Daughters of Persephone

This essay appeared on tamawuj.org in the context of Sharjah Biennial 13:

Jupiter replied . . .  ‘Proserpine shall return to heaven, but on only one condition: that no food has touched her lips since that is the law decreed by the Fates.’ He spoke and Ceres felt sure of regaining her daughter. But the Fates would not allow it, for the girl had broken her fast, and wandering innocently, in a well-tended garden, she had picked a reddish-purple pomegranate fruit hanging from a tree and, taking seven seeds from its yellow rind, squeezed them in her mouth.

—Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book V[1]

First Seed

Persephone and the myth of the pomegranate seeds cropped up in conversation a few months ago, during “The Golden Feast,” a meal consisting of food and drink that were that color, which my friend Hermione hosted at her place in the East End of London. She and her boyfriend, Curtis, came up with the idea after I stumbled on them sipping a turmeric-flavored golden latte in a Shoreditch café around the corner from a local gallery, where they had come to see me in conversation with the artist Peter McDonald about his show “Mushrooms of Language.” This may be why, when making provisions for our “trip” two weeks later, a pomegranate caught her eye in the fruit aisle of the local supermarket. “I got the pomegranate for us,” she explained afterwards, “because of its bejeweled, numinous qualities—like something you’d find in an underground cave.”

Dense clusters of luscious bead-like seeds, still attached to their rind, were already laid out in a bowl with some blueberries on top, offsetting the seeds’ ruby color, by the time I arrived with the cubensis. Hermione carefully placed the gold caps on a matching glass plate bearing fanciful gilded motifs. “We should probably leave the pomegranates for later,” I said, mindful of the instructions I was given not to eat or drink anything until the mushrooms took their full effect. “Surely, they’re an ally?” Hermione ventured.

Somehow she had gotten things back to front. In Greek mythology, the seeds that Persephone unwittingly consumed in the underworld—whether tricked into doing so by Hades, her ravisher, or acting of her own accord—nearly caused her to remain there forever. Yet in Hermione’s version of the story, as related to those at “The Golden Feast,” eating pomegranate seeds became a gesture of defiance: Persephone partook of the food of the dead while looking Hades straight in the eye, knowing full well it was not allowed.

Instead of eating the glossy, firm seeds that Hermione had encouraged me to squeeze between my teeth, I took to dropping them onto the wooden floor of her room. (At this point, the mushrooms had clearly started to work their magic.) Amazed by the muffled thud, I kept repeating: “There’s no echo,” grasping for the right analogy. The floorboards had become porous, as if made of cork, cushioning and absorbing the sound of the pomegranate seeds, not unlike the walls of an anechoic chamber, also known as a chambre sourde in French, which literally means “deaf chamber.” I had visited one in Paris a few months before. It struck me at the time that the discombobulating absence of an echo was akin to a body bereft of its shadow.

Anechoic chamber at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), Paris.

Second Seed

Memory is to a smell what an echo is to a sound: something that carries it, prolongs it, and gives it a body. For what became the artwork Essence/Seeds from Brazil, 2017, the artist João Modé had wanted to work with a fruit scent. He was looking specifically for the essence of caju, a fruit from his country, and found instead a fragrance evocatively called “Seeds of Brazil.” So inconspicuous as to be easily missed at the top of a landing, a tiny white bowl containing an essential oil of that name was the source of a delicate, warm aroma lingering in the air at the back of the house, which faces the Hagia Sophia and its rounded dome.

Land, 2014/2017, Modé’s second offering for “BAHAR,” a series of exhibitions and performances that brought me to Istanbul in May, took over a room located on the ground floor of the Abud Efendi Mansion. The second of four off-site projects staged as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, “BAHAR” (meaning “spring” in Turkish, Farsi, and other languages), organized by the curator Zeynep Öz, took as its starting point the word crops and explored, among other things, the themes of seed dormancy and the awakening of the seeds coinciding with the arrival of spring.

