8,000-year-old History of Pomegranate Reverence

Happy news! Pomegranate juice really is more than just a sugar-bomb. This fruit, popular and even revered throughout the Mediterranean and Near East since the early Iron Age (2nd millennium B.C.E.) and probably before, really does have some medicinal properties. For one thing, it can help prevent gut leakiness and liver inflammation after binge drinking, scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in Bethesda, Maryland, reported in August.

True, that study was on rats, but it’s a start. On the other side of the planet, scientists in India studying actual humans demonstrated that pomegranate juice kills bacteria that cause dental plaque. At least, it may do so if you also brush: Like orange and apple juice, pomegranate juice is intensely sugary.

So the ancients were right about some of the pomegranate’s properties, though despite the hopeful headlines, its juice has not been scientifically proven to be beneficial for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), cancer or erectile dysfunction. (Neither is ground tiger penis. If either really cured impotence, we would know by now.)

We ought to know what Punica granatum Linn, a.k.a. the pomegranate, can do by now, since it has been cultivated and eaten, and venerated, from time immemorial, including by the earliest Jews.

The first pomegranate

Even the pomegranate’s domestication is cause for argument: where, when and by whom.

If “domesticated” is defined as being morphologically distinct from “wild” thanks to unnatural selection (by farmers rather than by evolution), then the domestication of wheat began over 23,000 years ago, in the Land of Israel; that of the goat is a work in process, everywhere; and the domestication of the cat never happened (except in Scotland, where breeders seem to feel that ears are a frippery).

By that definition, the pomegranate has been domesticated. The type we eat looks very different from the ancestral version, which by now survives only on an island in the Arabian Sea.

It seems the pomegranate was domesticated more than once, in several places around Iran, the Levant and Near East, possibly starting about 8,000 years ago. Much later it would reach the Far East too: Charred seeds thought to be from a pomegranate have been found in the tomb of a woman in Mongolia that may date back as far as 2,200 years, the period of the Han dynasty. The seeds were placed by her head. Everywhere it went, the pomegranate was eaten, used for medical purposes, and for dyeing. And sometimes to worm the kids. In contrast to other ancient practices that still exist but don’t achieve much, such as acupuncture, the anthelmintic (parasite-destroying) properties of pomegranate have been proved.

Held in esteem by the peoples preceding them and all around them, it seems that the Israelites had access to the pomegranate at the same time their religion was taking shape. It appears time and again in the Bible, not in the context of Rosh Hashanah of course, which didn’t exist as a holiday by that name when the Bible was written. Some have even suggested the pomegranate – not the apple – was the original forbidden fruit, a belief that early Christians would embrace. For what it’s worth, both apple and pomegranate are indigenous to the areas postulated as models for the Garden of Eden.

In any case, even in biblical times, the Israelites, like the peoples around them, ascribed lofty properties to the pomegranate. The fruit’s role as a New Year symbol – like the holiday itself – would develop much later, though. One of the earliest written accounts connecting the pomegranate and fertility to the Jewish New Year itself was by Rabbi David Abudarham, who lived in Spain during the 13th and 14th centuries and was a student of the famed Rabbi Jacob ben Asher. His book Sefer Abudarham contains the first reference to eating pomegranate during the holiday, and to the prayer “may our blessings proliferate like the [seeds of the] pomegranate.”

But the cultural roots of the pomegranate’s spiritual aspects are much, much older.

The goddess and the shipwreck

The wild pomegranate apparently originated in Iran or in the Near East, depending which archaeologist you ask. What we can definitively say is that there are two extant species. The original, ancestral one survives only on the island of Soqutra, or Socotra, which lies between Yemen and Sudan and is (presently) controlled by Yemen.

That ancestral species is called Punica protopunica. Its fruit is small and brownish and, in a word, inedible. Its main use is medicinal, though not all beliefs regarding protopunica peel paste have been empirically tested. But it is the forebear of the ruby-fleshed species that the rest of the world eats, Punica granatum (“grainy apple”), scientists say.

Today the tasty granatum grows throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia, from Iran to north India, carried possibly less by migrating farmers than by marauding conquerors.

Beliefs in its powerful properties, and its depictions in art, have abounded since prehistory. The contexts of ancient pomegranate art are religious and/or elitist. This was no Mesopotamian equivalent of the potato.

