The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Food and Drink
Italian folklore is full of interesting magical references to beans:
Beans were spat in the directions of ghosts for purposes of exorcism
Beans were believed to serve as containers for unborn human souls, thus serving as fertility symbols, and incorporated into fertility rituals
Beans were also sometimes a tabooed food
Beans thus were the seeds of life and death.
Although beans in general are perceived as a magical food by many traditions, these Italian traditions didn’t just refer to any beans: many modern beans derive from the Western Hemisphere and, like tomatoes, were unknown in Europe pre-Columbus. The beans incorporated into Italian traditions are fava beans.
Fava beans (Vica faba) are traditionally associated with death and rebirth. Ancient Romans served them at funeral banquets. This tradition still survives in Italian witchcraft and spiritual practices. At midnight on October 31st, for instance, bowls of fava beans are placed outdoors for the spirits; they are then buried in Earth after sunrise on November 1st.
Fava beans were understood as a magically potent, potentially deadly food and for good reason: a condition known as “favism” is common throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean. There is a genetic predisposition toward this condition, however it is triggered by the consumption of fava beans. Once upon a time, favism was considered to be an allergic reaction to fava beans. It is now known to be caused by a deficiency in an enzyme (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase).
Favism is a type of anemia caused by hemolysis (destruction of healthy red blood cells). Victims are predominately male; almost all victims are of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent. Symptoms include intense fatigue, nausea, vertigo, and dark-orange colored urine. The condition is usually temporary but seasonal, corresponding to the sprouting of fava beans in the early spring. Thus favism is among the first signs of spring in that region. Favism can be fatal if an attack is sufficiently severe: approximately one in twelve cases proves fatal.
The oldest known fava beans were found in an archeological dig in Nazareth and date from c.6500 BCE but are believed to have been wild plants. Widespread cultivation of fava beans is believed to stem from the third-millennium BCE; they were widely cultivated throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean, and North Africa.
Fava beans were a mixed blessing. Although they were potentially deadly to a sizable percentage of the population, they have also been found to protect against malaria, once among the primary causes of death in the region.
In ancient Rome, one single fava bean was baked within one of the ritual cakes of the Saturnalia. Whoever found it was crowned Lord of the Saturnalia. This tradition survives in the King Cakes of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, although instead of a fava bean, the token is a tiny baby doll.
Italian immigrants to New Orleans brought other fava-bean traditions with them. On the Feast Day of St Joseph, dried, roasted fava beans are blessed, thus transforming into special St Joseph’s Beans or Lucky Mojo Beans. Allegedly someone who carries one of these lucky beans will never want for money.
The Romans spread fava bean rituals throughout their Empire; some continue to evolve. In France, the Feast of the Epiphany, also called the Feast of the Kings, is occasion for mass consumption of the “galette of the kings”—a flat, round pastry filled with almond paste baked with one trinket concealed inside. This lucky charm is called a fève (fava bean in French) because once that’s what served as the trinket. Whoever finds the fève becomes king or queen for the day. (Galettes are sometimes sold with paper crowns.)
In the late nineteenth century, small porcelain figurines began to replace the traditional bean. Fèves are now collectors’ items with the rarest commanding high prices. Some collect them for value or novelty but others for their magical aura as a charm. Fèves range from the traditional, like four-leafed clovers or horseshoes to the unusual—Harry Potter figurines or porcelain tiles depicting positions from the Kama Sutra.
Ovid and Petronius recommended a ham and bean soup to antidote effects of the striges, including loss of male sexual vigor. (See DICTIONARY: Strix.)
See also Bean Divination, Yule Cakes.