 GR
588 pp.   6 x 9   34 b/w photos, 12 line illus., 1 map
Cloth ISBN 978-0-299-15900-9
Paper ISBN 978-0-299-15904-7

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