“I want a feast…I want a bean feast!” Veruca Salt
No doubt, American fans of Willy Wonka recall Veruca Salt’s outgrageous demands and have asked themselves, what exactly is a bean feast?
The Bean Feast, like so many other Christmastime traditions had it’s roots in ancient magic and spells.
Beans, which were considered to be heavily influenced by Saturn, played a large role in Saturnalia celebrations and various ancient mystery cults in ancient Rome. These traditions were carried to other countries and cultures around Europe throughout the centuries. Practices reached their height during the Medieval era on the 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany – January 6th. During rituals to recognize the coming reawakening of nature, “Erotic Bean Feasts” were held, where there was an abundance of drinking, partying and sexing. Beans were considered so erotic and so strong an aphrodisiac they were outlawed in some places during the seventeenth century:
“Bean soup had a reputation for being so erotic that it was forbidden in the convent of San Jeronimo in order to prevent conditions that might result in indecent arousal. But that order no longer stands, since the nuns gave up that habit.” – Allende, 1988
In the book, Beans, A History, (yes, seriously), author Ken Albala relates how beans were regarded as just big troublemakers all around and that Aristotle himself spoke out frequently against The Evils Of Beans. Aristotle wrote that beans are just like testicles and that they are, a gateway to Hades. The proof? It is the only plant that has no joints.
It didn’t help matters when Porphyry went around telling everyone about that time Pythagoras did that magic trick where he planted some beans in a pot and ninety days later they looked exactly like a ladies’ downstairs mixup….which then transformed into a human head that was for sure someone’s poor soul caught in transit.
There are so many crazy claims attached the the poor bean – such as, if you bite a bean and leave it in the sun it will smell exactly like the blood of a murdered person, (there’s a difference?) Or, the belief in it’s magical powers of warding off ghosts – in some places around the time of the winter solstice the male head of household would emerge from the home, barefoot and toss beans around the house while repeating nine times, “Shades of my ancestors, depart,” while they rest of the family banged on pots and pans and stomped on the ground. This was all done to protect the family from ghosts who were there to snatch the souls of the living. The beans were believed to hold souls and were thrown out as a decoy in hopes the soul hungry ghosts would be satisfied with the beans and leave the family alone.
The modern day bean feast has transformed quite a bit. Although plenty of drinking and revelry is a hallmark, the bean really only plays into the feast by way of being baked into a cake. A cake is made for the feast containing a single bean. Whomever in the party gets the piece of cake containing the bean is awarded the title of “Bean King” and must preside over the evenings festivities.
This painting by Jakob Jordaens created around 1645 shows a bean feast in full swing – note the exposed chesticle of one guest and the guy vomiting on the left. Clearly, the bean feat was a good time.
Albala, Ken, Beans, A History (2007)
Duyff, Roberta Larson, Food Folklore: Tales and Truths About What We Eat (1999)
Ratsch, Christian, Muller-Ebeling, Pagan Christmas (2000)