Sourced from a nursery on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, across the Bosphorus, plants from all over the world—one hundred-odd species of them—mixed their roots and foliage to form an indoor jungle in Modé’s Land. That this “multicultural micro-forest” should contain a pomegranate shrub seemed fitting, given its widespread cultivation in the Mediterranean region and beyond. Farmers grow pomegranates even in Brazil, though the trees are not as big and beautiful, the artist told me, as the ones he had seen on his travels in Turkey and Greece. In fact, it is a Brazilian custom to ring in the new year by eating seven pomegranate seeds (“just the smooth part covering the seed,” Modé specified) at the stroke of midnight. The seeds themselves—or the seeds within seeds—are kept in one’s wallet for the whole year to bring luck and prosperity.

Installation view, João Modé, Land, 2014/2017. BAHAR off-site project, organized in Istanbul as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

The New Year’s Eve ritual doubtless says more about the Brazilian obsession with the lucky number seven than anything else. And yet Persephone and her consort Pluto, another name for Hades, seem to lurk behind it like a half-forgotten song. Pluto, whose very name held the promise of wealth and riches, is Hades in his more auspicious guise. The child that the harvest goddess Demeter conceived out of wedlock in a thrice-plowed field was venerated alongside his mother and spouse in the secret agrarian cults reenacting the story of Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s search for her daughter at Eleusis in Attica. Pluto shares with them such agrarian attributes as the stalk of grain, and is often portrayed with a horn of plenty, a cornucopia.

Third Seed

While in Istanbul, I arranged to visit the artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu. She suggested we meet at her studio, a stone’s throw from the Golden Horn. If you craned your neck, you could get a fine view of the start of Galata Bridge from a narrow side window. Somehow we got onto the subject of the exhibition “COLORI,” curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Çavuşoğlu’s Red/Red, 2015, which I had missed in the 2015 edition of the Istanbul Biennial, was on view. Over coffee, the artist told me how she found out about the crimson pigment traditionally made from the now-nearly-extinct Armenian cochineal, an insect found in the Aras (or Araks) river valley, and eventually tracked down a man who still extracts the red color in a laboratory, using a secret process. She traveled to Yerevan, Armenia to meet him and managed to obtain twelve grams of the extract, which she used to paint a series of monochromatic panels and book illustrations inspired by illuminated Armenian miniatures. To prove her story, which made artistic research sound like detective work, Çavuşoğlu produced a small vial containing what was left of the precious substance.

Installation view, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Red/Red, 2015. SALTWATER, 14th Istanbul Biennial. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren

The deep red ink was the color of a pomegranate. It brought to mind Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film—the Russian title Цвет граната is translated as The Color of Pomegranates—which is loosely based on the life of the eighteenth-century Armenian bard Sayat Nova. (Sayat-Nova was the title Parajanov had intended for the film, but he was forced to remove all references to the poet’s name to get past Soviet censors.) Filled with often-abstruse symbolism, the successive tableaux informed by the aesthetics of Persian miniatures obey a dreamlike—and occasionally nightmarish—logic. Color, above all red, is deployed to dramatic effect, as in the famous opening shot featuring three pomegranates whose juice seeps through a white cloth, gradually revealing the contours of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. The pomegranate motif is threaded through the film. The fruits usually come in threes but, in one disturbing scene, a group of young monks vociferously bite into hard, uncut pomegranate fruits as the pensive, Christ-like poet looks on. Incidentally, гранат (granat), the Russian word for pomegranate, also means garnet, the dark-red gemstone whose crystals bear a striking resemblance to the seed-lined chambers of a pomegranate.

Fourth Seed

A baroque-rococo masterpiece, lodged within an even older hospital complex in the heart of Naples, the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili is a thing of beauty. Accessed through an arcaded loggia, itself reached by means of twin, pleasingly curved staircases, the entrance room is fitted with wooden cabinets displaying neat rows of blue and white maiolica vases and jars; each had a unique design that, in the absence of labels, allowed the apothecaries to know which ointments and drug compounds they contained. This antechamber, where medicines were dispensed, leads into a more lavish grand salon and library, whose frescoed ceilings and sculptural ornamentation obey an elaborate decorative scheme, replete with Masonic symbolism.

