Pomegranate

 
A cluster of pomegranate fruit on a tree branch
 

Punica granatum

Mortality - Fertility - Abundance - Fruit of the Dead

The Pomegranate is a spiny, deciduous shrub or tree with red-orange tubular flowers that transform into large red fruits containing a multitude of seeds. Rich in Vitamin C and fiber, the seeds are eaten raw, canned, or added to warm dishes, and the juice is drunk as an early winter tonic. A sacred symbol of fertility, mortality, and the Underworld, the fruit has been associated with many Greek goddesses, including Persephone and Hera. Ripe in late autumn and considered a Fruit of the Dead, the fruit can be included in early Winter ceremonies celebrating the change of the seasons, honoring the ancestors, and reminding us of the inevitability of death. Modern Greeks give the Pomegranate (both the fruit itself and objects decorated with artistic representations of the fruit) as a gift of housewarming and abundance.

Index


The Pomegranate in the Wild & Garden

A Botanical drawing of the pomegranate

Latin binomial

Punica granatum

Plant Family

Punicaceae

Common English Names

Pomegranate

Common Greek Names

Ρόδι (ROE-thee)

Characteristics

Spiny deciduous shrub or tree; relatively hardy; drought-tolerant; can live up to 200 years; can be semi-deciduous or evergreen in very warm climates

Native Habitat

Persia (modern-day Iran to India)

Preferred Climate & Conditions

Full sun to partial shade. Hardy in Zones 7b-12. Can handle temperatures as low as -12°C (10°F). Typically found along the edges of fields and in gardens.

Typical Height and Spread

5 to 10 meters (16 - 33 feet) in height

Bloom Color and Character

Tubular red-orange flowers with three to seven petals in spring (late March to late May in Greece). Produces round fruit ranging in color from dark to pale red (late September to November in Greece). Fruit can reach a diameter of up to 12 centimeters (5 inches) and contains between 200 to 1400 sweet or sour seeds.

Common Diseases

Hardy and drought-tolerant plant with few pests or diseases; may experience root fungus or other fungal infections in damp and humid conditions; ants and fruit flies are attracted to the unharvested, ripe fruit

Notes on Propagation, Harvest, and Preservation

A Pomegranate fruit on a tree branch

Propagate: from cuttings or seeds

Grow: grows well in the garden as a single tree or as hedges; can be grown in containers; prefers full sun for flowering and fruiting, but may still produce blossoms in partial sun

Prune: prune in late winter, after last frost but before bud break; light pruning of suckers and small branches in late summer; pruning can be done to shape the shrub into a single trunk or to encourage its natural, bushing shape (3 to 6 trunks); for increased fruit production, encourage light and air flow to the center of the tree

Harvest: fruit is ripe in late summer or early autumn depending on the tree (typically around October in Greece); first-year wood will not bear fruit

Preserve: whole, uncut pomegranates will stay fresh for up to 2 months; once opened, the seeds should be consumed within the week or pressed into juice, canned into jams or relish, or frozen for future use

How to Cut a Pomegranate: the juice stains, so protect your clothes and items appropriately; slice off the crown and score the sides of the fruit in 4 to 8 places, separating it into thick slices; hold the fruit underwater in a bowl and use your hands to separate the seeds; the seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the inedible white membrane will float to the top where you can skim it off and add it to the compost pile; strain the seeds from the water and enjoy!


The Pomegranate in Greek Mythology

 
Cut open pomegranates on a wood table
 

Persephone and Hades

Perhaps the most well-known myth of the Pomegranate is that of Persephone, the young goddess who was abducted by the god Hades to be his bride in the Underworld.

Some say that the goddess was picking wildflowers, most notably the Narcissus, when Hades came upon her in a field and stole her away. Most accounts say that Persephone was taken against her will, a young maiden caught unaware by the lust and desire of another god.

