11 Strange Habits of Geniuses

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Genius and eccentricity often go hand-in-hand. Here’s a sampling of strange habits practiced by some of history’s most respected artists, writers, and inventors.

1. PYTHAGORAS HATED BEANS.

Dubbed “the father of vegetarianism,” Greek mathematician Pythagoras is credited with popularizing a meatless lifestyle. But although he subsisted solely on veggies, he had no love for legumes. Pythagoras refused to eat beans, and even forbade his followers from ingesting or touching them. While we don’t know whether this aversion stemmed from health or religious reasons, it may have it led to his death. According to legend, attackers ambushed Pythagoras, and he refused to escape by running through a bean field.

2. BEETHOVEN KEPT A TUB OF WATER HANDY.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s process was almost as dramatic as his compositions. Beethoven was fond of writing in between visits to his washstand. He’d pace around a bit, then pour water all over himself—and his floorboards.

3. DEMOSTHENES HID OUT UNDERGROUND.

Demosthenes, a revered ancient Greek statesman, took the maxim “Practice makes perfect” to a whole new level. The orator rehearsed in an underground hideout for extended periods of time, according to an account by the historian Plutarch. He’d run through his speeches with stones in his mouth, and would occasionally shave half of his head to discourage himself from facing an audience before he was ready.

4. BALZAC DRANK 50 CUPS OF COFFEE A DAY.

Balzac might have owed his productivity to the copious amounts of caffeine he consumed, but the habit also came with a price. He was plagued by stomach cramps, headaches, and high blood pressure.

5. ANTHONY TROLLOPE TIMED HIS WRITING.

For a man who wrote only three hours a day, Anthony Trollope was quite productive. He churned out 250 words every 15 minutes—meaning by the time he was done working each day, he had produced 3000 words. And if he finished the book he was working on before his daily time allotment was up, he wouldn’t stop writing. Instead, he’d immediately begin another book.

6. STRAVINSKY DID HEADSTANDS.

Russian-American composer Igor Stravinsky stood on his head for 15 minutes each morning to “clear his brain.”

7. EDGAR ALLAN POE WROTE ON SCROLLS.

Edgar Allan Poe often wrote on thin strips of paper, which he glued together and rolled into scrolls for easier storage. He felt the medium better contributed to a work’s flow than a regular old manuscript (and, presumably, looked spookier).

8. DA VINCI AND TESLA SHUNNED EIGHT-HOUR SLEEP SCHEDULES.

Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla adhered to alternative sleep schedules. Leonardo was said to have followed the polyphasic cycle, which means he took multiple short naps every 24 hours. Meanwhile, Tesla only rested two hours a day.

9. TESLA DID TOE EXERCISES.

Speaking of Tesla, the inventor had another strange habit: He’d curl his toes 100 times per foot every evening before going to bed because he thought the practice boosted his brain cells.

10. BEN FRANKLIN TOOK “AIR BATHS.”

Before he began the day’s work, Benjamin Franklin would spend up to an hour taking naked “air baths” at his open window.

11. KIERKEGAARD, NIETZSCHE, AND WOOLF WORKED STANDING UP.

Søren Kierkegaard, Lewis Carroll, and Virginia Woolf all wrote standing up. Woolf, who believed that writing was merely painting with one’s words, would often position herself at a lectern, next to her artist sister Vanessa’s easel. Friedrich Nietzsche would have approved; he slammed his pal Gustave Flaubert in a letter for the writer’s affinity for lounging during working hours. “There I have caught you, nihilist!” he wrote. “The sedentary life … is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.”

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas

“No one fears Santa the way they fear Belsnickel.” - Dwight Schrute.
“No one fears Santa the way they fear Belsnickel.” - Dwight Schrute.
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The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Year's Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: The punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names.

1. Krampus

A Krampus figure in Heimstetten, Germany.FooTToo/iStock via Getty Images

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on the region and what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. In recent years, the tradition has spread beyond Europe, and many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. Jólakötturinn

A representation of Jólakötturinn in Iceland.Atli Harðarson, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat; in fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this was mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores. A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. Frau Perchta

A Bohemian depiction of Frau Perchta from 1910.Wikimedia // Public Domain

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. Belsnickel

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. Hans Trapp

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. Père Fouettard

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. The Yule Lads

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls, that is.

8. Grýla

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this list originally ran in 2013.