Divine Pomegranate

How a peculiar fruit captured hearts and imaginations across the world.

Divine Pomegranate

How a peculiar fruit captured hearts and imaginations across the world.

It wasn’t long ago that I ate a pomegranate and relished it for the first time. Not that it was the first time I had tried the fruit.

Before I was eight, my mother gave me a pomegranate sliced into halves to eat with a toothpick. She told me not to make a mess because the juice stains. So I sat for a long time, stabbing each ruby jewel — as if the only way to eat a pomegranate was painstakingly carefully. Mum was struggling to recall an ancient story about the goddess Persephone who was tricked by the cruel god Hades into eating pomegranate seeds and forced to live in the underworld for six months of the year, which explains why there are no fruits or flowers in winter.

I listened but the story failed to spark my curiosity. Like most children I approached any new food with suspicion. Foods I knew and enjoyed I took for granted, never asking where they came from or how they were made.

Why would you be curious about a pomegranate? It has a tough leathery pericarp with an antique hue. A spongy inner wall conceals a complex of white chambers, home to glassy clusters of well over a thousand crimson juicy arils.

As in all plant species, if you look closely enough you’ll find mesmerising complexity. Every one has a unique history encoded in its genetics. With genome sequencing we can know precisely where a plant originated and how it has evolved over millennia. But this pomegranate story isn’t about the actual plant, rather what it has meant to people.

In other times and places, the pomegranate captured many hearts and imaginations. Ancient poets praised the tree from fruit to flower; it was mythologised by pagans and sanctified by both church and state. The pomegranate has been a symbol of profoundly spiritual aspirations of the human race. Decoding the symbolism reveals more about the state of our belief systems than about the fruit. An important need has been satisfied by this tradition: our ancestors might have given cherished plants special meanings in order to describe their uses and make a personal claim to them. When scientific truth is absent, myth is king.

In the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, the pomegranate is a metaphor for worldly temptations that bind one to the underworld. In non-western versions of Adam and Eve, the pomegranate appears as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden — a metaphor for desire and sin.

These stories explained the dawn of human history and birth of the seasons. They conveyed major beliefs about good and evil, life and death. Today, they also reveal the disconnection between the stories we ascribe to fruits and their actual stories.

The taste of pomegranate is temptingly delicious. When you bite on the crisp clusters they burst with a sweet and tart flavour, quenching your thirst like ripe berries or wine. But would its wild ancestor have been so enticing to our taste buds?

Studies of plant genes describe the wild ancestors of fruits as mostly bitter or sour, or with tough or stringy textures, and sometimes they were downright poisonous. The wild pomegranate is no exception.

Fruit has undergone a long yet subtle journey of cultivation and selective breeding to achieve perfect forms and flavours. Hybridisation also plays a part, occurring randomly according to changes in climate and soil, for better or worse. These historical interventions ended up with the tasty varieties we enjoy, and elevated the importance of many fruits, lending them grander mythical status. In every case, the symbolism seems to take its own route, ignoring the fruit’s cultivated evolution.

From Judaism to Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Islam, the pomegranate symbolises fertility, resurrection, death, eternal life and love. Nowhere in the genetic story do we find a correlation with these human conditions. So why did our ancestors ascribe it these complex meanings?

The pomegranate originated in the Arabian Peninsula and was one of the earliest cultivated fruits — also a prominent ingredient in local cuisines. From ancient Egyptian tombs, the Hebrew Scriptures and Zoroastrian temples, the pomegranate was lavished with spiritual meanings. The Persian poet, Rumi, in the 13th century, gives the pomegranate the meaning of joy and love, the highest attainment of the human spirit:

A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.

For Zoroastrians, the pomegranate was a symbol of immortality and perfection in nature. In Iran, Esfandiyar eats pomegranate and becomes an invincible hero. An-shih liu was a favourite among classical Chinese poets for its uniquely beautiful red flower with healing virtues.

What is it about the pomegranate that captures so many poetical hearts? One clue might be found in the intersection between science and culture called medicine. From the 2nd century BC the pomegranate travelled the Silk Road and appeared simultaneously in ancient pharmacopoeia in India, China and Southern Europe. The pomegranate became a prized health commodity and all parts of the plant were traded for use in medicine.

