Sunday, March 15, 2015

Plant Story -- Pomegranates, Punica granatum, in Story and Symbolism

A myth started me looking up pomegranates.

In Granada, Spain, last fall, the guides explained that Granada was named for pomegranates, granada in Spanish, and that the Moors had brought pomegranates to Spain. Which I heard as "the Moors brought pomegranates to Europe" since they introduced many Middle Eastern and Asian plants to Europe by planting them in Spain.

But I knew that pomegranates played an important role in Greek the Moors couldn't have brought pomegranates to Europe.

Pomegranates appear in mythology all over the Old World. Bright red flowers, big fruit full of seeds--everyone noticed them.

The mythology produces just fragments when you ask "what are the oldest stories?" Pomegranates were domesticated in the area of the southern Caucuses and Iran. Zorastrian stories and ceremonies frequently use pomegranates. Founded by the prophet Zoraster of Persia (Iran) about 3,500 years ago, Zorastrianism is regarded as the first monotheistic religion and continues to be practiced in the Middle East and, especially, India. In the story of Zoraster's life, the Shah Gushtasp created his son Aspandiar an unbeatable warrior to fight for Zorastrianism by giving Aspandiar a pomegranate seed, which made his body "invulnerable as a stone." (See translation).

pomegranate flower
pomegranate flower
Modern Zorastrianism uses pomegranates in ceremonies including welcoming babies and weddings. Pomegranates also represent the vegetable creation of god, as the egg represents the animal creation. (Uses of pomegranates in modern Zorastrianism link).

Ancient Egyptians grew pomegranates. They were introduced to Egypt from Persia by at least the time of Thutmose III 1504-1450 BCE (link), and 1600 BCE is often quoted. Egyptians embraced them and made them a symbol of prosperity  and ambition. They were frequently painted on tomb walls and buried with the dead: clearly they were something you wanted in the afterlife.

The Hebrews knew pomegranates from Egypt. When Moses led them into the wilderness, they complained "Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink." (Numbers 20:5) but Moses had sent scouts ahead who "came to the valley of Eshcol and from there cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole between two men, with some of the pomegranates and the figs." (Numbers 13:23). Indeed, pomegranates grew in the Promised Land.

The Hebrews held pomegranates in high esteem. They were one of the Seven Species (with wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives and honey, staples of life). Because they flower between Passover and Pentecost, they were suitable as offerings at the Feast of Tabernacles, in celebration of the harvest. As decorative themes, pomegranates alternated with golden bells on the robes of priests and were carved on the pillars at the doors to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today they appear on Torah scrolls in remembrance of the Temple. Pomegranates are commonly used celebrating Rosh Hashanah because their 613 seeds correspond to the Torah's 613 commandments.

The shape of the top of a pomegranate was the source for the shape of King Solomon's crown, and crowns across the world since then have used that shape. Which led to pomegranates being associated with the Five Books of Moses because those are called the Crown of the Torah. 

It was a story from ancient Greece that sent me on this chase, however. I knew that the Greeks knew about pomegranates, so the fruit must have been in Europe well before the Moors invaded Spain (8th C AD).

Not only do pomegranates appear in Greek mythology, they are part of the explanation of why we have seasons:

Hades, god of the underworld, greatly desired and then kidnapped the goddess Persephone. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and the harvest. Devastated, Demeter put all her energy into finding her daughter. While she wandered distraught, crops failed.

The state of the world became desperate. Zeus, king of the gods, had to intervene. He told Hades to return Persephone.

However, in the underworld, Hades repeatedly tempted Persephone with delicious foods. Hades knew that if you ate something in the underworld, you had to stay. Persephone weakened--just once--and ate a pomegranate seed.

(I found versions of the myth that said one, four, six or "some" seeds and could not find a version I thought most authentic. Note also a point that always bothered me: apparently, being a goddess, Persephone could survive for months without food.  Or, you don't need food in the underworld.)

But there was the Rule: eating anything in the underworld commited one to staying there.

one pomegranate seed
one pomegranate seed
And yet the death of plants due to Demeter's distress was intolerable.

Seeking a solution, Zeus ruled that Persephone must spend part of each year with Hades. Thus, part of the year Persphone is with her mother on earth, part of it with Hades in the underworld.

While Persephone is with Hades, every year,  Demeter mourns and crops do not grow. The various versions of the story say there are four months of winter or six. The former is more appropriate for the climate of Greece. One month per seed seems harsh but fair to me, while several months or half the year seem an awfully stiff punishment for one pomegranate seed. On the other hand, she had eaten something and Zeus gave her an option that others wouldn't have gotten.

Whatever the details, eating a pomegranate seed, small but irresistably delicious, explained winter in Greek cosmology.

In Roman mythology, Persephone is called Proserpina and Demeter is Ceres but the story essentially the same.

Granada, Spain currently embraces the pomegranate, having it as the city's name and on its coat of arms. However, the city's Moorish name was Karnattah (Gharnāṭah), thought to mean “hill of strangers." That certainly sounds like, or could have morphed into, Granada, a familiar plant name.


Across the world, pomegranates represent both fertility--from the number of seeds in the fruit--and the female body and/or birth based on the red color.

In Christianity, the red juice symbolized the shed blood of Christ and the fruit was seen as the church holding within it all its people.

Pomegranates went east to China along the Silk Road by 135 AD. The Chinese loved them for the red flowers and made them the subject of romantic poetry. The most inauspicious day of the Chinese year is the 5th day of the 5th month. Women traditionally wore pomegranate flowers on that day to ward off bad luck.

I conclude pomegranates traveled the Old World, generating symbolism and stories everywhere they went.

Comments and corrections welcome.

More on pomegranates LINK

References Accessed 2/12/15
Dunmire, W. W. 2004. Gardens of New Spain.University of Texas Press, Austin. print. Says clearly the Moors brought pomegranates to Spain.
Food Pomegranates Link Lots more wonderful pomegranate information! Accessed 2/12/15.
Krutch, J. W. 1976. Herbal. David R. Godine, Publisher. Boston, MA. print.
Valder, P. 1999. The Garden Plants of China. Timber Press, Portland OR. print.
van Wyk, B-E. 2005. Food plants of the world. Timber Press, Portland Or. print. 
see also links in the post itself.

Buy the Book! Give it as a gift! This story and thirteen other plants from around the world are told in Curious Stories of Familiar Plants from Around the World. Available on Amazon link.

Kathy Keeler

1 comment:

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