Walter Burkert, my favorite writer on Greek religion, loves to use the word multivalent when talking about religion and the myths that go with it.
From dictionary.com: Multivalent. adj. 4. Having various meanings or values: subtle, multivalent allegory.
The derivation is Latin, from multi (many) and valere (to be strong). Myths are multivalent when they comprehend not only various meanings, but meanings which also mutually reinforce one another-- and therefore demonstrate a kind of strength.
I've been working on the Persephone chapter in my Teenagers in Greek Myth ms., and I've been impressed with the multivalence of the pomegranate.
To me the pomegranate is a red softball, often more trouble to eat than it's worth. You have to get past the pale yellow rind, pull out the seeds, suck on them and hope they aren't hard and woody. If you get a good one, the juice will stain your hands and drip down your wrists. Be ready to pucker, as well. It's vividly sweet-sour.
The pomegranate is a trendy ingredient in recipes nowadays. It earns its trendiness in these health-conscious times by being packed with antioxidants, which can also be found in other delicious things such as dark chocolate and tomatoes.
It turns out that, like a lot of healthy things, the pomegranate has been used in traditional medicine for a very long time, from Greece to China. In Greece it's used in weddings. A bride can throw a pomegranate instead of a bouquet, and on the island of Karpathos, near Crete, the groom traditionally breaks open a pomegranate when he and his new bride reach their home.
Hades, the new husband of Persephone, offered her pomegranate seeds in the Underworld. She ate them, and mysteriously became bound to Hades for life. Demeter, the mother of the bride, managed to negotiate this commitment down to one-third of the year (one-half in some versions), but the seeds clearly had power.
Here are some multivalent advantages of the pomegranate, myth-wise:
- It is something you eat, which gives it an automatic power to bind common eaters together; this is known in the Christian faith as communion
- Its shape is womblike, therefore associated with childbirth;
- Many seeds hide inside the "womb," ditto
- The color of the pomegranate resembles blood-- which could have to do with menses, childbirth, violence, secret societies, nutrition, medicine, strength, wine...
- The juice of the pomegranate is staining, like blood. Another way to bind the eaters together: there is evidence on your hands that you ate and therefore are bound
- The taste of the pomegranate is sweet and sour, like childbirth and life itself (think harmolype)
Demeter and Persephone were intimately linked with a secret religious society called the Eleusinian Mysteries, where initiates (apparently) went underground, sacrificed an animal, and were bathed in its blood before rising to the light again. Burkert points to the "bloody" pomegranate eating as a kind of initiation for Persephone, and therefore a model for human initiates.
For intermediate readers just getting used to looking at symbols, I like to lean on the staining part of the meaning, and think of the pomegranate as wedding cake.
When a groom or a bride smears his new spouse's face with wedding cake (instead of just feeding it to him or her), it's a way of saying, "look, s/he's mine, s/he ate with me, and there's the evidence." Pomegranate juice, staining as it is, probably ended up getting Persephone caught "red-handed." Hades chose something that would prove Persephone had indeed eaten in the Underworld, and had made a bond with him.
Here's a previous post on cereal as communion.