Among the great many ancient depictions of pomegranates are decorations on a vase found in a mansion in the Sumerian city of Uruk, founded over 5,000 years ago (and today in Iraq). Uruk was a vast metropolis for the time and was reportedly ruled by the great Gilgamesh himself in the 27th century B.C.E.: the city survived until the 7th century C.E. The Sumerians, who are believed to have been one of the earliest farming civilizations, offered pomegranates to the goddess Ishtar, who considered them sacred. In other words, the religious aspects of the pomegranate have been around almost as long as its cultivation.

The fruit also appears in Assyrian palace reliefs dating to almost 4,000 years ago, and in statuary: in the ruins of Nimrud, excavators found (among other things) a pomegranate made of ivory, and a relief of a strange winged being with a tiny pomegranate on its collar.

One of the roughly 8,000 cuneiform tablets found in the Neo-Babylonian Eanna temple archive from around 600 B.C.E. records a sacrificial offering of 500 pomegranates (and dates) to Ishtar. Only fine fruits, mark you: inferior pomegranates would not be served to the Lady of Uruk in her in “sacred meals”.

The Sumerian adoration of Ishtar and her pet tree could in and of itself be indicative of where early Jews came across adulation of the fruit. Like the holiday of Rosh Hashanah itself, Jewish regard for the pomegranate could have begun in Babylon. As Elon Gilad explains, by the time the Jews returned from there to Israel in 516 B.C.E., the start of the Second Temple period, their religious practices had profoundly changed compared with the pre-exile era.

Or regard for the pomegranate may have begun before. The Canaanites that the Israelites would have met revered the fruit: pomegranate depictions have been discovered in the 13th century-B.C.E. pagan temple at Lachish.

Pomegranate art has been found in Jericho, one of the world’s oldest cities, dating from before Jews existed. A wooden box was found in a tomb associated with the Hyksos, mysterious occupiers and rulers of ancient Egypt for a time around 3,700 years ago. That box was found to contain carbonized pomegranate seeds. Again, one wouldn’t store fruit of inferior status in a precious receptacle.

In any case, the Hyksos are accredited with taking the pomegranate along with them as they savaged their way south and west, eventually conquering ancient Egypt.

Apropos, the ancient Egyptians seem to have been appreciative of this foreign fruit. Prof. Cheryl Ward of the Archaeological Institute of America notes the pomegranate’s depiction in temples and tombs dating to the post-Hyksos Egyptian 18th dynasty, which stretched from around 1550 B.C.E. to 1292 B.C.E. Pomegranate-themed artifacts in Tutankhamen’s tomb include a scepter and vases in the form of pomegranates, one made of precious silver. What use these receptacles would have been to the pharaoh or his minions is not clear, other than possibly decorative, like the ceramic pomegranates sold everywhere in Israel towards Rosh Hashanah. They really aren’t useful except as emergency presents or paperweights.

Regarding Asia, some think the fruit made its way there from Eurasia via Silk Road traders. In China the fruit had roughly the same symbolism: fertility, eternal life, marriage, prosperity, abundance and reincarnation.

In any case, pomegranates were clearly being farmed from the early Bronze Age, and were regarded as a delicacy. Further testimony to the fruit’s lofty status is the extraordinarily preserved 3,400-year-old Uluburun shipwreck off Turkey, which had been laden with elite-oriented cargo, as its finders put it. That cargo included precious stuffs like resin, statuary made of ivory, metals, ostrich eggs – and pomegranates.

Xerxes rides to war

The roots of Judaism itself lie in the mists of history, as does Jewish iconography that connects the pomegranate to fecundity. The history of the Jews is intertwined with that of surrounding cultures, from whom not a few beliefs and practices were evidently expropriated, not least the thought that the pomegranate has anything to do with anything other than worming the family.

Throughout the Levant, going back at least 5,000 years, the pomegranate was associated with life itself, with marriage and fertility – and also with death.

The ancient Persians seem to have been especially enthralled by its symbolism.

Though the religious motivations of great kings so long dead must remain opaque, the Persian king Xerxes is thought to have been a follower of Zoroastrianism, a religion whose roots seem to go back as much as 4,000 years, if not more. The followers of Zarathustra revered the pomegranate tree as a perennial and therefore, as a symbol of divine eternal life. (Not that the Zoroastrians thought people could achieve eternal life: the role of humans was to battle the lie.)

