P is for… pomegranate. In the beginning, there were flowers all year around. Vegetables grew throughout the year; the climate was always temperate; trees put forth their fruit for the full twelve months. The goddess of the harvest, Demeter, walked the earth with her enchanting daughter Persephone. Wherever they wandered seeds and bulbs sprung up beneath their bare feet.
From his lair underground, beyond the Styx and the sunlight, Hades, god of the underworld, burned with love for Persephone. One day, while Persephone rested by a babbling stream, he burst through the earth and stole her away down into his subterranean world. Demeter was distraught. She trod the earth with a heavy heart and a heavy foot. Flowers ceased to bloom, crops to grow. She searched for her daughter in all four corners of the earth, but to no avail. People starved.
Eventually Helios – the sun god, who sees all – took pity on Demeter and told her where Persephone had been taken. Demeter fled immediately to the underworld, determined to bring her daughter back.
Meanwhile, under the ground, Persephone was wasting away. Racked with misery, wretched, she would not eat or drink. She grew weak and wan. However much Hades coaxed her, she would not touch a morsel of food. Then one day, faint with hunger, she accepted a small handful of pomegranate seeds.
As she was halfway through the seeds, Demeter appeared – majestic and furious. She demanded the rightful restitution of her daughter. Hades smiled lazily. ‘I’d love to be able to give her back,’ he said. ‘But, you see, she’s eaten my food. By the rules of the underworld, she must now dwell here forever.’
They quarrelled and rowed, and the earth above grew cold and drab. Zeus, king of the gods, saw that the mortals had no food and decided to intervene. ‘Now look here,’ he said. ‘We can’t go on like this. People will die. As Persephone only ate half of the pomegranate seeds, the rule only half applies. She will stay with you, Hades, for six months of the year. The other six she will spend with her mother.’
So, when Persephone makes her way up to the earth, the buds burst and the leaves unfurl. Mother and daughter laugh and talk and stroll the bountiful earth. But, come autumn, Persephone must prepare for her descent back to Hades. The trees shed their leaves to mimic Demeter’s sobbing and the ground grows cold.
It is thanks to a pomegranate, then, that we have seasons. This Greek myth dates back to the Eleusinian mysteries, around 1500BC, but became part of the classical Ancient Greek canon. And the pomegranate still features heavily in Greek tradition. They are part of the Christmas day festivities, and are a traditional moving-in present for newlyweds as they bring fertility and luck.
It is not just in Greece that pomegranates populate myths and folklore. Jewish tradition has it that crowns are modelled on the calyx (the pointy bit at the top) of the fruit. It was pomegranates that scouts brought back to Moses to demonstrate the fecundity of the Promised Land. Some scholars believe that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate (see also: apple).
King Solomon had a pomegranate design carved into the columns outside his holy temple. The Song of Solomon contains the beautiful words: ‘Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.’
Pomegranates adorned the coins of Judea. The 613 seeds that a pomegranate is said to contain correspond to the 613 commandments of the Torah. And the mystical experience of Judaism is called ‘entering the garden of pomegranates.’
In the first mosaic depiction of Christ (located, weirdly, in Dorset), from the fourth century, Jesus is flanked by pomegranates. Botticelli and da Vinci used the fruit in their paintings; burst, it is symbolic of the fullness of Jesus’ sufferings.
In Armenian weddings, the bride throws a pomegranate against a wall and the scattered seeds promise fertility. In China the character for ‘seed’ is the same as ‘offspring.’ Tehran has an annual Pomegranate Festival in October. And the Tamil word for pomegranate (maadulampazham) means woman’s mind, which is thought to be full of hidden seeds.
In England we’ve been going through a love affair with pomegranates ever since the publication of Ottolenghi in 2008. No north London dinner party is complete without the stuff scattered on every course, from hummus and stew to ice-cream. This trend has made us forget the symbolic potency of this exotic fruit. But next time your roasted squash comes with a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds, think of Persephone.