When Persephone’s mother, the goddess Demeter, discovered that her daughter was missing, Demeter scoured the earth looking for her. Upon hearing that her daughter had been taken to the Underworld, she begged Zeus to intervene and return her daughter to the living world. Zeus agreed to help return Persephone, as long as Persephone had not eaten any fruit that grows in the Underworld.

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.
— Hesiod, Hymn 2 to Demeter

But Persephone had eaten a single seed from a Pomegranate tree that grew in Hades’s orchard. So she was bound to spend part of the year in the Underworld with Hades, and was allowed only to spend part of the year above ground with her mother.

Like a spring bulb that shoots forth new growth and then retreats into the earth again, Persephone returned to the earth in Spring and then retreated to the Underworld in Winter in a never-ending cycle. Demeter, being a goddess of grains and overseeing the fertility of the land, mourns her daughter’s absence each Winter. This explains the seasons: when Persephone returns to the Underworld, Demeter turns the earth barren and nothing grows until Persephone’s return in the Spring.

Persephone and Hades, British Museum [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)]

Persephone and Hades, British Museum [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)]

Thus, Persephone became a goddess of the Underworld, presiding over the dead as well as over those things that burst forth in the spring. It’s interesting to note that before her abduction, Persephone was considered a youthful virgin (and I would even say, naive) goddess, but after her initiation into the Underworld, she became a Queen in her own right, ruling equally beside Hades over the dead.

The Pomegranate thus became a symbol of mortality, fertility, and the Underworld. As the fruit is ripe in late autumn, it marks the return of Persephone to the Underworld and serves as a reminder of the inevitability of Winter death. But the Pomegranate’s multitude of blood-red seeds also symbolize the life-giving blood that springs forth from the darkness in Spring.

Askalaphos

Askalaphos was an Underworld daemon and orchardist of Hades’s pomegranate groves. He informed Hades that Persephone had eaten a seed from the fruit, thus binding Persephone to return to the Underworld each Winter. Demeter, in rage for his tattling on Persephone, buried him under a rock in the Underworld. Herakles later released him, but Demeter then transformed him into a screech owl, which became a sacred bird of Hades and messenger of ill omen.

Side

Side, whose name in Boeotia meant Pomegranate, was the wife of the Titan Orion. Boasting that she was more beautiful than the goddess Hera, Hera responded by banishing her to Hades and possibly transforming her into a Pomegranate tree. It’s interesting to note that the constellation of Orion returns to visibility in the night sky when the Pomegranate fruit begins to form and ripen.

The statue of Hera is seated on a throne; it is huge, made of gold and ivory, and is a work of Polycleitus. She is wearing a crown with Graces and Seasons worked upon it, and in one hand she carries a pomegranate and in the other a sceptre. About the pomegranate I must say nothing, for its story is somewhat of a holy mystery.
— Pausanias, Description of Greece
Zde [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Hera, Aphrodite, and other Mysteries

As the blood-red seeds and juice are potent symbols of fertility and menstruation, the fruit also came to be associated with the goddess of marriage, Hera, and the goddess of love and sensuality, Aphrodite.

It is also interesting to note the similarity in shape of the Pomegranate fruit to the Poppy capsule, another important herb of chthonic significance and life-death symbolism to the ancient Greeks.

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The Pomegranate in Magick & Ritual

Mortality - Fertility - Abundance - Fruit of the Dead

Pomegranate fruit on the tree against a light blue sky

The Pomegranate is a powerful symbol of mortality, fertility, and the seasonal cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. Its multitude of seeds and the blood-red juice of its fruit are a potent reminder of the abundance of the earth.

As a Fruit of the Dead, the Pomegranate can also be featured in any ceremonies celebrating those who have died, whether they be our human or non-human Ancestors. Like the fruit that must die in order for new life to spring forth from its seed, we acknowledge the life-giving force of death.

Most of us live in a culture that is afraid of death, darkness, and mourning. We fail to acknowledge the importance of quietude and rest, and instead obsess over ideas of eternal growth and unceasing productivity.