Anyway, the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., describes Xerxes riding out of Sardis with his soldiers, hoping to complete his father Darius’ failed conquest of Greece. Xerxes’ warriors bore modified spears, which may have attested to their belief in their own immortality, or to hope of striking terror into the breasts of fruit-fearing enemy:

“Behind him came a thousand spearmen of the best and noblest blood of Persia, carrying their spears in the customary manner; after them a thousand picked Persian horsemen, and after the horse ten thousand that were foot soldiers, chosen out of the rest of the Persians. One thousand of these had golden pomegranates on their spear-shafts instead of a spike, and surrounded the rest; the nine thousand who were inside them had silver pomegranates. Those who held their spears reversed also carried golden pomegranates, and those following nearest to Xerxes had apples of gold” (The Histories, 7.41).

While Xerxes did manage to maintain the Persian grip over Egypt, and while he did almost burn Greece to the ground, ultimately his troops lost to the Greeks, at the famed battle of Salamis, in 480 B.C.E.

For their part, the ancient Greeks may not have ascribed quite the same belligerent qualities to the pomegranate. But they also associated it with deities, specifically to their own fertility goddess, Demeter and to her daughter Persephone.

There are several versions of the tale explaining why. The smitten Hades, god of the underworld, reportedly abducted the unfortunate Persephone, a deity herself, being the daughter of Zeus and fertility goddess Demeter, says Homer.

Where she was abducted changes with who is telling the tale. Wherever it happened, Demeter was enraged by the act and set out to search for her, meanwhile shutting down fertility, causing the world to become barren. Persephone herself, in hell, fasted, on the grounds that if she ate there, she would have to remain for eternity. Spurred to action by the wails of the starving world, Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone – which he did. But first he beguiled her into eating enough pomegranate seeds to keep her by his side in the underworld for at least part of the year. Ancient sources differ on whether she had to stay there for three months or six, but in any case, her time underground is winter, and her time above ground with the other gods is summer.

The bounty of Canaan

While the peoples around them tended to revere or respect the fruit for its association with life and fertility, the Jews would become more specific.

Like Zoroastrians, the ancient Hebrews became monotheistic, a slow and painful process, it would seem, judging by the numerous biblical references to angering Yahweh with their idolatrous ways. Like the pagans around them, the Hebrews gave the pomegranate myriad symbolisms.

It is listed as one of three fruits brought to Moses by his scouts, to demonstrate the fertility of the Holy Land, a.k.a. Canaan:

 “And they came unto the brook of Eshkol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bare it between two upon a staff; and they brought of the pomegranates, and of the figs” (Numbers 13:23).

Among the evidence of pagan respect for pomegranates are a skeleton dated to the 13th century B.C.E. found at Nami, Israel, which had been buried with bronze pomegranate scepters; and Canaanite graves with clay pomegranates.

Come the 10th century B.C.E., King Solomon is supposed to have built the First Temple, whose pillar capitals featured pomegranate imagery (1 Kings 7:20). Sadly, these decorations were looted by invading Babylonians in the 6th century B.C.E., as the prophet Jeremiah describes with much pain.

In fact – maybe – the only artifact found from the First Temple is a two-inch tall ivory pomegranate. Some think it crowned a scepter. Some think it’s a fake. Writing on the fruit’s neck has been interpreted to read “holy to the priests, belonging to the House of Yahweh.” Some think the pomegranate is real and the writing is a later addition, i.e., fake. The jury is still out.

“The fact that alleged forgers used the already-ancient ivory pomegranate to simulate a temple artifact supports its recognition (even by criminals) as a sacred symbol,” suggested archaeologist Mary Abram of Brigham Young University in 2009.

Still later, the priests serving in the Second Temple had pomegranates embroidered on their robes, according to Exodus 28. It is also one of the seven species (two grains and five fruits that were permissible for offerings in the Temple). Pictures of pomegranates appear on ancient Judaic coins.

The tradition that the pomegranate has 613 seeds, corresponding with the 613 mitzvot in Torah, is a late development based on misunderstanding of the Gemara, the Orthodox Union explains. Different pomegranates have different numbers of seeds, period.

Come the Muslim era, the pomegranate would retain a mystique. The Koran describes it as a blessed fruit, though falling short of attributing special powers to it:

“And He Who has brought into being gardens, the trellised and untrellised – and the palm trees, and crops, all varying in taste, and the olive and pomegranates, all resembling one another and yet so different” (Surah Al-Anaam, Chaper 6, Verse 141).

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