acrylic painting of a pomegranate

Pomegranate – History and Mythology

I had my first pomegranate at around age seven. It was weird, messy, and fun. I enjoyed spitting out the seeds after sucking every last bit of fruit pulp from them. The pomegranate remained an occasional novelty throughout childhood; however, it wasn’t until adulthood that I learned of its rich and controversial history dating back thousands of years. Listed below are some tidbits from my readings about the pomegranate’s symbolism. More detailed information is available from numerous books and articles. I’ve listed the my sources cited at the end of this post.

Womb and Fertility Symbol

The word pomegranate evolved from the Latin pomum, which translates to apple or fruit, and granatum, meaning many seeds. The pomegranate’s red color, suggestive of menstrual blood, along with its prolific seeds, made it a powerful symbol of womanhood and fertility throughout the ancient world. Many rituals involving the pomegranate took place during marriage ceremonies. In ancient Armenia, brides were given pomegranates to throw against a wall. The scattered seeds meant many children. The Bedouins of the Middle East also used the pomegranate in their wedding celebrations. The bride and groom would break open a pomegranate as they entered their new home. The new couple would then eat the seeds hoping for an abundance of children. In China, pomegranates were thrown on the bedroom floor of newlyweds’ homes because they felt the bursting of the fruit and scattering of the seeds would produce a fruitful marriage.

Persephone and Underworld

One of the most well known myths associated with the pomegranate is the abduction of Persephone by Hades, the ancient Greek God of the Underworld. This classic Greek myth has a number of interpretations. This is one version in summary.

Persephone was out gathering flowers and noticed an enticing narcissus growing by itself in the field. When she picked it, the god Hades rose from the ground and took her to back to the Underworld. The only witness to her abduction was Hecate, the Goddess of Crossroads. Hecate told Demeter, the Goddess of Grain and Persephone’s mother, what had happened. Demeter became extremely depressed causing the crops to wither and the world to become barren.

Eventually, Zeus, the king of the Gods, intervened and ordered Hades to return Persephone to Demeter so that the world would not starve. Hades allowed her to return, but not before Persephone ate a few pomegranate seeds he offered her. Eating foods of the Underworld was forbidden and whoever consumed them would have to remain. By eating them her return to the Underworld was guaranteed; however, she only had to stay for part of the year because she consumed so few. When Persephone is in the Underworld, we call this portion of the year Winter, a time of barrenness, said to represent Demeter’s grief while she is separated from her daughter.

In the myth, I feel the pomegranate symbolizes choices and our commitment to the outcome of those choices. Not everyone will be happy with our decisions in life and the final outcome has possibility of being both unexpected and painful. Choosing, however, always leads to new growth, understanding, and perhaps a new direction in life. Persephone became the Queen of the Underworld, something she likely did not expect when she picked that unusual flower.

Pomegranate as the Forbidden Fruit of the Christian Bible

Some researchers propose that the pomegranate was the actual forbidden fruit of the Christian Bible that Eve offered to Adam. The pomegranate has a long cultivation history in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions of the world where Christianity originated, not so the apple, making it a more probable candidate. Christianity, a monotheistic religion, eventually replaced Greek and Roman polytheism. Due to the pomegranate’s long association with femininity and Goddess worship, it’s possible that the androcentric writers of the Bible choose to associate it with disobedience to the new Christian god. Speculation and food for thought.

Reflection and Artwork

The myth of Persephone resonates with me deeply. I see it as a chosen journey and an awakening, rather than a forced abduction. She did not have to eat the pomegranate seeds; she made a conscious choice to eat them and by doing so completed her transformation into a self-actualized woman. To honor her journey, I created a series of digital illustrations depicting my vision of the myth.

Recipe for Pomegranate Sauce

Let’s put aside ancient history, myth, and symbolism for a moment and enjoy the culinary charms of the pomegranate. This is a basic recipe for pomegranate sauce. It’s great with grilled meats and vegetables, or drizzled over vanilla ice cream.

Ingredients:

6 Pomegranates
2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons lemon juice

Slice the pomegranates in half and extract the juice using a hand reamer. Discard the seeds. Add the juice and sugar to a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

Sources for Further Reading

Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives by Jean Shinoda Bolen

Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology by Tamra Andrews

The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects by Barbara G. Walker

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

 

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