Enduring Symbols: the Pomegranate

With its many seeds, the pomegranate has been associated with fertility and happy bounty in many cultures for thousands of years. The red juice sometimes represents death.

Perhaps the most famous occurrence of the pomegranate in mythology is in the story of Persephone, where the fruit symbolizes the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Persephone was abducted by Hades, lord of the Underworld and forced to marry him. She was tricked into eating several pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, where eating anything consigned one to that place forever. At the loss of her daughter, Persephone’s mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, went into deep mourning causing all the plants to die. Faced with the prospect of an eternal winter, Zeus was forced to negotiate terms with his brother Hades. A settlement was reached. which allowed Persephone to return to the world of the living for several months each year, bringing with her the seasons of generation and growth.

Still today, in the Mediterranean region and beyond, the pomegranate symbolizes prosperity and abundance and is often found at occasions of new beginnings.

Greeks break a pomegranate on the doorstep on New Year’s day as a blessing of good luck and abundance for the coming year. In Turkey pomegranates are eaten on New Year’s Day for good luck. Jews eat pomegranates on Rosh Hashana for the same reason.

In Turkey and other Mediterranean countries, newlyweds break a pomegranate on their doorstep before entering to symbolize their hope of fertility and prosperity in their life together.

In Jewish tradition, pomegranates are said to have 613 seeds to represent the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. Pomegranates adorned the columns of King Solomon’s temple and the robes of the ancient priests of Israel.

In Christian symbolism, the pomegranate, broken open to expose its many seeds and red juice, represents the blood and resurrection of Jesus.

Madonna of the Pomegranate by Sandro Botticelli, 1487

Madonna of the Pomegranate by Sandro Botticelli, 1487, from Wikipedia

In some traditions, the fruit eaten by Adam in Eden is not an apple but a pomegranate and the Tree of Life is a pomegranate tree.

The pomegranate is one of the four sacred trees of Islam, along with the olive, the fig and the date. Islamic tradition tells that one seed of every pomegranate is a holy seed from Eden and has spiritually purifying effects when eaten.

The Tree of Life, Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan, from Wikipedia

The Tree of Life, Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan, from Wikipedia

The Ankh: What Does it Mean?

Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor

Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor

Probably the most recognizable Ancient Egyptian symbol, the ankh hieroglyph represents eternal life. Egyptian gods and pharaohs were frequently shown holding the ankh or in close proximity to it. Fundamental life-giving elements, such as water, air and sun were often represented by the ankh. In some tomb paintings ankhs are shown pouring over the resident pharaoh from an upturned vessel or being blown into his mouth.

Kom Ombo Temple

Kom Ombo Temple

tomb of Nefertari, Valley of the Queens

tomb of Nefertari, Valley of the Queens

The origins of the symbol are lost to the mists of time but some suggestions are that it first represented the ever-holy sun sitting on the horizon, with the sun’s path stretching below; male and female reproductive parts, separated by the fruit of their union; or a sandal strap. It’s easy to see a connection between eternal life and the sun or the male, female and offspring, but a sandal strap, not so much. Imagine this – the loop of the ankh fits around your ankle; the arms of the ankh wrap around your foot, and there you have it, a sandal strap. The word for sandal strap ‘nkh’ was very similar to the word for life ‘ankh’ so the symbol was used to represent both words. That’s one theory anyway.

Click to see tours to Egypt, the birthplace of this powerful and enduring symbol.

The Hamsa: What Does it Mean?

If you’ve traveled in the Middle East no doubt you have seen the hamsa, a talisman in the shape of an open hand. The name is related to the word for ‘five’ in Hebrew (hamesh) and Arabic (khamsa). Five fingers on the hand raised in a “STOP, in the Naaame of Love” or “Talk to the HAND” gesture make a powerful defense against evil-eye generated mischief and also bring good luck.

Beautiful, stylized hands are everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Israel, adorning homes and bodies. Hamsas often include extra protective elements in the palm, like an eye, bits of scripture or fish (believed to be immune to the evil eye).

Hamsa origins are deep and murky. Magically protective hands have been found in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian artefacts. And what about all those hands in prehistoric cave paintings? In Sephardic Jewish tradition, the symbol may begin in Medieval Kabbalah, where it represented the hand of God.

40,000-year-old hamsas? from a cave in Indonesia

40,000-year-old hamsas? from a cave in Indonesia

The hamsa may also be called the hand of Fatima (daughter of Mohammad), the hand of Miriam (sister of Moses) and the hand of Mary (mother of Jesus) and is sometimes associated with the Five Pillars of Islam and the five books of the Torah. By association with the hand, the number five is considered powerful.

If you have a rabbit foot dangling from your key chain, add a hamsa for good measure. Better yet, convert to hamsa 100% and boycott the rabbit foot industry.

Please don't take my foot.

Please don’t take my foot.

The Eye of Horus: What Does it Mean?

Eye of Horus, Eye of Ra, Daughter of Ra, and Wadjet are just some of the names associated with the enigmatic symbol pictured above. Surely you’ve seen it, whether or not you have been to Egypt. It’s one of the most recognizable symbols of Ancient Egypt, but what does it mean?

Primarily, the eye is a protector. However, the symbol has been around since the very early days of Egypt and over many centuries numerous, sometimes conflicting, stories arose about its origins, actions and significance. It’s pretty confusing. 3,000 years of stories and traditions are not easily digested and squeezed into a nutshell. So, I’ll just give the most common meanings here. Continue reading