The Pomegranate in Ancient Myth and Present Tradition

Pomegranate. Photo: Creative Commons license

The pomegranate has a long history in Greek cuisine and figures prominently in the myth of Persephone. Her mother Demeter, grief-stricken, did not allow anything on earth to grow when her daughter was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Persephone ate six seeds (or arils, to be more exact) of the pomegranate during her stay. As anyone familiar with the ancient Greek myths knows, eating or drinking anything in the underworld meant you would have to stay there. Since Persephone had only consumed the six seeds, it was decided that she would spend six months with Hades and then return to visit her mother on earth for the rest of the year. The myth explained the seasons of the year.

In more recent times, the pomegranate continues to symbolize fertility and good luck. In many regions of Greece, it is part of the Christmas and New Year’s traditions. The pomegranate is hung up above the front door for the twelve days of Christmas in some areas. The fruit is placed on the table at Christmas-time and for the Presentation of the Virgin Mary on November 21.

On New Year’s Eve, the family gathers outside and when the clock strikes midnight, a pomegranate is rolled and smacked on the front door of the house. The more seeds that scatter on the floor, the luckier the New Year will be. Others take the pomegranate with them to church to be blessed and then someone else must open the door for whoever is holding the fruit, then, once inside he or she rolls it against the door to smash and scatter the seeds as mentioned above. The rolling or smashing must always be done with the right hand since it is the good luck hand.

Today, mindful that pomegranate juice stains, some seal the pomegranate in a plastic bag before smashing to avoid making a mess. In this case, however many seeds are in the plastic bag determines how lucky the year will be. Smashing the pomegranate on the ground is also part of traditional weddings. The scattered seeds are thought to bring good luck and many children to the newlyweds. Retaining their ancient connection to the afterlife, the seeds are also used to decorate kollyva for funerals and memorial services in the Greek Orthodox Church.

The pomegranate is also a good luck housewarming gift. Available from September through February in the Northern Hemisphere, the fruit is packed with vitamins and antioxidants, including vitamin K, folate, and dietary fiber. It can be juiced or the seeds (arils) can be used for smoothies or to top salads, yogurt, or ice cream.

How to De-Seed a Pomegranate

Make sure the pomegranate is heavy for its size, indicating a juicy fruit. If worried about staining, work over a large bowl in the kitchen sink. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the bottom ¼ inch off the stem side, so the pomegranate sits flat on the counter or cutting board, then cut off the crown or blossom end. Score the peel of the pomegranate from top to bottom (stem to blossom end) along the natural ridges of the fruit, careful not to cut too deeply.

Six cuts should be enough to allow you to pry open the fruit and then remove the seeds (arils) with your fingers over a large bowl. If preferred, fill the large bowl with water and pry open and remove the seeds underwater. The seeds sink to the bottom and the membranes encasing them float. Strain and place the pomegranate seeds in a bowl. Enjoy them immediately or place in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for about 3 days.

Pomegranate seeds can also be frozen. Once removed from the membrane and peel, dry the seeds with paper towels and place them in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Freeze for at least two hours and then transfer to a freezer bag. The frozen pomegranate seeds can be stored in the freezer for 3 months.