The Pomegranate can act as a reminder of the gifts of Winter: quietude, rest, release, peace. Like the seed, life must always incubate in the dark before new growth can be actualized. By acknowledging the necessity of death and letting go, we give honor to the quietude of Winter, just as equally as we praise the dream of Spring.

A whole pomegranate on a black background

The Pomegranate can also be featured in rituals commemorating the personal deaths that we face as we grow older: the death of our childhood, of relationships, of careers, of identities. Like Persephone who journeyed to the Underworld as a maiden and returned as a Queen, we acknowledge our personal deaths and mourn the parts of us that we leave behind as we mature. But also like Persephone who ate only one seed, we symbolically retain a kernel of our old self as we pass from one state of being to another.

Pomegranate’s dual nature, as a symbol of life-giving fertility and death, is still acknowledged even by modern, Christian Greeks. As a symbol of abundance and good luck, artistic representations of Pomegranates are often given as housewarming gifts and placed on the home altar. Pomegranates are also included in a traditional mourning food called kolyva, made from boiled wheat, and given to commemorate the dead at memorial services.

Parts Used

fruit and seeds, fresh or dried

Safety

fruit seed and juice considered generally safe to consume

Elemental Correspondence

Chaos; Cosmos

Seasonal Celebrations

Dark Night: New Year

Altar

As a powerful symbol of mortality, the Pomegranate can be a central feature of all Dark Night: New Year altars. Place the seeds in a special dish, offer the pressed juice in a goblet, or add the fruit itself to your altar space as a symbol of life-blood, abundance, and the necessity of death.

New homes and spaces can also be decorated and blessed with artistic representations of the Pomegranate, either in the form of artwork, statuary, or dried plant materials.

A pomegranate fruit with a crystal glass of juice on a white background

Ritual

Include the Pomegranate in Dark Night rituals celebrating the Ancestors. As a Fruit of the Dead, a special meal can be prepared from the seeds, honoring those who have passed and left in offering to your human and non-human Ancestors.

Rite of passage ceremonies can also feature the fruit as a symbol of death and rebirth. Eat a single seed as a reenactment of Persephone’s choice, or drink from a special goblet of the juice as an act of acceptance and willing participation in the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Offer thanks to the life-giving abundance that is symbolized in its multitude of seeds and the blood-red juice of its fruit.

Or sit before a Pomegranate tree, enter a state of quietude, and contemplate the nature of your own mortality. Reflect on those that have died, both your human and non-human ancestors, whose life-blood made it possible for future generations to flourish.

Devotion

Whether before your altar or the living tree, hold the fruit or juice in your hands and read the following devotion:

Pomegranate, blood of our Ancestors,
You hold the abundance
Of all past and future generations
In the seed chamber of your heart.

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The Pomegranate in the Kitchen & Apothecary

A pomegranate with a crystal glass of juice on a white background

Parts Used

seed, rind, flower

Culinary Flavor and Use

Each pomegranate fruit contains anywhere from 200 to 1400 seeds. They can be eaten raw or added to salads, relishes, jams, and dips, or mixed into warm oatmeal, ice cream, or meat dishes. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the seeds are added to kolyva, a mourning dish of boiled wheat traditionally offered at memorial services for the dead.

The juice pressed from the seeds can be drunk raw, frozen for later use, made into wine, or used as a base for glazes and sauces.

The thick rind can be used as a dye, creating a yellow-brown color.

The oil from the seed can also be used in cosmetics as it is easily absorbed into the skin.

Traditional Medicinal Applications

The pomegranate seed is a wonderful source of fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate, and antioxidant flavanoids and is praised for its anti-inflammatory properties.

Pliny the Elder notes that even the rind, dried and ground up, as well as the flowers, were used medicinally for a variety of ailments in antiquity.

Safety and Drug Interactions

Seeds and juice considered safe to consume.

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