Timycha was a Pythagorean philosopher from the Spartan colony Tarentum. She and her husband joined a group of Pythagorean pilgrims who followed the teachings and ethics of that school.
One day they were journeying to Metapontum when they were invited to visit the court of Dionysius the Elder, who wished to discuss philosophy with them. The band of pilgrims knew that Dionysius was a tyrant and did not trust his intentions, so they refused the invitation and carried on their way.
The cruel king was hugely insulted, and sent his soldiers to capture the philosophers and bring them to him by force. Timycha’s group was attacked, and though they could have easily escaped by running through a field of beans, their religious beliefs forbade them from trampling upon the plants. They tried to get around the field, but were overtaken by Dionysius’ soldiers and slaughtered. Only Timycha, who was heavily pregnant, and her husband survived to be brought to the King.
Dionysius heard the story of the bean field and became curious about the taboo. He questioned the couple, who refused to speak. Pythagoreans did not share their beliefs or the teachings of Pythagoras with just anyone, and Timycha and her husband stood firm. Eventually Dionysius ordered that Timycha be tortured until she gave up the secret.
He had hoped that this would frighten the philosopher into giving up, but Timycha was made of sterner stuff. The story goes that she bit off her own tongue and spat it at the King’s feet as a show of defiance. Now he would never know.
History too, was deprived of this knowledge. There is no consensus on why the Pythagoreans avoided trampling the bean field. We do know that Pythagoras taught that all life is sacred, and his followers were vegetarians for this reason, though they were not permitted to eat beans. One theory for this is to do with the shape of the bean, and the belief that it served as a vessel to carry souls from the afterlife back to earth. Belief in reincarnation was fundamental to Pythagoreans, so the bean may have been a powerful symbol to them.
It’s not clear what happened to Timycha or her husband after this unusual incident, though they were likely put to death. Her story was told for many years by Pythagoreans and she was used as a model of courage and hailed as a martyr for the cause.
The Philosophers of the Ancient World: An A-Z Guide – Trevor Curnow
Explaining Pythagorean Abstinence from Beans – James Dye