Nightly She Sings on Yon Pomegranate-Tree

Pomegranate bloomsMagic and myth wind through the history of many foods.

At the crux of these stories the very mysteries of life clamor for explanation.

In the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, for example, it’s possible to feel the foreboding of ancient humans when the first chill kissed the air and darkness descended over leafless trees and barren fields.

Demeter and Persephone. Mother and daughter. Goddesses of Earth. Fertility.  Loss. Hope. A very human story, actually.

Pomegranates Frederic Leighton-TheReturnofPerspephone(1891)

Frederic Leighton: The Return of Persephone (1891)

But first let’s gather around the fire pit and let the old storytellers speak:

And when Demeter saw them, she rushed forth as does a Maenad down some thick-wooded mountain, while Persephone on the other side, when she saw her mother’s sweet eyes, left the chariot and horses, and leaped down to run to her, and falling upon her neck, embraced her. But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, her heart suddenly misgave her for some snare, so that she feared greatly and ceased fondling her daughter and asked of her at once: “My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and be honoured by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth Pomegranates one seedshall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men. And now tell me how he rapt you away to the realm of darkness and gloom, and by what trick did the strong Host of Many beguile you?”*

Persephone answered her mother by saying

… he secretly put in my mouth sweet food, a pomegranate seed, and forced me to taste against my will.*

Pomegranate.

Punica granatum or “seedy apple.”

Perhaps the “apple” of Eden, the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Paradise? “I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranates….” (Song of Songs 8:2)

Pomegranates market

Photo credit: Judy Baxter

Now languishing in food markets, scarlet mounds of womb-shaped pomegranates still shroud the seeds of that ancient myth. And yet the tough skin and multitude of seeds of this fruit gave birth to more than myth.

Art. Religion Literature. Cuisine. Through these, it’s possible to trace the journey of the pomegranate from Iran, where it may have originated, to the Mediterranean-like soil of California.

To be continued …

*From the Homeric hymns, Hymn to Demeter, 7th century BC.

For more about myth, see Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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