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Winter Pomegranates

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

The peoples of Northern and Southern latitudes can relate to Christina Rosetti’s famous poem much better than those who live closer to the tropics, although those who endured Texas’ Snowpocalypse in February 2021 are entitled to be honorary members of the club!  The changing seasons may only cause very small variances to the food supply in our local supermarkets, but until recently (and in some parts of the world even today) the coming of winter had a profound impact on humans. Each winter must have been a test of endurance, resourcefulness, resilience. I can well imagine them:  tiny on the frozen landscapes with food stocks running low and a scarcity of game. Dreams of Spring. Wondering why the seasons changed, why they were subjected to the hardship. And wondering if they would survive to see the summer fruits. Perhaps rationalising in terms of the super-natural.

The Greeks told the myth of Persephone to explain the arduous, barren winter months.

Hades, God of the Underworld, wanted to marry Persephone. She was the beloved daughter of Zeus and Demeter the Goddess of Harvest and Agriculture and they loved her dearly, refusing offers of marriage from Apollo and Hermes to keep her with them. Hades desired her as his wife, so he abducted Persephone and took her to the Underworld. Of course, Zeus and Demeter demanded her return. Hades said he would only return her provided she had neither eaten nor drunk while she was there, since no one who has eaten the food of the Underworld may return. Persephone was so miserable while she was there that she had refused all sustenance, but Hades finally persuaded her to eat just a few delicious pomegranate seeds. His apparent kindness was a ruse to prevent her from leaving. Demeter was distraught at her daughter’s absence and she refused to let any plants or flowers to grow until her daughter returned to the earth. Ultimately, it was decided that she was to leave the underworld but that she must return for a few months each year. During those months, Demeter again mourns the loss of her daughter and we in her grief we have winter.

The myth has all the elements of a great story - a beautiful girl with protective parents, a villain, a fruit representing temptation, a high stakes bargain to be struck , a dysfunctional family (Hades was Zeus’ brother and therefore Persophone’s Uncle!) and a resolution which provides a neat explanation for an unexplained phenomenon. I’m not surprised that it survives and is told to this day.

The pomegranate symbolises many things, some being apparently contradictory. The numerous seeds mean it is recognised in many cultures as a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness. The Ancient Egyptians saw them as a sign of prosperity but because they were often buried with the dead to ease their passage to the afterlife they came to represent death too.

Temptation is forever linked with Pomegranates as the story of Persephone and Hades tells, and indeed there is a belief that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate. Yet they are seen as a symbol of righteousness in Judaism as they are believed to have 613 seeds which is the number of commandments, and as a symbol of the constancy of marriage. Perhaps one cannot be righteous or constant in the absence of temptation.

In Christianity, pomegranates represent resurrection and everlasting life, while the medieval depictions of the pomegranate associated with the end of a unicorn hunt where the unicorn is tied to a pomegranate tree and the apparent wounds are actually pomegranate juice dripping on the white flanks allude to the passion of Christ.

In Islam pomegranates are one of the trees in paradise, while in Zoroastrian myths a pomegranate would make a warrior invincible (much like the garnets on the armour of medieval knights).

Above all, since pomegranates grow in warm, dry regions they represent warmth, sun, a certain exoticism, summer, sweetness. What could be a more potent daydream in the depths of a frozen winter than the thought of breaking open a pomegranate to share with juice dribbling down chins?

So the symbolism of pomegranates is subtle, nuanced and all the richer for it. Everlasting life and death. Temptation and righteousness. Love and an indissoluble marriage which to our modern sensibilities could be considered coercion. A pomegranate personality is full of surprises. Someone with a generous heart, who is shy and passionate and quick-witted. They sound like an ideal person to have as a friend, an ally, a colleague or even a character in a story.

Greeks start the new year by smashing pomegranates to bring good fortune, luck, wealth and health. Let’s hope 2024 is a smashing year full of surprises and pomegranates and that the winter is short and mild.

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