Prepare for pomegranate-smashing!

The pomegranate, a violet, segmented yummy plum, exquisite and worth the wait. Mythical Hades, god of the underworld, used pomegranate seeds, a sign of fertility, birth, and rebirth, to lure Persephone, goddess of spring, for a few months every year. (EZM)

Persephone has seen the dead, married their king, eaten three or four or seven seeds of his pomegranate. Her mother, the harvest goddess Demeter—having been flattened by grief, having refused to let new crops grow until her daughter returns, having starved mortals until the gods fear no one will survive to leave offerings, having, in another version of the myth, convinced Zeus to make Hades give Persephone back—welcomes home a changed girl, wizened and spooky, uneasy in her mother’s empire of green. A married girl who hears and speaks of a world Demeter can’t understand. “The voice is paler than the lips it leaves,” says Demeter in Edith Wharton’s retelling, her joy fading to confusion.

Pomegranates are unusual fruits, “no more than a closet of juicy seeds,” as Jane Grigson describes them. Poets have been known to compare those seeds to jewels. Cracking open a pomegranate does feel a bit like lifting the lid of a jewelry box, in expectation if not sensation—unless one tears open a jewelry box in a defensive posture, anticipating a spray of red. Within the split rind, an ornate pattern, edible and glistening.

According to Jewish lore, the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, one for each mitzvah. For millennia across Europe, Persia, and Asia, in Buddhist, Islamic, Judaic, and Christian traditions, pomegranates have been invoked as a symbol of fertility and sometimes smashed in bridal chambers to encourage the birth of many children. In The Unicorn in Captivity, a medieval European tapestry one can inspect before touring the quince grove at the Met Cloisters in Manhattan, a unicorn sits within a low-fenced pasture beneath a pomegranate tree. He looks content in captivity, a symbol of fertility and marriage and the fertility of a soul’s marriage with Christ. The unicorn appears to be bleeding from wounds of the hunt that chained him to this tree. On closer inspection, the wounds don’t bleed—they weep seeds. The blood is pomegranate juice.

The earth where we raise our crops is the dirt where we bury our bodies. Pomegranates represent this same contradiction, this complete cycle: life and death and life again, returning new, returning transformed.

Prepare for some pomegranate-smashing! An ancient custom continued to this date, crushing and consuming a pomegranate’s tinted nutritious juice on New Year’s day. (EZM)

From The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo. Used with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.