The end of August was crashed by cold September, announcing itself a day early with drizzle and greyness – a Bank Holiday weekend running as expected. As also expected, I layered up and complained: ‘Why, Weather? August is sunshine. September has not officially started. YOU ARE CONFUSED.’

Something like that.

Anyhow, all this got me thinking about pomegranate seeds. Not immediately, of course: I began mulling over how cultures worldwide have been influenced by the inevitable coming and going of the seasons (dreary and grim as Monday was, it also appears to have been rather philosophical. Thank you, Weather). Artistic work of every kind has drawn on the different characteristics of the year. There have also been various explanations for why the seasons exist in the first place – and when my train of thought passed here, I remembered an Ancient Greek myth in which pomegranate seeds play a crucial part in bringing the seasons about.

512px-Bust_Homer_BM_1825_n2A Roman bust of Homer, after a Greek original. Photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen and located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image for this article was taken by Flickr user Rebecca Siegel.

That is told in one of the Homeric Hymns: thirty-four poems attributed to Homer which address deities from the Ancient Greek pantheon. The piece in question is dedicated to Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and the story is as follows. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was gathering flowers in a meadow. Unknown to both, Zeus, King of the Gods, had promised Persephone as a bride for his brother Hades, Lord of the Underworld. As Persephone went to pick a narcissus flower, sprouted up as a lure by Gaia – the female personification of Earth, who was complicit in the act – the ground opened up beneath her, and Hades swept out in his chariot, carrying her away. Devastated, Demeter refused the company of the gods on Mount Olympus and wandered among humankind. Longing for her daughter, she brought about famine:

‘[…] she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail. So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with cruel famine and have robbed them who dwell on Olympus of their glorious right of gifts and sacrifices, had not Zeus perceived and marked this in his heart.’

From the translation of ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ found in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica.

843px-Persephone_krater_Antikensammlung_Berlin_1984.40Persephone’s abduction, as featured on a krater – or large vase – from the Greek Southern Italian region of Apulia (c. 340 BCE). Located via Wikimedia Commons

Failing to win her over with entreaties from different deities, Zeus sent the divine messenger Hermes to secure Persephone’s release from Hades: the only thing which would cause Demeter to return. Not one to disobey his brother, Hades agreed – ‘but he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter.’ Reunited, mother and daughter embraced, but all was not well:

‘But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, her heart suddenly misgave her for some snare, so that she feared greatly and ceased fondling her daughter and asked of her at once: ‘My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and be honoured by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men.’

From the translation of ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ found in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica.

That, perhaps, is why the land lies barren for part of the year, and bursts into life in another.

Split PomegranateA split pomegranate, photographed by Flickr user Ano Lobb.

Pomegranate’ ultimately derives from the Latin pomum granatum, meaning ‘apple with many seeds’; Middle French variants include pomme grenade and pomme granade, with pome gernate in the later Anglo-Norman language. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was also referred to as a ‘grenade’ or ‘granade’, coming via French from the Spanish granada. The explosive weapon of the same name takes after this and was supposedly called so for its resemblance to the fruit – possibly through shape, or through comparison of its shrapnel to many seeds. An obsolete sense of ‘grenadier’ is ‘pomegranate tree’; the word now survives in the title of the British Army’s highest ranking infantry regiment: the Grenadier Guards.

While the start of September was dingy, it has a deliciously appropriate pay-off: pomegranates are coming into season, which lasts until around January or February. You can enjoy them at your leisure – no trip to Hades and back required!