Friday, November 6, 2009

Mythology Series: Pomegranate

Whenever I break open a big, heavy pomegranate (Punica granatum), admiring the scattering of its brilliant, wine-coloured tangy-tasting seeds, I can't help but cast my mind to the myth of Persephone and Hades, the chthonian deities forever linked with this autumnal aromatic feast. Its name deriving from the Latin (pomum for apple ~meelo in Greek~ and granatus for seeded, resulting in the Italian melograno) reminds us that, like apples, this is another fruit that is forever associated with tales of darkness, corruption, death and rebirth.

In Greek, pomegranate is called ρόδι (RHO-thee) which is extremely close in both sound and sight to ρόδο (RHO-tho, i.e. rose) ~indeed its proud russet colour reminds me of scarlet roses that hide thorns and shadows beneath their flamboyant beauty.

The pathways which introduced pomegranate to the Aegean were the same as the ones that brought the goddess whom the Anatolians worshipped as Cybele and the Mesopotamians as Ishtar (namely what became Aphrodite...). The cult of Persephone however (or Kore or Cora ~young maiden~, as she was celebrated in the Eleusianian Mysteries of ancient Greece along with her mother Demeter, the secret initiatory mystery rites of regeneration at Eleusis) traces a darker path of death and rebirth, the same path that nature seems to go through with the turning of the seasons. While Hesiodus in his Theogony considers her a daughter of Demeter (goddess of the harvest) and Zeus, other scholars ~among them Gunther Zuntz (1973)~ attribute the cult of Persephone to a continuation of Neolithic or Minoan Earth Mother goddess-worship. Walter Burkert includes that "reading" of this archetype in his definitive Greek Religion (1985). Mythology expert Karl Kerenyi went as far as to identify Persephone with the "mistress of the labyrinth" at the Minoan palace of Knossos in Bronze Age Crete (circa 1700BC)!

In ancient writers she is the parthenogenic daughter of Demeter, recalling shades of other deities who sprang through an immaculate conception, such as Athena and Jesus. The philosopher Plato on the other hand calls her Pherepapha (Φερέπαφα, from the Greek words φέρω ~to bring~ and επαφή ~touch) in his Cratylus, "because she is wise and touches that which is in motion". The Romans took the name from the Greco-cities of the Italian peninsula southernmost extremity as Proserpine (Προσερπινη, Proserpinē) and borrowed her cult as Proserpina. It is under that guise that Persephone inspired the artists of the European Renaissance, when classical antiquity was revisited with a vengeance. It is enough to cast our eyes to the paintings of the Great Masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli to admire the pomegranate into scenes of sunset-drenched beauty.

But perhaps the most popular myth concerning Persephone, the one that ties her with the autumnal crepuscule into winter and the flamboyant pomegranate, is the one about Persephone's abduction by the dark prince of the underworld, Hades or Pluto, brother of both Zeus and Poseidon:
"As she was gathering flowers with her playmates in a meadow, the earth opened and Hades, god of the dead, appeared and carried her off to be his queen in the world below. ... Torch in hand, her sorrowing mother sought her through the wide world, and finding her not, she forbade the earth to put forth its increase. So all that year not a blade of corn grew on the earth, and men would have died of hunger if Zeus had not persuaded Hades to let Persephone go. However, before he let her go Hades persuaded her eat three seeds of a pomegranate, and thus she could not stay away from him forever. So it was arranged that she should spend two-thirds (according to later authors, one-half) of every year with her mother and the heavenly gods, and should pass the rest of the year with Hades beneath the earth.... As wife of Hades, she sent spectres, ruled the ghosts, and carried into effect the curses of men." (source: Encyclopedia Britannica)
The pomegranate became her inextricable tie with the world of the dead, the somber world of shadows. In a patriarchal reading of the myth, the abduction becomes the motif of marriage, the submission of the primordial female to the male, reminding us of the comparable survival of that theme in the Abduction of the Sabines tale by the Romans.
The demise of the earth-worshipping of the mother goddess in the now industrialised city of Eleusis, near Athens, is what inspired the Greek composer Manos Hatjidakis and Greek poet Nikos Gatsos to come up with this ritualistic lament named "Persephone's Nightmare" (sung by Maria Farantouri); its somber introductory bars of music a homage to the fragmented ancient classical Greek music:

"There, where mystics joined hands reverently
on entering the sacrificial site,
now tourists throw tab ends
and gaze at the new oil refinery.
Sleep Persephone in earth's embrace,
to this world's balcony come out no more"

It is no coincidence that in today's Greek culture the offerings to which all participants partake in the Christian Orthodox memorials of the dead still consist of agricultural products, in the form of a sweet named κόλυβα (KO-lee-vah); made of boiled shredded wheat, cast sugar, various nuts and raisins and indeed ...pomegranate seeds! A small pagan homage to Persephone who sealed her fate by tasting the fruit of the underworld. It is assumed that like her, the connection of the dead with the living will be possible.
But it's also a reminder of the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom, the pomegranate being a symbol of the fullness of Jesus' suffering and his resurrection, finding its way into religious decoration liturgical vestments and hangings as well as art, such as this Madonna of the Pomegranate by Sandro Botticelli.
In a reverse case of exorcising the spirits of the other side, another Greek custom enacted on New Year's Day, demands that the first person to step into a home bringing the tenants luck (what's called ποδαρικό from the Greek word for foot, πόδι) crashes a ripe pomegranate with their right foot: the scattered seeds are respresenting the flooding of good things to come. Like the Qur'an says, pomegranates are among the good things the merciful God creates!

Fragrances with pomegranate notes are delightful for this time of the year when the fruit is in season: From the darkish, mysterious Pomegranate Noir by Jo Malone and the arrestingly unusual Grenates by Keiko Mecheri with its angelica running thread, to the more standard-fruity-juicy Euphoria by Calvin Klein and Tropical Punch by Escada, pomegranate scents run the gamut all the way to the incensy Melograno by Santa Maria Novella. The lists includes Moschino's Couture, the elegant Ferré Rosé, Tocca's subtle Touch and the spicy-cuminy oriental Aziyadé by Parfum d'Empire . Others yet reference the scarlet beads as grenadine: In Baby Doll by Yves Saint Laurent it is married it to complimentary bittersweet grapefuit, in Ma Dame by Gaultier it's used as a neon accent in a flashy composition and in Heiress by Paris Hilton, alludes to her cocktails sipping activities, I guess.

Today pomegranates are cherished for their complex textural and aromatic nuances ranging from the peppery to the lightly tangy all the way to the nectarous sweet and for the bright juice they bring into several recipes: One of these embodiments takes the role of grenadine, the name of a fruit syrup popular in Gallic cultures, originally made from pomegranates (the French word for pomegranate being grenade), used as a cordial and in numerous cocktails as well as in a number of Iranian recipes. Hence also comes the name of one of the most majestic cities of Spain, the regal Granada! One of the most delicious uses of pomegranate syrup in cooking is in muhammara, a roasted red pepper, walnut and garlic spread consumed in Turkey and Syria, while the Azeri people of Goychay, Azerbaijan devote a whole festival to the fruit's charms drenching them in wine and dance.

If you want to try pomegranates in an easy and aromatically titilating dish, I recommend you my personal recipe for Pomegranate Seed Salad:

You will need some young lettuce leaves (preferably bought when it's very cold so they "hold" and are crunchy), a peeled apple (I prefer Starkins), a heavy pomegranate, extra virgin olive oil and aceto balsamico di Modena.
Chop the apple in small pieces, wash and cut the lettuce leaves in thin slices in a plate and sprinkle over the two the pomegranate seeds, the ensuing juice that drips from the fruit. Finally drizzle the whole with olive oil and balsamico to your taste. Serves 2.
Extremely yummilicious, visually welcoming and quite filling!
Bon appetit!

