(Essay) Τhe Mysterious Pomegranate, the Goddess and the New Year by Harita Meenee

The pomegranate is a fascinating New Year symbol that goes back to antiquity. Connected to goddesses such as Persephone and Aphrodite, it was also adopted by Christianity and folk traditions. Yet this many-seeded fruit can have a deeper, esoteric meaning that’s particularly relevant to our times. © Harita Meenee

I grew up in a household richly decorated with pomegranates, whether real or artificial. My mother loves the form of this fruit though she rarely eats it. It resonates with both of us. In Greece, where I live, pomegranates made of various materials have a prominent position among the Christmas’ and New Year’s decorations. Sometimes they are used as ornaments throughout the year, as well. They function as lucky charms since their wealth of seeds signifies abundance.

The pomegranate has also been a long-standing fertility symbol. Its blood-red juice and many seeds could easily turn it into a metaphor for the womb. George Thomson, an English classical scholar and Marxist philosopher who researched pre-patriarchal traditions in Greece, believed that the color of this fruit was associated with women’s blood.[1] It’s not surprising then that the pomegranate is commonly connected to goddesses.

This fruit was sacred to Hera, the Queen of Olympus and protectress of marriage. Pausanias the traveler, a Greek author who lived in the Roman Era, attests the following: her splendid statue in Argos, in southern Greece, made of gold and ivory, portrayed her majestically seated, holding a scepter in one hand and a pomegranate in the other.[2]

b2ap3_thumbnail_Aphrodite-with-pomegranate-800x670.jpg
Aphrodite holding a pomegranate Modern replica of an ancient statue with silver pomegranate in the front.

I was delighted to discover that this fascinating fruit is also associated with Aphrodite, a goddess that has always held a special place in my life. Athenaeus, a Greek writer who lived in Roman times, wrote that the pomegranate tree was “the one and only tree that Aphrodite planted in Cyprus” (Deipnosophistae 3. 84c). Cyprus was considered the homeland of the Goddess of Love. A sacred garden was dedicated to her there, revealing her connections to vegetation and fertility. (See also my essay “The Secret of the Sacred Garden”)

Yet it wasn’t only these two goddesses for whom the pomegranate held a special significance. In a well-known myth narrated in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone, the goddess’s daughter, is abducted by Pluto, King of the Underworld. Eventually, he is persuaded to let her free, but before she leaves, he gives her a few pomegranate seeds to eat. Since this fruit is an emblem of Hera and Aphrodite, of marriage and love, her action means that she will return each year to spend the dark, cold months with her husband.[3]

This yearly journey symbolized the cycle of nature. Persephone represents the vegetation which disappears in the winter only to be born anew each spring. In the Great Mysteries of Eleusis her Sacred Marriage was celebrated, along with the birth of Iacchus, her Holy Child.[4]

The pomegranate retained its life-giving attributes in the modern Greek tradition. In the late 19th century Belgian geographer Henry Hauttecoeur wrote that the inhabitants of Icaria Island in the Aegean Sea used the following medication: they warmed up a pomegranate in the fire and extracted its seeds; then they rubbed them strongly on the sick person’s body. He also reported that the people of Icaria lived long, up to 100 years, without the help of doctors or medicines![5]

Another Greek custom survived up to modern times: in New Year’s Day a pomegranate was sometimes broken in front of the house door in order to ensure abundance, health and good luck for the whole year. The breaking of a pomegranate in front of the house door could also be performed at other times. For example, it was used in some places of Greece at the 1st of September, as a magical means to avert death. It was believed that on this day Kharos, the personification of Death (akin to the ancient Charon), determined who was going to die during the year. The breaking of the pomegranate was also used in the past by newly-weds, probably to ensure the couple’s fertility. It can be traced as far back as the Homeric times.[6]

b2ap3_thumbnail_Madonna-Pomegranate-Botticelli.jpg
Detail of Madonna of the Pomegranate by Sandro Botecelli ca.1487

Not surprisingly, the powerful symbolism of the pomegranate was not lost to the Christians. In the Catholic Church it’s considered as an emblem of both the Virgin Mary and the Church. It’s often used in religious decoration in fabric or metalwork. This fruit also appears in Renaissance paintings. Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and other famous painters have placed it in the hands of Mary or baby Jesus.In theory the pomegranate is an allusion to Jesus’ death and resurrection: the seeds bursting forth from the pomegranate are likened to Christ emerging from the tomb. Yet in reality, it’s one of the many Pagan and Goddess motifs that managed to survive through the centuries. Not far from Paphos, the Cypriot city whose main goddess was Aphrodite, now stands the Greek Orthodox Chrysoroyiatissa Monastery, dedicated to Mary; its name is often interpreted as “Our Lady of the Golden Pomegranate” (although there are other suggestions about its meaning too).

Today the pomegranate is considered by many to be a kind of superfood, rich in antioxidants. Some claim that it even has the power to protect against serious diseases like cancer. Since research regarding its health benefits is limited, the growing popularity of this fascinating fruit may in fact reflect the profound symbolic meaning it has held since ancient times.

Carl Jung believed that the pomegranate, when it appears in dreams, is analogous to the phallus as an emblem of fertility and healing.[7] Yet fertility is not always something  physical. It can refer to the mind and its creative powers or to the psyche, pregnant with archetypes. It can also pertain to the heart and its abundance of love. I take the pomegranate to be a very special Goddess symbol of our inner riches. Its seeds are our wisdom, joy, and the ability to bring about change. Let’s plant our seeds into the world this New Year so we can eventually transform it into a sacred garden of Aphrodite…

Notes

[1] George Thomson, Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean, trans. Yiannis Vistakis (Athens: Kedros, 1989), 150 (1st edition published in 1949).

[2] Pausanias 2. 17, 4.

[3] Homeric Hymn 2, 371-4, 393-403.

[4] Dimitrios N. Goudis, The Mysteries of Eleusis, 2nd ed. (Athens: Demiourgia, 1994), 48-58, 65-6. Cf. the hymn to Iacchus in Aristophanes’ Frogs.

[5] Henry Hauttecoeur, “Les îles de l’ Archipel,” 1896, quoted in Nikolaos M. Tsangas, The Island of Icaria in the European Travelers (Athens: Eleusis, 2003), 139.

[6] Stratos Theodosiou and Manos Danezis, The Year Cycle: Astronomy and Mystery Cults (Athens: Diavlos, 2004), 90, 154.

[7] C.J. Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy, Vol. 16, The Collected Works, 2nd ed., ed. H. Reed, M. Fordham, and G. Adler, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York: Routledge, 1966) 157 (1st ed. 1954).

Top image: Proserpine (Persephone) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874

http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-culture-blogs/mythic-wisdom/pomegranate.html

(This essay is included in Celebrating Seasons of the Goddess.)

(Meet Mago Contributor) Harita Meenee

 

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