I generally consider myself a pretty intuitive person. I’m pretty good at connecting dots, reading subtext, noticing the little things. Especially when those things are nature related. So I have to admit, I felt a little something inside of me die when I realized I missed the whole implication of the Persephone in the Underworld myth (and by realized, I mean, I read the explanation and smacked myself upside the head).
In case you need an 8th grade world studies refresher:
Persephone is the goddess of the underworld in Greek mythology. She is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Persephone was such a beautiful young woman that everyone loved her, even Hades wanted her for himself. One day, when she was collecting flowers on the plain of Enna, the earth suddenly opened and Hades rose up from the gap and abducted her. None but Zeus, and the all-seeing sun, Helios, had noticed it.
Broken-hearted, Demeter wandered the earth, looking for her daughter until Helios revealed what had happened. Demeter was so angry that she withdrew herself in loneliness, and the earth ceased to be fertile. Knowing this could not continue much longer, Zeus sent Hermes down to Hades to make him release Persephone. Hades grudgingly agreed, but before she went back he gave Persephone a pomegranate (or the seeds of a pomegranate, according to some sources). When she later ate of it, it bound her to underworld forever and she had to stay there one-third of the year. The other months she stayed with her mother. When Persephone was in Hades, Demeter refused to let anything grow and winter began. This myth is a symbol of the budding and dying of nature (Lindemans 1997).
This story was celebrated each year through the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the most important rituals in all of Greece. Though initiates were sworn to secrecy (and therefore much of the practice of the rites have been lost) there are some details that have been preserved:
The ceremony began in Athens, and all those participating purified themselves by bathing in the sea, they also sacrificed a piglet… As the procession proceeded on route to Eleusis the participants would, at a certain place, shout obscenities. This was a re-enactment of an old mythical woman called “Iambe” who was said to have made Demeter smile, at a time when she was full of sorrow for the loss of her daughter Persephone…
When the procession reached Eleusis they would rest and make ready for the next day, which was a day of fasting (Demeter did this when in mourning for Persephone). Once this part of the ceremony was over, the initiates drank a special brew of barley water mixed with penny-royal called, kykeon (Leadbetter 1999).
Remember this from school? But I bet you never considered the implications of human sexuality embedded in the myth. I didn’t, and I’m obsessed with this stuff. According to John M. Riddle in his book Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance and expanded upon in his follow up Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West the meaning of the Persephone myth was a way to impart the knowledge of family planning in the ancient world; the seeds that Persephone consumed in the Underworld corresponded with the “pause in fertility” experienced on Earth in the form of Winter. Since she ate the pomegranate (Punica granatum) seeds, the fertility of the earth was literally suspended. The specified drink that included pennyroyal is another clue that human fertility is highlighted here, as the herb was widely known as a remedy for unintended pregnancy.
This connection between myth and reality translated to the medical authority of the times:
Hippocrates, Soranus, Dioscorides, and Aetius are among the ancient Greek and Roman medical writers who prescribed pomegranate seeds and rind to prevent contraception (Riddle 1997).
The prescription generally called for the pomegranate seeds or rind (depending on the medical authority) to be administered as a pessary (essentially placed inside the vagina) and would act as contraception and/or an abortifacient (Riddle 1997). And pomegranate isn’t just a woman’s remedy: Aetius of Amida advised men to rub astringents on their penises such as alum or pomegranate before coitus to prevent fertilization (Riddle 1992).
Pomegranate was also employed outside the western world as a symbol of fertility (or human control over it). The goddess Inanna of the temple Eanna in Uruk is shown on alabaster vases decorated with pomegranates in the 4th millenium (Riddle 1997). The attendants of her temple practiced “Sacred Prostitution” specifically engaging in sexual acts for pleasure only because:
“temple/sacred prostitution” does not at all refer to or have as its objective fertility (Silver 2006).
These temple prostitutes would have been utilizing a form of birth control if they had access to it, as fecundity would have resulted in lowered wages for non-working (pregnant) women. The placement of the pomegranate on Inanna’s art seems to me that these temple attendants understood the sexual importance of the seeds.
Modern science has shown that these ancient people were truly taking control of their reproductive abilities. In 1933 Adolf Butenandt and H. Jacobi showed that both the date palm and pomegranate produced an oestrone identical to the female sex hormone within the seeds (Harborne 1993). Rudolf Weiss claims that to date:
Punica seeds are the best source of plant oestrone (Weiss 2001)
Further research confirmed this to be true. In animal experiments conducted in the 1970s and 80s female rats were fed pomegranate seeds and paired with males who did not consume the fruit. After mating, there was a 72% reduction in fertility. When the same study was completed with guinea pigs there was a 100% reduction of fertility (Bullough 2001). Interestingly, when the animals were weened from the pomegranate feeding their fertility was restored to normal levels in 40 days (Riddle 1997).
Pomegranate seeds were basically the pill to the women of antiquity. It was a hormonal contraceptive that, if taken regularly, prohibited pregnancy until the stop of the treatment.