Inside the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili (Historical Pharmacy of the Incurable) in Naples.

The back rooms—including a small laboratory full of alembics and other implements used in pharmaceutical preparations—were closed for restoration when I visited, having been urged to do so by a friend, who knew I would be traveling to Naples for an opening at MADRE, the nearby museum of contemporary art. Our guide offered to give us a quick tour. Amid sundry objects tucked away in a narrow passageway stood a sizable marble urn mounted on a pedestal. Framed by a floral motif, a bulging fruit sculpted in high relief on the urn rose above a green marble backdrop.

The guide informed us it was a melograno—Italian for pomegranate—the emblem of fertility. Made of choice Mondragone marble, the urn was designed to hold the equally precious acqua teriacale, for which the pharmacy was famous. Owing to its elaborate preparation and an ever-expanding list of rarefied ingredients—ranging from opium, myrrh, and saffron to viper’s meat—theriac was the most expensive of drugs. Its reputation as an effective antidote known to the ancients, as well as a universal panacea capable of curing all illnesses, was only starting to be challenged by the mid-eighteenth century, when the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili was built.

Among the virtues attributed to the concoction were its aphrodisiac and hallucinogenic properties, according to our guide. In her eyes, the former accounted for the prominence of the pomegranate symbol—not without some irony, given that the hospital specialized in the treatment of venereal diseases such as syphilis. As to the latter, it would appear that Bufotenin—a psychoactive substance naturally occurring in the skin of certain venomous toad species—was to blame.

Fifth Seed

The day after my visit to the Farmacia, I saw a tour guide pointing out the flowers of a pomegranate tree—or several—growing among the ruins in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum. A couple nodded knowingly, but I had never seen a pomegranate in blossom before. I resisted the urge to pluck off one of the poppy-colored blooms set amid dark green foliage; fortunately, they were out of my reach. That very afternoon, I spotted some more pomegranate trees and shrubs near the vast outdoor swimming pool behind the Villa Oplontis, a few stops away on the Circumvesuviana railway line. The Roman villa that Poppaea Sabina, emperor Nero’s mistress and later his wife, had elected as her secondary residence lay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, like Herculaneum, and it met with the same fate when the volcano erupted in AD 79.

Red and yellow ochre are the dominant tones of the wall paintings unearthed at the Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis, long buried beneath protective layers of volcanic debris and ash, and remarkably well-preserved as a result. One of them depicts Hercules (after whom the Greek colony of Herculaneum was named) in the Garden of the Hesperides. Conceived with the central niche of the caldarium in mind, this fine, naturalistic fresco shows the barely-clad hero standing beside a large tree, his right arm extended in the direction of two round, reddish fruits placed on a nearby boulder, as if to taunt him.

Fresco c. 90-25 BCE depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, the Villa Oplontis, Naples.

These appeared to be Hera’s immortality-granting “golden apples,” the ones that Hercules was tasked with stealing in his penultimate labor, except that they looked neither golden nor like apples. They resembled pomegranates more than any of the other fruits associated with the goddess. Fruits tend to be indeterminate, and easily confused, in biblical as in mythological accounts. Apples, especially, are fated to stand in for all (forbidden) fruits. The trees in the Garden of the Hesperides, grafted from the branches the Earth goddess Gaia gave Hera on her wedding day, may have borne oranges, pomegranates, or pommes tout courtA pomegranate—from the Latin pomum for “apple” and granatum, meaning “seeded”—is, after all, an apple with many seeds.

