How the infamous pomegranate became the seed of my new novel from Orca Books
It was Edith Hamilton, with her Mythology, who got me addicted as a girl to the great myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. (That’s me at the right, fruitfully employed.) I read and reread Mythology until the page corners curled and the dustjacket tattered. One of my favourite myths, as retold by Edith, was that of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest.
It wasn’t only people on earth who admired Demeter’s beautiful daughter. There was one ogling Persephone from below the earth, too: Hades, the god of the underworld.
Not being the most subtle of beaux, Hades kidnapped Persephone. Zeus, the king of the gods, ordered Hades to let her go. But, as Hamilton tells it, “the lord of the dark underworld… made her eat a pomegranate, knowing in his heart that if she did so she would return to him.”
Zeus couldn’t reverse Hades’s spell, but he could modify it. So, Persephone at least got to live with her loving mom above ground in the warm, blossoming, food-growing months of the year. She returned to the underworld in winter. For that reason Demeter was too upset to let things grow; neglected, earth turned barren and cold.
The curtain rises on Death Drop
Inspired by the Persephone myth, I wrote a mystery novel, Death Drop, set in a thrill ride of that name. On the ride, passengers get to experience a gravity-defying version of Persephone’s drop into the underworld. One visitor, a young baseball pitcher named Zeke, gets some value-added: a mystery involving a missing child and Rossetti’s painting of Persephone (or Proserpina, as he called her).
In December, I was reading aloud from this story, now newly published by Orca Books, to a Grades 6 and 7 audience in a school library. I came to the first mention of that red, bittersweet, tasty fruit, the pomegranate.
I paused. Before the kids came in, the teacher-librarian had suggested I explain what a pomegranate was. There might be some kids who hadn’t heard of one, she said.
Sounded fair to me. I’m not sure I knew what a pomegranate was when I was in the intermediate grades. You know, back in the Pleistocene era. As I recall, I had enough on my mind avoiding the ghostly-pale, teeth-licking blonde girl who wanted to beat me up. I didn’t have time to think about members of the fruit family.
(Oh, don’t worry. She never managed to. And funnily enough, there’s an unlikable pale, teeth-licking character in Death Drop.)
So, like I said, I paused in reading from Death Drop to ask if anyone knew what a pomegranate was.
Wow. Hands shot up all over the room!
I called on a boy who was practically hurling his arm out of his socket in his eagerness to speak.
He shouted, “I know what a pomegranate is! It’s the fruit of death, Mrs. Jackson!”
Pity the poor pomegranate
In this blog post, I thought it would be fun to explore just why the pomegranate, an otherwise respectable and very pretty fruit, has this dire image.
Here we go, in a few bite-sized pieces of info…
The name comes from combining the Latin words for apple and seed. So, it’s a seeded apple. The difference is, you eat the seeds of the pomegranate. (I mean, you could eat the seeds of an apple, too, but… )
As well as from the Persephone myth, the fabled fruit may have gained ill repute because it resembles the colour and shape of a poppy, whose seeds have a narcotic effect. Just think of Dorothy and the Lion dropping senseless to the ground in the Wizard of Oz poppy field.
However, the Greeks eventually did an about-face. They adopted the custom of bringing a pomegranate to anyone who had just moved into a new home. The pomegranate signified abundance, fertility, all the good things the goddess Demeter was responsible for. Maybe the Greeks figured the pomegranate would remind Demeter of her beloved daughter.
Or maybe the pomegranate had a really good P.R. firm.