Beans in Ghost Lore

Beans have numerous associations with ghosts, the souls of the dead, the powers of the dwellers of the underworld and various spirits. The early Aryans valued beans highly, along with honey, as a food offering to the dead. Ancient Greeks associated beans with the souls of the dead and transmigration of the soul. The Pythagoreans would not eat beans, though the reasons may have been diverse. The Romans considered beans sacred and used them in various rituals for the dead, most notably during Lemuria, the May festival to propitiate and exorcise spirits of the dead, and during the Bean Calends on June 1, when beans were offered as food for the dead.

A traditional Japanese New Year’s ritual calls for using roasted beans to drive Demons out of a house. The head of the household dons his best clothing and walks through the house at midnight, scattering roasted beans and calling out, “Out Demons! In luck!”

American Indian traditions include rituals for beans, an important crop. The Iroquois performed dances for the bean spirit, one of the three key sister-spirits, along with corn and squash, which watched over crops and helped them grow. Similarly, the medicine men of the Papago, the Desert People of the American Southwest, led an annual fertility circle dance to help the beans, squash and corn grow.

Among the Hopi Pueblos, one of the most elaborate festivals of the KACHINAs (supernatural beings) was the Powamu (“bean-planting”), a ceremony in February which honored the return of kachina clan-ancients and purified and renovated the earth for planting. Beans were planted and forced to grow in superheated kivas (subterranean cult chambers). On the final day, the beans were harvested, tied in small bundles and distributed by masked kachina dancers to children.

Further Reading:

  • Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007