Pomegranate photo via and painting of The return of Persephone by Fred Leighton and Madonna with the Pomegranate by Sandro Botticelli, all via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Pomegranate Seed Salad by Elena Vosnaki (click to enlarge)


  1. This information is wonderful!! I've always loved pomegranates-- they portend autumn, and are a ritual to open and eat. I read about them as a young girl when I went through a manic Greek/Roman myth phase-- the story of Persephone left quite an impression on me.

    I've been spending quite some time with Jo Malone's "Pomegranate Noir," trying to think what to say about it, other than to say, it's delicious!

    Then I tried Yosh "U4EEAH!!" the other day, and that had a WONDERFUL pomegranate note. (How funny that CK "Euphoria" does as well-- I must go find it!!)

    Thank you for the inspiration!

    Rita @leftcoastnose

  2. Anonymous15:37

    Dearest E,

    I haven't the patience to eat pomegranates but when asked for my favourite colour, the first image that comes to mind is the deep, glossy, jewel-like red of the seed. When I need some peace and quiet to get supper on the table, I open a pomegranate for my two youngest sons and for an hour there is complete silence as they methodically pick out and eat every last seed. The sight of their little baby faces covered in droplets of the red juice is alternately alarming and amusing.

    Thank you for bringing a smile to my face as I read your post and thought about my boys' passion for the pomegranate.


  3. Fiordiligi16:12

    Delicious post in more ways than one, dearest E, and what lovely foody mentions too.

    My favourite pomegranate scent is of course SMN Melograno, and the soap is possibly the best in the world.

    I love the Persephone connection, too, of course. Thank you!

  4. "sound and perfume
    swirl in the evening air!"
    I just can't remember now title of LES fleurs du mal poem but it is the first thing that came to my mind after reading your magnifique post.
    You guide our minds in the labyrinth of History, VirgileE.;
    we see the garnet seeds of Persephone shine in the eyes of an ancient bust of Ishtar.
    How it is fascinating to understand that the latin soul needed the greek Sapience as the Melograno word tell me.
    Thank you so much :)

  5. Thank you for yet another informative post on a topic far off the beaten track. Nice.

    And yes, Pomegranate Noir by Jo Malone is a good one indeed.

  6. Mike Perez18:33

    Pomegranates is a staple in my home and my little nieces and nephews think they're just the most exotic little things they've ever seen. Peeling them is mesmerizing to their little brains (and can also be a big mess).

    Tip: Fill a bowl full of water and peel the pomegrante underneath the water - thereby avoiding splashes of the juice. Works beautifully!

    Another scent with a tiny pomegranate note: White by Comme des Garcons, one of my very favorite warm weather orientals.

  7. My son adores pomegranates and now I feel compelled to try the recipe for the salad. As for the fragrances, Melagrano is such a warm incensey delight. The surprise for me is Ferre Rose. I wear it in the summer for it's light rose and watermelon notes (surprisingly well-done) but I never detected pomegranate!

  8. Rita,

    so glad you understand the fascination!! It's quite a myth eh? The food of the underworld and all that... :-)
    And thanks for your kind words!Now upon your recommendation I should track down a little Yosh U4EEAH to sniff.

  9. Natalia,

    you're most welcome; how lovely of them, indeed small children get very occupied with those wonderful little things, don't they? Simply adorable images!!

    Ah I'm a little more enthusiastic with pomegranates myself, I just use a spoon to chuck out all the seeds and end up eating some of the peppery "skin" as well left on them. It's all well :-)

  10. D,

    thanks darling!
    Melograno is a very individual scent and would love to buy the soap as well. Soaps are such an underrated commodity these days, eh?

    PS. We scored!! ;-)

  11. R,

    I think you're spoiling me, I could live with the nickname "VirgilE", hehehe!!

