Winter is heaving its final gusts of biting wind. Late February is homestretch territory. Sunny days begin to outnumber overcast ones. The thaw has not started yet, but its back is about to crack under the sun.
Spotting a punchy ripe pomegranate in the grocery store from December through February reminds me of spring pleasures. I purchase the fruit, take it home, pry it open with a knife. Splitting it down the center, I begin to pull it apart. This takes eager hands and no fear of that red juice dribbling down your arm onto your clothes, dying them.
It’s the burst of blood-red that signals change afoot. Spring will arrive. Flowers that wind themselves around iron gates will bud and bloom. There will be more weddings to attend, more engagement announcements to hear. Babies will be taking their first breaths. One day when I least expect it, I will breathe in that smell of spring and soil. Persephone has returned.
Persephone, the goddess of the Underworld and Spring. She’s accustomed to that Spring habit of rolling from death to rebirth. The symbol of pomegranate seeds is often paired with her and represents life, regeneration, and fertility.
Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. The most famous myth about Persephone is the story of her abduction. The ruler of the Underworld, Hades, saw Persephone picking flowers in a field and decided he had to have her. As she reached down to pluck her next flower, Hades parted the earth. It swallowed her whole, delivering her to him in the Underworld.
When Persephone’s mother, Demeter, found out about her daughter’s disappearance, she was distraught and immediately set out to find her daughter. She neglected all her duties to find her. Since Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and fertility, the earth grew barren. People began to die from famine.
Needing to put an end to this, Zeus decided to help. He sent Hermes to the Underworld to fetch Persephone and bring her back to Demeter. They would be reunited on Mount Olympus.
During her time in the Underworld, Persephone swore not to eat or drink anything. However, either on her own accord or, more likely, after being tricked by Hades, Persephone had tasted a single pomegranate seed before leaving the Underworld. This, according to the ancient laws, forced her to remain in the Underworld. This broke Demeter and Persephone’s heart once again.
Zeus proposed a compromise: Persephone would spend two-thirds of the year with her mother, and one-third with her new husband. And that’s how the seasons were born and how the growth of crops are explained through Greek mythology.
Like seeds we plant in the fall, Persephone spends a few months of the year below the earth. Demeter’s grief coincides with the dark, winter months. When the time comes for Persephone to go back to her mother, Demeter brings back the light and the warmth of Spring. She is overjoyed.
When I first saw the pomegranate at the marketplace in Italy, I couldn’t tell if it was a fruit or a bejeweled ruby orb worth thousands of dollars. I’d often see a stripped naked pomegranate, sitting regally on a juice vendor’s display, tempting to be plucked off the stand. When I saw it displayed like this, I knew I had to have it.
Behind the vendor’s display is a woman or man working very hard. Beads of sweat form on their brow as they juice the next citrus or pomegranate. As they are sweating and grinding the pomegranate to a pulp against the juicer, they are singing the fruit’s praises. “You need this juice!” “This is the freshest juice … the most delectable juice … in the world!” Your throat smolders with a thirst.
After hiking the Amalfi coast in mid-December, I had caught a cold. This pomegranate juice would be my curing elixir. Walking around with a cold in the hustle and bustle of Rome days before Christmas made me want this juice even more. Each day leading up to December 25th we passed through Campo di Fiori. And each day, I got a big cup of pomegranate juice from the vendors. It was better than medicine.
Months before sipping this elixir, I had seen pomegranates everywhere in Florence, not just beckoning at the market.
An Ancient Fruit
One weekend while living in Florence, we decided to head up into the surrounding hills, into the small town of Fiesole. The town is five miles northeast of Florence. It sits above Florence on hills and has the best views of the city from high above.
Fiesole was founded between the 9th–8th centuries BC. The first recorded mention of the town dates to 283 BC. It references the town (then called Faesulae) being conquered by the Romans.
Being such an old town, they have an archaeological museum. In the Etruscan section of the museum, there was a small trinket that caught my eye.
It appeared to be a person wearing a cone-shaped hat and holding something. The exhibit card told me what they were holding was a pomegranate. It never ceases to amaze me how little bits of history survive and are found millennia later. Yet we lose socks in the dryer.
About a week later we went to an artisan market in Florence. I saw a jewelry maker selling necklaces and one caught my eye. It was a pomegranate split open with little seeds popping out. I’d rarely seen pomegranate jewelry that looked so recognizable. It was a pomegranate split down the middle revealing ruby seeds. I said the word pomegranate to the jewelry maker and she said back, “La Meligrana.”
The Forbidden Fruit
The pomegranate at the Fiesole museum isn’t the only pomegranate that’s survived for thousands of years. There is a very famous little pomegranate that lives at the Israel Museum that’s even older. It’s not actually made of ivory, but hippopotamus bone. Its inscription says, “Holy (Sacred) to the Priest of the House of God (Yahweh).” Scholars and appraisers still can’t decide if it’s real or not. It dates back to the 13th Century BC.
Some historians and archaeologists believe this pomegranate topped King Solomon’s High Priest’s scepter. If authentic, the ivory pomegranate may have been the head of a scepter from King Solomon’s Temple – and the only surviving relic from the Temple.
Solomon was a big fan of pomegranates. In the Bible, the Song of Solomon is full of pomegranate references:
Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely. Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate. (NIV, Song of Solomon 4:3)
Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates with rare spices–henna and nard … (NLT, Song of Solomon 4:13)
Come, my beloved, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom— there I will give you my love.
In Song of Solomon, the body is associated with fruit. The pomegranates in Song of Solomon show that love is synonymous with consumption. Perhaps Solomon and the Greeks were onto something. According to a 2011 study conducted by Queen Margaret University researchers, drinking pomegranate juice was found to lower cortisol levels, which leads to increased testosterone in both men and women. When testosterone levels are elevated, moods – as well as sexual desires – are heightened.
The forbidden fruit we know as an apple may actually be a pomegranate. Proponents of the theory that the Garden of Eden was located in the Middle East suggest that the fruit was actually a pomegranate, indigenous from Iran to the Himalayas. In Islam, the pomegranate is seen as a paradise fruit:
“There is not a pomegranate which does not have a pip from one of the pomegranates of Jannah in it.”
Jannah is the paradise garden where Adam and Eve lived.
Like the cycle of the seasons, many cultures take ideas and rebirth them anew. In Renaissance paintings we see Mary holding a pomegranate, representing resurrection and the Virginity of Mary. Was Persephone replaced with a “Mary”?
The pomegranate seems to have become sacred in at least three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Rumi gives us pomegranate shopping advice while also singing its sacredness:
If you buy a pomegranate, buy it laughing (and open-mouthed) so that its laughing may give information about (the state of its) seeds.
Oh (how) blessed is its laughter, since it is showing (its) heart by means of (its) mouth, like the pearl [of the soul] from the (open) box of the spirit.
I’d love to say from the moment I bought the necklace I never took it off and it lies against my beating heart to this day. But that’s not true. I suspect it broke off its clasp somewhere between Thailand and Cambodia and that was the end of that. I have no idea where it went. Maybe it fell like a seed into the dirt somewhere waiting to be discovered 2,000 years from now. It will become someone else’s little treasure, their vessel for meaning and feelings they can’t put into words.