"People use whatever is at hand to express their religious beliefs," says Frank A. Salamone, an authority on religious symbols and a professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. Centuries ago, in the Fertile Crescent, where so many religions arose, the pomegranate was at hand. By its very nature, it lent itself to religious symbolism.
"The pomegranate is red, and so is blood," Salamone says. "It has a lot
of seeds and is an obvious symbol of fertility." It's beautiful, strong and delicate, and its juice has healing properties, he says. "It says a lot of different things all at once. People bring meaning to it."
Ancient Persians painted pomegranates on their shields for protection in battle. In Greek and Roman myths, it was the pomegranate that seduced Persephone, the goddess of fertility, into marrying her kidnapper, Hades, god of the underworld.
Here in the midst of November--National Pomegranate Month--is a look at what this well-rounded fruit portends in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The Vedas, some of the oldest religious texts in Hinduism, consider the pomegranate, with its inner treasure of edible seeds, a symbol for fertility and prosperity. It is revered for its healthful qualities. (Modern research suggests, for example, that the pomegranate has antioxidant and antiviral properties and might play a role in some cancer treatments.) The pomegranate often found its way into the hands of Hindu gods. It was seen as an appeal to the gods and is one of nine plants traditionally offered to Durga, the 10-armed goddess of retribution and justice.
During his life on Earth, the Buddha received his share of valuable gifts from wealthy disciples. But it was, tradition says, a poor old woman's gift of a small pomegranate that delighted him. It is said that he once offered a pomegranate to the demon Hariti, which cured her of her alarming habit of eating children. Buddhism considers the pomegranate to be one of the three blessed fruits. Others are the citrus and the peach.
Did a pomegranate come from the Tree of Knowledge? Read more >>
In Genesis, the first book of the Torah, the fruit that prompted Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden may have been the pomegranate, some scholars say. It's not likely, they argue, that apples flourished in that first garden. Later, the Hebrews searched for the Promised Land, looking for a list of clues to prove they had arrived. The list? Wheat and barley, vines and figs, olives and honey and pomegranates. The round red fruit with its own crown, or calyx, decorated the robes of Jewish priests and some of the pillars in the temple in Jerusalem. Tradition says that each pomegranate holds 613 seeds, or arils, one for each commandment in the Torah. Today, pomegranates are often part of Rosh Hashana celebrations, their seeds embodying the hope that the new year will be fruitful.
Pomegranates figure in many religious paintings by the likes of Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, often in the hands of Mary or the infant Jesus. The fruit, broken or bursting open, is a symbol of the fullness of his suffering and resurrection. In the famous "Unicorn Tapestries," which date from about 1500 and reside now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Cloisters, pomegranates may represent Christ and the need to look inside for the blood that redeems believers. What seems to be the blood of the unicorn is red pomegranate seeds, perhaps an illustration of the belief that from the blood of martyrs flow the seeds of faith. In Christianity, pomegranate seeds were often compared to individual believers, gathered into one community of faith.
According to the Quran, the gardens of paradise include pomegranates. It is important, tradition says, to eat every seed of a pomegranate because one can't be sure which aril came from paradise. The prophet Mohammed is said to have encouraged his followers to eat pomegranates to ward off envy and hatred.
Additional sources: "The Anchor Bible Dictionary," edited by David Noel Freedman; "Church Symbolism" by F.R. Webber; "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols" by Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch; "A Dictionary of Life in Bible Times" by W. Corswant; "Pomegranates" by Ann Kleinberg; and "Pom," a promotional book created by Pom Wonderful.