Modern clinical trials confirm that pomegranate fruit is good for health and contains some important compounds.

Soft drinks companies were quick to exploit the correlation. POM Wonderful built a multimillion-dollar company on the statement “pomegranate juice is packed with antioxidants that keep your heart healthy.” The Food and Drug Administration later warned the company against misleading consumers and promoting the juice as a life-saving drug.

Despite losing the case in 2016 the company’s sales continued to increase annually, outperforming its nearest competitor by more than ten times. Behind their continued success is a lingering belief that drinking pomegranate juice will slow prostate cancer, shrink tumours, reduce cholesterol and rejuvenate an ageing heart. POM Wonderful’s zealously marketed statements have the hallmarks of mythology.

Pomegranate symbolism might be understood as a form of propaganda and advertising: a story that people want to believe that masks a less comfortable reality. Let’s look at a well-documented example.

In Tudor England it had long been customary to assign a motif of a wildflower or an important crop to a governed county. These botanical emblems were worn as “heraldic devices” for the purpose of propaganda. The Tudor rose was formed of two cultivars of wild dog rose (Rosa canina) and united the two most powerful factions in the court of Henry VIII.

The pomegranate makes a dramatic appearance when Catherine of Aragon from Spanish Granada married Henry VIII in 1509, the first of his six wives. Catherine claimed the pomegranate as her heraldic crest: a symbol, by then, of the indissolubility of marriage and fertility, associated as it was with the biblical Tree of Knowledge.

Her family had conquered the Kingdom of Granada during the 13th century, where pomegranate trees flourished in abundance (and still do), like oranges in Seville. The pomegranate had been at the centre of religious ritual and worship long before Catherine’s birth, making it a natural choice for her emblem.

At court the symbol was pervasive: Queen Catherine’s supporters wore a small pewter pomegranate badge; the fruit was also depicted in embroidery and the Tudor rose coat of arms was combined with depictions of the fruit. In an ironic twist, Henry VIII divorced Catherine on the grounds that she could not produce him a male heir, and in doing so he broke with the Catholic Church in order to marry his Protestant mistress Anne Boleyn.

The failure to unite the dynasties of Spain and England in the 14th century diminished the power of the pomegranate emblem with the dissolution of marriage and, subsequently, the Catholic order. By the end of the Tudor period in 1603 a spiritual connection had been forged, nonetheless. The greatest culmination of pomegranate symbolism was just on the horizon.

The new dawn came in the reign of Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter, during an era of world exploration. As new trade routes opened up with previously unexplored territories, shipments of exotic plants and valuable goods came to England. For the first time it seemed tantalisingly possible to improve the quality of life for all. The pomegranate’s association with extravagance at court was over. Its symbolism would gain a new lease of life in the Puritan kitchen and herb gardens.

Puritanism was a socio-religious movement that sought to cleanse society and its institutions of the “corrupting influence of church and state”. A key feature was an egalitarian vision for a protestant utopia in the image of the Garden of Eden. Mass-produced pamphlets advised lining the streets with varieties of fruit and nut trees to alleviate food poverty. It followed that imported plant species from across the Atlantic Ocean became a big commercial enterprise. However, although they tried hard, the Puritans ultimately failed to cultivate the pomegranate along with other valued fruit trees. Religious thinking dominated all earthly pursuits: such failures were always taken as a sign of God’s abandonment.

Was it not because of the pomegranate that we are fated to endure winter? In the Greek myth which my mother tried to recall, Hades kidnapped Persephone and took her to his underworld kingdom.

By eating pomegranate seeds she was bound to him for eternity. Persephone’s mother, the corn goddess Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter. While she was unhappy, no crops or flowers grew and the soil was infertile. King of the gods, Zeus, decided something had to be done and worked out a compromise: Persephone would live with Hades for half the year and the other half with Demeter. And so Persephone’s return from the underworld each year is marked by the arrival of spring and regeneration.

Had England succeeded in recreating Eden with the pomegranate at its heart, the country might have achieved a level of agricultural self-sufficiency that would have changed the course of history. It would be another two centuries of increasing globalisation before trade caught up and enabled an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables — including the pomegranate — all year round.