Sixth Seed

Casa Melograno, on the island of Stromboli, near Sicily, is one in a cluster of holiday homes built around an older, more imposing private residence that locals still refer to as “Il Castello.” The two-story mansion, with its fine stone-framed windows, stands out among the modest whitewashed houses in the Piscità settlement, near the end of the habitable stretch of Stromboli. The name leapt out at me on the morning of my arrival on the Aeolian Island, straight off the night ferry from Naples, as I walked past the house and spotted a lone pomegranate tree in its front garden. I was looking for La Lunatica, the villa where I would be staying for about a week for a residency with the artist Gaia Fugazza, the curator Daria Khan, and the photographer and publisher Giovanna Silva. It lay hidden behind Casa Melograno, at the bottom of a narrow path that skirts Il Castello. On a moonlit night, when the palm trees cast long shadows across the road, it looked like a haunted castle.

We were there to conduct some unorthodox “research activities” in preparation for a group show in central London, and to gather materials for a publication linking the two volcanic portals to the underworld through which Jules Verne’s heroes go down and come back up again in The Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). With that in mind, on the evening slated for our ascent of the active volcano, we agreed to meet back at the house where Geko—a longtime resident of the island who set up the local plant nursery—was to stage a shamanic drumming ceremony, following our descent from the mountain. The pulsing rhythm of the drum is meant to induce a trance-like state, ideally resulting in an encounter with one’s inner animal guide. To set the whole process in motion, Geko had instructed us to visualize an opening of some sort—be it a cave or a well—leading into the earth. But owing to sheer exhaustion from the six-hour climb, or a failure of imagination, the drumming did not do much for me. My companions fared somewhat better.

Silva told us the next day that the opening she pictured was a cave she had visited years before in a sanctuary at Eleusis. We had just finished reading aloud passages from classics of katabatic literature (stories narrating journeys of descent into the underworld), inspired in part by the drumming session, out on the terrace of La Lunatica. The cave in question, known as Hades’s grotto, lies on the grounds of the sanctuary dedicated to the god who abducted Kore, Persephone in her maidenly guise, and brought her back up through a well located on its precincts—or so claimed the priests who presided over the Lesser and the Great Mysteries, celebrated respectively in spring and at harvest time in Eleusis.

In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves suggests a number of possible locations where the Rape of Persephone or Proserpine (“the fearful one”) may have occurred, ranging from Sicily to Crete to Attica. Ovid sets the scene in a glade of everlasting spring surrounding a deep pool by the name of Pergus (the modern-day lake of Pergusa), near the walls of Enna, a city at the foot of Mount Etna in the center of Sicily—tantalizingly close to the Aeolian Islands. This is where Dis (Pluto) beheld the maiden, as she was gathering flowers with her companions, and snatched her. Nothing remains of the temple dedicated to Demeter who, with her daughter Persephone, was the object of a cult at Enna, but a grotto from which Pluto was believed to have emerged is thought to be the navel of Sicily.

Hades’s cave and sanctuary at Eleusis, Greece.

Seventh Seed

The Fates had decreed that whoever ate or drank in the underworld would be condemned to remain there forever. As a result, Persephone, who consumed between three and seven seeds—according to different versions of the myth—while she was held captive by Hades, would dwell each year in the underworld for as many months. This is one account of the origin of seasons, since during the months Persephone spends beneath the ground—not unlike a seed (“a sweet young seedling” is precisely how the grief-stricken goddess describes her lost daughter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter)—Demeter goes into mourning and the earth no longer bears crops; conversely, the moment when Persephone comes back and is reunited with Demeter marks the onset of spring. Part chthonic deity, part vegetation goddess, Persephone personifies the dormancy of the seeds and the rebirth of nature.

Each of the seven “seeds” above explores an image—or cluster of images—connected to the pomegranate and its potent symbolism as both a fertility emblem and food of the dead. Together they make up an anatomy of the fruit and a travelogue of sorts: I brought the seeds back from travels—for work and pleasure—that spanned a period of three months, from April to June 2017. The physical journeys were doubled by other “trips,” induced by the use of magic mushrooms, shamanic drumming, and meditation techniques. I’m not sure what all these connections reveal other than that, when we become interested in a given subject, we start seeing it everywhere.


[1] From a translation by A. S. Kline,