The pomegranate emerged from the cradle of civilization. From the earliest records of humanity, this most ancient of fruits grew in abundance throughout the fertile lands of the Arab world and the Mediterranean. Its deep red color and glistening crimson seeds inspired images of blood and death. Its perceived abilities to lengthen life and restore vigor made it a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead. For many, the pomegranate was even revered as the chosen fruit of the gods.
There has never been a fruit so filled with hope and despair. What may at first glance appears to be simply a food for the exotic palate is actually a historical tie between ancient civilizations and cultures.
The Pomegranate in Hebrew and Christian Mythology
To the early Hebrews, the pomegranate’s seeds were an affirmation of their faith. Each pomegranate was believed to contain exactly 613 seeds, a number that corresponds with the number of commandments in the Torah. This belief was once so strong that the Old Testament directs for the pomegranate’s image to be woven into priestly robes.
According to many Biblical scholars, the pomegranate was also the original fruit from the Garden of Eden, making it the representation of all that is forbidden. One taste of its ripe seeds and all knowledge of death, sex, and sin are suddenly clear. However, this didn’t stop early Christians from venerating the fruit. Christian iconic paintings often depict the Virgin Mary with a pomegranate either in her hand or nearby. In this way, it was used to demonstrate the Virgin Mary’s power over life and death, as well as the seed that bore the son of God.
The Pomegranate in Ancient Greek Mythology
Ancient Greek mythology is also filled with images and legends of the pomegranate. Perhaps its most famous myth is that of Persephone. This beautiful maiden was desired by Hades, who decided that she would be his wife and companion in the dark world of the dead. To this end, he kidnapped her and brought her to live with him for eternity in the underworld. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, was so distraught that she caused every plant on Earth to die. To avoid a catastrophic loss of all life, Zeus commanded Hades to allow Persephone to return to her home. However, before she was able return, Hades tricked her into eating four seeds from the pomegranate, an action that condemned her to life in the underworld for four months out of every year.
Another somewhat dark perspective of the pomegranate’s powers is evident in the Greek myth of Orion’s wife. She was very beautiful, even rivaling the beauty of Zeus’s wife Hera. For her daring to compete with Hera, her children were killed and she was persuaded to believe herself the culprit. In agony, she threw herself from a cliff. The location of her blood was where the first pomegranate tree grew.
The power of the pomegranate does not stop with ancient lore. In the modern-day traditions of many Greeks, it is customary to adorn the holiday table with pomegranates. They are set out in honor of the fertile land and its bounty. Pomegranates may also make an appearance during weddings, funerals, and New Year celebrations.
Pomegranates and Fertility
The fertile images evoked by the spilling seeds of the pomegranate are some of the most powerful in history. The Greeks consider the pomegranate to be a symbol of abundance—a fruit that spills over in plentitude and good luck. In Armenia, the pomegranate is often served at weddings to symbolize fertility for the new couple.
Ancient Arab women used the seeds of the pomegranate to predict their own fertility. The pomegranate would be dropped in the center of a circle drawn on the ground. As it broke open, the number of seeds that landed outside of the circle was indicative of the number of children the woman would have.
Ancient Syrians named a god, Rimmon, after the pomegranate. This god is marked by his transcendence of death, all the while attended by various fertile females, nymphs, and goddesses.
Pomegranates and Death
The pomegranate’s deep red juices have also inspired legends. Because it is capable of breaking open and spilling forth red liquid, the pomegranate is, in a sense, able to bleed. Many early civilizations therefore linked it with the transformation of life during birth and death. This also carried over into goddess worship, wherein the “blood” of the pomegranate was much like the life-affirming menses of maidens.
In Buddhist legends, a demon-woman was cured of her love of eating children through the deep red juices of the pomegranate. In ancient Persia, the pomegranate was believed to bring invincibility to battle. Spears would be counterbalanced with weighted silver and gold sculptures of ripe pomegranates.
The Pomegranate Today
The pomegranate is a unique and mysterious fruit. Its lifelike ability to bleed, its association with abundance and life, and its ties to female seduction have made it a favorite with civilizations all over the world. It seems that no culture’s history is complete without a taste of the pomegranate.
Although these legends are less influential in today’s society, the pomegranate continues to reign as one of the most superior fruits on the market. With its bold flavors and rich colors, the pomegranate represents the greatest of all of Earth’s bounties.