The pomegranate is a fruit-bearing deciduous shrub, widely considered to have originated in Persia, modern-day Iran, and to have been cultivated since ancient times. Herodotus, for example, informs us that during the Greco-Persian Wars, the Persian soldiers carried spears adorned with golden and silver pomegranates instead of spikes (Herodotus, Histories 7.41). The pomegranate fruit has been used throughout history and in virtually every religion as a symbol of humanity’s central beliefs and ideals, namely, life and death, rebirth and eternal life, fertility and marriage, and abundance.
In Ancient Greek mythology, the pomegranate features prominently in the story of Persephone and her marriage to Hades, the god of the Underworld. Hades kidnapped Persephone and took her to the Underworld to be his wife. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of fertility, considering her daughter lost, went into mourning and thus all things on earth ceased to grow. Zeus, Persephone’s father, commanded his brother Hades to release her, however Hades had tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds, and it was the rule of the Fates that anyone who consumed food or drink in the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Since Persephone had eaten the six pomegranate seeds, she had to remain in the Underworld for six months of the year. Hades agreed to release her to the world above for the other six months of the year, to be reunited with her mother. This is how the ancient Greeks explained the cycle of the seasons: when Persephone was with her mother, the earth flourished and the crops grew (Spring and Summer); when she returned to Hades, Demeter mourned and the earth was infertile (Autumn and Winter). As a consequence, pomegranates were often offered to the goddess Demeter in prayer for fertile land.
The pomegranate was also associated with the Aegean Triple Goddess, who evolved into the Greek goddess Hera; in Polykleitos’ cult image of Hera in the Argive Heraion, she is portrayed with a sceptre in one hand and offering a pomegranate in the other as an emblem of fertile blood and marriage, and a substitute for the narcotic capsule of the opium poppy. In some Greek dialects, the pomegranate was called rhoa, thought to be connected with the name of the earth goddess Rhea, mother of Hera. The pomegranate also features extensively in almost all of the great religions. In Judaism, pomegranates were the fruits that were brought to Moses to demonstrate the fertility of the promised land, and King Solomon is said to have designed his coronet based on the fruit’s serrated crown-like calyx. It is traditional to consume pomegranates at the festival of Rosh Hashana (New Year) because the pomegranate, with its numerous seeds, symbolizes fertility. In Christianity, too, the pomegranate appears incorporated into religious decoration, for example, woven into vestments or liturgical hangings. It is also a common emblem used in religious paintings, including those by Botticelli and da Vinci, where it is usually seen in the hands of the Virgin Mary or the infant Jesus. Depicted bursting open,it simultaneously signifies Jesus’ death and suffering as well as his resurrection and eternal life
In Islam, the Qur’an mentions that pomegranates grow in the gardens of Paradise, and in Hinduism and in Persian and Chinese culture, the pomegranate is also considered a symbol of fertility and procreation, associated with earth goddesses. Today, the pomegranate still has strong symbolic significance for the Greeks. At important festivals in the Greek Orthodox calendar, including Christmas Day, it is customary to adorn the table with pomegranates (known as ‘polysporia’ meaning ‘many-seeded’) and on New Year’s Day it is traditional to break a pomegranate on the ground. On moving into a new home, house guests traditionally bring pomegranates as a symbol of abundance, fertility and good luck for the new owner.
Author: Alexandra Hamburger for It’s All Greek.