Persephone and the Pomegranate

2 Jan

When my father and my aunt Ione were children in Athens, they were awakened each New Year’s morning at 5 a.m. by the persistent ringing of the doorbell.   Their grandmother Eleftheria would have slowly limped up the exterior stairs to the second floor of the house in which they lived, one hand holding onto the railing, the other onto a ripe pomegranate.  When the sleepy children opened the door, Yiayia Eleftheria would smash the pomegranate against the stoop, scattering deep red seeds across the threshold.  The more seeds that scattered, the greater the prosperity the family could expect to enjoy in the coming year.

For Greeks, scattering pomegranate seeds on thresholds is a New Year’s ritual that many still enjoy.  The seeds are also an ancient symbol of the earth’s bounty — and of the underworld.  It was the seeds of the pomegranate that Hades compelled Persephone to eat in order to bind her to him, and in order to set her free.  You see, Hades had abducted Persephone while she was out walking in the woods one day, and carried her down to his kingdom.  Her mother, Demeter, the powerful goddess of the seasons and the harvest, was so devastated by the loss of her daughter that she ceaselessly searched for her far and wide, leaving the earth’s bounty to wither and die. 

Zeus, Persephone’s father, knew he had to intervene.  He struck a deal with Hades:  Persephone could remain with him for half the year, if he agreed to release her and allow her to return to Demeter for the other half. 

Hades agreed, but one one condition: before Persephone could return to earth, she had to eat a few pomegranate seeds, which would bind her to him and to the underworld indissolubly. 

Since then, Persephone’s yearly journey to the underworld has brought to us mortals autumn, winter, and the death of earth’s bounty; and her journey back has brought  to us spring, summer, and bountiful regeneration.

Now if you choose to honor Persephone and the Greek New Year tradition by smashing a pomegranate on your own doorstep, you may wish to save some of the seeds.  They are delicious sprinkled over a salad of arugula and toasted walnuts, or in a champagne punch.  Or instead of smashing your pomegranates, you can work them into a wreath, like the one that I spotted adorning a balcony in Nauplion.

A pomegranate wreath adorning a balcony railing in Nauplion, a symbol of the family's wish for a bountiful year.

Here are some web sites offering my favorite pomegranate recipes.  May you and your loved ones enjoy Persephone and Demeter’s bounty throughout this new year!!!

How to seed a pomegranate (from The Kitchen Generation)

Arugula Salad with Pomegranates and Toasted Pecans (From Epicurious. I substitute walnuts!)

Pomegranate Champagne Punch (From Bon Appetit)

Sparkling Pomegranate Punch (From Andrea Meyers)

Pomegranate Granita (From My Persian Kitchen)

Persephone and the Pomegranate (A beautifully illustrated children’s book — for reading, not eating! You can order it from Greece in Print.)


5 Responses to “Persephone and the Pomegranate”

  1. Chuck Julin January 2, 2012 at 4:10 am #

    Great blog Liz! I like reading your stories about family memories and traditions.

  2. S Cook January 2, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    Just saw this tradition live for the first time yesterday in the sleepy seaside resort of Tavari on the island of Lesvos. We had walked down (about 7-8 kms) from a friend’s house in the inland village of Mesotopos and were ready for the warmth of a taverna and a light lunch before walking back the more direct route, just 4km but mostly uphill.
    Two smashed pomegranates lay on the floor just inside the door where they had been thrown earlier in the day and a handful of rice had also been thrown with them – presumably for even more prosperity in 2012.
    Kali kronia to you and thanks for your stories – much appreciated.

  3. Terry January 2, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    I love this story especially since I just finished eating some seeds myself. Will start a New Year’s tradition…this one”s a keeper.

  4. Kathe January 2, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Wonderful stories and a meaningful tradition!

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