Commentary on the Pyanepsia
Robert A. Clark
The Pyanepsia festival derives its name from a stew of boiled beans (pyanon epsein = to boil beans). A 'pyanion' is a mixture of various kinds of pulse boiled in a pot (khytros) and offered to Phoebos Apollon and shared by the celebrants. It is not a typical Greek panspermia (all-seeds) as this dish is of legumes only. According to legend this was the votive offering Theseus and his crew made to Apollo when they returned to Athens from Crete on this day after rescuing the young men and maidens from the Labyrinth at Knossos, for it was all that was left of their provisions. It is a thank offering for the bounty of the season and prayers for bountiful year to come.
After burying his father, Theseus paid his vows to Apollo on the seventh day of the month Pyanepsion; for on that day they had come back to the city in safety. Now the custom of boiling all sorts of pulse on that day is said to have arisen from the fact that the youths who were brought safely back by Theseus put what was left of their provisions into one mess, boiled it in one common pot, feasted upon it, and ate it all up together. At that feast they also carry the so-called "eiresione," which is a bough of olive wreathed with wool, such as Theseus used at the time of his supplication, and laden with all sorts of fruit-offerings, to signify that scarcity was at an end, and as they go they sing:
"Eiresione for us brings figs and bread of the richest, brings us honey in pots and oil to rub off from the body, Strong wine too in a beaker, that one may go to bed mellow."
Some writers, however, say that these rites are in memory of the Heracleidae, who were maintained in this manner by the Athenians; but most put the matter as I have done.
In trying to discover what legumes (pulses) were grown in Europe before New Worlds beans arrived, I found another article that said the broad bean or fava bean (Vicia faba) was the only bean (actually a member of the pea family) in Europe until Columbus brought beans from the New World. It has been found in Neolithic sites throughout Europe. I found articles that mentioned the Egyptians growing them. The Greeks had fava beans, lentils, chick peas (garbanzo beans), and peas. This means that the mixture of pulses that the crew of Theseus' ship mixed together for the first Pyanepsia was comprised of fava beans, lentils, chick peas (garbanzo beans) and peas. I suspect they would have added onion and salt and pepper and olive oil.
The Mediterranean chick pea is different from what we usually find here in North America. Here is a link to Purcell Mountain Farms showing the Mediterranean variety. Also, the fava bean has an enzyme that some people are allergic to. It is thought that Pythagoras had this allergy and hence the prohibition on beans (the one bean available-the fava bean). The gene responsible has beneficial qualities in resisting malaria. Here are some Indo-European lentil varieties that the ancient Greeks likely had: Petite golden lentils, Ivory lentils (Urad Dal)
Basic Bean Cooking Instructions for fava beans:
Pick over beans (legumes of the pea family) and rinse thoroughly in cold water. Place cleaned beans in a bowl of fresh cold water, cover and soak for 3 to 8 hours or overnight at room temperature; drain and rinse well. Or place beans in a saucepan with water of cover, bring to a boil, remove from the heat , and soak for 1 1/2 hours, drain and rinse well. Cook beans by covering with 2" of water, simmering 1 to 2 hours or until tender depending on size of the bean.
Cook the fava beans and garbanzo beans together. Bring to boil and add:
- bay leaves
- sea salt and black pepper to taste
- 3 chopped onions sautéed in olive oil until golden
- 1 cup olive oil
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
Boil for at least one hour until tender and add the lentils and dried peas for the last half hour.
This recipe is modified from a traditional Greek recipe and reflects the ingredients available in ancient times. Here is a link to ancient Greek foods which says the ancient Greeks did not have lemons and oranges.
Such a recipe may give us a taste resembling what the first offering may have tasted like and is fun to try, but is it traditional? It is well known form the many excavations that the ancients were very practical and used what they had available. Whether the rites are in memory of the Heracleidae or of the offering Theseus and his crew made to Apollon, the more compelling tradition would be for people to use a mixture of all the pulses they had in their homes just as the crew of Theseus' ship did. Thus, in a modern home with a much greater variety of pulses, an offering of a mixture of all the pulses one has would be a traditional approach in the spirit of the Pyanepsia.
This approach applies in other areas as well. People in ancient homes used the utensils and agalma (statues of the Gods) they had just as the offerings were part of the food they had. They gave of something that was likely more precious to them than our huge variety of food is to us. It is the intent of giving of making whatever you give as special as you can that is important to keep in mind as it is a gift filled with kharis (grace – giving with delight) and all the love and delight that goes with it. The utensils they used in prayer and libations, perhaps only an olive oil lamp and phiale, were what they had. We seek reproductions for their beauty, but simply using what one has, whether it is a candle and a shallow bowl and container for barley groats or whatever else we can assemble from our homes to enable us to give with kharis is in true keeping with tradition.
The recipe I provided may taste wonderful, but whatever recipe you use, make it as special as you can and offer it with kharis.