    Your mention had me going through Baudelaire ~just HAD to look it up again~ and I think the exact quote is "The scent and sounds all swirl in evening's gentle fume; melancolic waltz and languid vertigo!" (Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir;
    Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!)from Harmonie du Soir How could Perfume Shrine be complete without this exact quote, I can't understand! Thanks for mentioning it!

    BTW, the Graecano (γραικανικά) of South Italy fascinate me!! That and the Cypriot dialect are the most resilient survivals of the ancient Greek language, simply amazing.

  12. Michael,

    off the beaten track is something we very much like ;-)

    Thanks so much for commenting! Good to see you here.

  13. Mike,

    I bet they're fascinated, it's a lovely process eating them. And yup, your tip sounds perfect for kids.
    (Myself, I just like for the juice to dribble all over my chin ;-O )

    Noting down to retry White!!

  14. Anonymous20:30

    Wonderful post - and I thought I just read these blogs for information about perfume! Thanks for the musical links too.

    A fond childhood memory is of my mother, or a friend's mother, standing us on chairs in front of the kitchen sink so the juice would have somewhere to drip as we opened and ate pomegranates. Haven't had one in years, just that photo made my mouth water!

    I'll have to seek out some of these fragrances, since I honestly don't think I'd be able to identify a pomegranate note.

  15. M,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting! Do try the recipe, it's easy peasy and very yummy indeed (the crunchiness of the ingredients makes for a nice diversion and the sweet and lightly sour is perfect for those with a sweet tooth!)

    The Ferres (very well done all of them as you know better than me!) are generally subtle and I admit that it's the weakest of the pomegranates-dominant frags mentioned. But it's there, if you close your eyes and sniff your arm about 20 minutes into spraying. (at least it is to me)

  16. Patty,

    thanks, great compliment!

    Lovely visual and practical advice on how to eat them, no doubt, LOL!

    I find the note in frags very similar to the fruit, it's synhesized in the lab ;-)

  17. ...ah but why not, I like it VirgilE!
    Lucky are we again, YouTube will help find other songs from Maria Farantouri; she has a beautiful voice, none of those high pitched soprano coloratura shrieking my ears to death.
    Yes!! this is it! Harmonie du soir, such a beautiful poem et
    merci to share the recipe, all our senses are pleased !
    Graecano and Cypriot languages are unknown to me. I lack the classical education so have any notion of greek language. The older i get though, the more i am tempted to at least take a beginners course at uni to be able to read a few words here and there and understand the pronounciation ;-)
    Cheers, V

  18. Ah, one of the post genres I love from you, E...let's see where the pomegranate will take us, through history, perfume, and what have you. :) Very much enjoyed it, as always.

    Only somewhat tangential...Aziyade is the one perfume I can think of where I smell the cumin as cumin, and actually enjoy it. Am going to see if I can spend some time training my nose to find pomegranate in perfumes...

  19. stella p14:48

    Thank you for this very interesting, and sensual piece about this fascinating fruit, I love the mythological treads that you unwind!
    (The name is granateple in my language. I couldn´t understand why this is called an apple, but then I read somewhere that eple/apple probably was used as a general term for fruit - it was the prototypical fruit - in Northern Europe.)
    I haven´t tried any of the pomegranate scents, but Twinings white tea & pomegranate is one of my favourite teas :)

  20. The post is great (as usual) but the recipe sounds really yummy! :)

  21. Rappleyea14:31

    You wrote: "In a patriarchal reading of the myth, the abduction becomes the motif of marriage, the submission of the primordial female to the male..."

    Let's give it a matriarchal reading as in the older versions of the myth, the goddess rescued the male! Ah, men and their revisionist history. ;-)

    Great piece and SMN's Melograno has long been on my "to sample" list. Now you've reminded me to get to it!

  22. Anonymous01:14

    i've always loved pomegranates. the juicy seeds are like jewels to me! that incredible color! and that ever-so-slightly green and bitter taste on top of the sweetness is just heaven. if only they weren't so hard to prepare... but they're worth it.

    yummy! minette


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