Bloody Hell

Eat me, Drink me

2007, Cibachrome, 125 cm x 189 cm

The pomegranate

About the pomegranate I must say nothing, whispered the traveller Pausanius the Periegete in the 2nd century, for its story is something of a mystery. This statement - so classicists assume - would point out that the pomegranate plays an important role in the Eleusinian Mysteries, ceremonies that were surrounded with many secret rituals to celebrate the cult of the goddess Demeter, her daughter Persephone and the god Dionysos. The pomegranate occurring in a Greek cult is not that surprising since cultural history has shown that this fruit always caught the imagination.

It is connected to widely divergent images as a symbol for passionate love, fertility and prosperity but also for blood, death and the underworld. The pomegranate is native to West Asia but the tree has been cultivated since early times in East Asia and the Mediterranean. Already in the third century BC the Greek philosopher Theophrastus gave instructions on growing pomegranates. It became a very popular fruit tree around the Mediterranean while many places were named after it among others the town of Granada. The pomegranate arils taste sweet and their juice can produces wine as well as a syrup called grenadine. The fruit membranes, rich in tannins are used by the Moroccans in tanning leather and the typical red colour is gotten from the flowers and juice of the fruit pulp.

Perhaps all human misery started with the pomegranate. According to many bible scholars it was not an apple but a pomegranate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that led to exile from the garden of Eden as Eve had given in to temptation. Anyway, if we had to lose our blissful state to a fruit, the pomegranate would be more obvious. Its intensely red arils that sparkle like rubies evoke even deeper and darker desires than the rather more common apple.

Genesis teaches that after eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, humans became aware of their nakedness, having gained a sexual awareness. Moreover as a result of their banishment from paradise, violence, bloodshed and untimely death emerged. Also for those reasons the pomegranate traditionally associated as much with sensual love as with blood and death would be a better candidate for the forbidden fruit.

Love’s symbolism is very apparent in the biblical book known amongst others as the Song of Solomon.
The lustful groom goes down into the garden to see whether the pomegranates are in bud and the beauty of the bride is praised as an orchard of pomegranates with pleasant fruits... In the classical tradition the pomegranate was dedicated to the goddess of love Aphrodite/Venus and the apple she gave to the handsome Paris was probably that of the pomegranate.
In modern Greece, the pomegranate is still given as a token of love while in Persian love poems the pomegranate is repeatedly mentioned as well. The poet Firdausi wrote about a thousand years ago her cheek crimsoned like the bloom of the pomegranate her lips like honey, her silver bosom bears two pomegranates. 

From the love’s image it is but a small step to the symbolism of fertility. With its abundance of seeds the pomegranate naturally evokes an image of life’s energy and of countless offspring. In the classical and Middle East tradition the fruit was an attribute of several deities of rebirth and vegetation such as Adonis and Baal. Pomegranates were planted to honour Hera/Juno, the mother goddess and protector of marriage and birth. In ancient Rome the bride crowned her hair with pomegranate-twig wreaths and in present day Turkey the bride still throws a pomegranate on the ground and - so it is said - will get as many children as pomegranate arils have been expelled.

The pomegranate also refers to the abundance and fertility of the earth. The earlier mentioned Eleusinian Mysteries in which the pomegranate plays a part, were devoted to deities that were related to earth like Demeter the goddess of grains and agriculture. According to the bible one of the fruits the Jewish scouts returned from Kanaan with was a pomegranate and the Book of Joel compares the destruction of the land as the withering of a pomegranate tree. In the Syrian/ Phoenician tradition the pomegranate even bears the same name as the sun deity Rimmon who is the harbinger of all life.
However, the sun god must die so as to return to life. In many early cultures the imagery of fertility and new life is connected to the symbolism of death. The rhythms of night and day as well as of the seasons are inextricably bound with death and rebirth. So, it is not at all unusual that the pomegranate as a symbol of fertility is also associated with death. The Greek mythology relates that the origin of the pomegranate is linked to the murder of Dionysos. The young god was seized by the Titans, chopped into pieces and cooked. The pomegranate tree sprouted from his rivulets of his blood. For that reason the fruit’s red juice is often compared to blood. Another Greek myth tells of a stone which was impregnated by the sleeping Zeus that delivered a hermaphroditic creature called Agditis. The gods who were horrified by this then castrated it. Agditis then became the mother god Kybele and from its blood the pomegranate would grow.
With blood, violence and death we return to the underworld. The pomegranate is primarily Hades’ fruit, the god that governs the underworld. If Persephone, who was abducted by Hades, had not been tricked into eating the seeds of the pomegranate, Mercury would have succeeded in his mission of bringing her back. Now she is forced to return to the underworld in rhythm with the seasons which brings us back to the beginning of our story that of the pomegranate as the source of fatal attraction.
Obviously a fruit suffused with so much symbolism features prominently in visual art. The Book of Exodus explains that pomegranates were sewn onto the robe of the high priest and the Book of Kings reveals that each of the two copper pillars of Solomon’s temple was decorated with not less than two hundreds pomegranates. In Christian art pomegranates are a recurring theme as well belonging to the fruits that are meant to portray paradise. With its nondescript exterior though beautifully coloured and wonderful tasting it is as well the symbol of hope and humility. Having all it seeds encapsulated, it is also the representation of unity and for that reason kings often bore it on their coat of arms. The breached pomegranate as a motif occurs in the weaving of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. This book shows that the pomegranate is still present in contemporary art too.
Love, fertility, humbleness, unity, blood and death.... simply a glass of grenadine is no longer possible!

Matthijs Schouten