This year we have two of the fruits, spherical with thick skins of dull red. I choose one and use a serrated knife to saw through its center. The fruit falls in halves on the cutting board, revealing plump clusters of seeds separated by paper-thin pith. Juice seeps from the wound and runs down the edge of the knife. I’m glad to be alone in the kitchen—last time, my overzealous helpers splattered the redness like blood at a crime scene.
The next stage of seeding is better done with fingers. I rip one of the pomegranate halves in half again, and then half again, tearing cleanly, leaving seeds intact. Then with my thumbs I press against the rind and turn the piece inside out, exposing the families of seeds clinging to the pith, like engorged raspberries on a summer vine. Using my index finger I loosen the bonds until separated seeds fall into the waiting bowl.
Mess aside, I love pomegranates as much as my kids do, for their sweet/sour taste but also for their air of mystery. I’d never seen a pomegranate seed when I first read the Greek myth of Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the harvest goddess. Persephone was picking flowers when Hades emerged from a cleft in the earth, raped her, and dragged her down to his dark kingdom.
Demeter searched for her daughter in vain, and her grief brought drought and starvation to the people until Zeus finally decided to reclaim his daughter, now the queen of the underworld. But the Fates held that anyone who ate or drank in that realm must stay there forever, and Hades had tricked Persephone into eating four pomegranate seeds. So she was bound to live with him for four months every year, during which the Greek landscape would grow dry and barren from the separation of mother and daughter.
Violent reading for a child, although I think my story book left out the rape part. Recently I learned that this myth formed the liturgy of the Eleusinian Mysteries, initiatory rites for an ancient spiritual order practiced in Greece and Rome for two millennia. The order, which notably welcomed women and slaves as well as men, included the lesser mysteries of washing and sacrifice, and the greater mysteries, entailing revelations which carried the death penalty if divulged.
But from childhood I’ve been fascinated by the tragic figure of Persephone and by the fateful seeds she ate, unaware of their potency. When I began to study the Bible I learned that the pomegranate was one of seven fruits presented to Moses by his spies to bear witness of the promised land, and that the sacred vestments of the high priest under the order of Aaron included a robe hemmed with 72 woolen pomegranates, symbolizing the power and glory of progeny. The fruit of the loins. Seed.
In the Bible, seed is nearly always a male concept. The Septuagint’s word for seed is sperma—literally, sperm—and women “conceive seed” only through insemination. But Hebrews consider the pomegranate to be the forbidden fruit eaten by Eve in the garden of Eden, initiating humankind’s generation. And our regeneration comes through the Messiah known as the seed of the woman.
For He made your womb his throne and formed thy body to be broader than the heavens. ~ The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
Like the Christ child’s, our origin is female. We all began our lives as seeds forming within our mothers even before they were born. At birth a baby girl has about a million ovarian follicles, each nurturing an immature egg cell. About half of those follicles remain at puberty to develop mature eggs. During ovulation, one ovary typically releases a single egg cell: the liberated ovum, it’s called. And it looks much like a pomegranate seed.
Liberation comes at a price: the egg cell emerges when one of the matured ovarian follicles swells and bursts, rupturing the surface of the ovary. Some women feel this as mittelschmerz, German for “middle pain,” which is strong enough to be mistaken for appendicitis. The bursting follicle foreshadows the labor of birth, when the uterus wrenches itself open, giving life in a process that can also take it. And if a fertilized egg lodges outside the uterus, its expansion will rip the mother’s organs and cause hemorrhage that can kill.
The Hebrew word for pomegranate, rimon, is also the word for hand grenade. Every mother knows well that seed is a product of violence, and that the violence multiplies as she does.
I have two teenage daughters. The older is just three years shy of my age at her birth; the younger, too, is already a woman. Even as they formed in my womb, they were forming seed in their own. Now the eggs they carried from birth are ripening. Whether or not my daughters ever bear children, they harbor a potency they can’t begin to understand—a potency I have only begun to understand. Although my mother-pride swells wide, I’m also frightened on their behalf, knowing some of what will be required of them.
And sometimes I’m frightened for myself, not knowing what will be required of me. Childhood occupied my first two decades; for the second two, I’ve played the demanding yet definable part of young mother. But the next trimester approaches. The recent deaths of my grandmothers, Catherine and Christine, have shifted the roles of our family’s women. My mother steps up as matriarch. My daughters’ bodies prepare to reproduce. And I leave childbearing behind for a liminal place: no longer the fruitful mother, not yet the wise crone. The sphere I’ve occupied for my entire adult life is rupturing, and it hurts. Middle-pain.
This year I find newfound comfort in holiday traditions that were fun and fulfilling early on, but over time devolved into time-sucking nuisances. Instead of frazzled, I feel peaceful as I bake pans and pans of baklava from Yia Yia Christine’s cookbook. I eagerly buy a new spritz press and crank out my other Yia Yia’s infamous butter cookies, from the recipe written in her own hand.
And I find new meaning as I seed the pomegranates, with their silent promise of wombs within wombs, fruitful harvests, and mother-daughter reunions. The ripped-apart skins are scattered on the counter, already growing brittle; the bowl is mounded with seeds, glistening and translucent.
The kids will soon empty the bowl, but the first fruits are mine. I choose one ruby seed from the pile, its juice held in teardrop shape by some invisible force. Gentle pressure from my teeth brings a burst of tart sweetness, then a bitter, fibrous crunch. Soothed, I indulge by the palmful until the mound of seeds is flattened and my mouth is stained Christmas red.
Read Part IV here.