Slap my ox up, it’s pomegranate season again!

In this post Sue explores the significance of the pomegranate in many cultures and its significance on this day, Epiphany, with a fun way to start the New Year.

Detail from ‘Cockatoo and Pomegranate’ wallpaper. Designed by Walter Crane. C. before 1899. Source: the Whitworth

You may have seen the Walter Crane wallpaper design ‘Cockatoo and Pomegranate’ in the recent Unreformed: Wallpaper and Design Diversity exhibition, or recognise the pomegranate motif in a small Egyptian textile fragment discovered by Flinders Petrie on show in our Standardisation and Deviation exhibition.  About 2,400 years separate these, and some of the earliest images of pomegranates – from ancient Assyria – date back to the 8th century B.C.E.

Pomegranates are native to an area stretching from Iran to northern India and since their cultivation have spread across the world – from the eastern Mediterranean to Spain and Italy, through South to North America.  They are a source of medicine, of dyestuffs, and tannins for leather processing.  They are, of course, a culinary staple.  With such widespread uses and locations it isn’t surprising that pomegranates have generated an enduring profusion of narratives and imagery.  Their plentiful seeds symbolise abundance, fertility, and wealth.  Stories about them are concerned with death and renewal and they are the food of the dead.  The colour of the arils, or fleshy seed coverings, is symbolic of riches, royalty, and the light of the sun.

Woven linen and wool sleeve band showing bird, hares and fruit. Egypt, 400-499 CE. Gifted by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1897. Source: the Whitworth

In ancient Egypt, carved pomegranates were buried along with the dead, to ensure transition to the hereafter. In the Bible, verses are found in Exodus, describing the decoration of a high priest’s robe with pomegranate embroideries.  Later, the pomegranate was included in Virgin and child iconography and signified the passion and resurrection of Christ.

In Jewish tradition the number of seeds in a pomegranate corresponds to the commandments of the Torah (613), and the shape of a crown was based on a pomegranate calyx.  Famously, in the ancient Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, pomegranate seeds are linked to the eternal cycle of the seasons, the inevitability of death and regeneration. In the Iranian winter solstice festival Yaldā, the red colour of the fruit symbolises the colour of the sky at dawn, the birth of light in the longest night. 

The pomegranate pattern, which included other motifs from nature, was a staple in Renaissance imagery.  Italian silks and velvet demonstrated the affluence of the European elite who were pictured wearing them.  These fabrics were traded in the Ottoman Empire and were an international symbol of luxury and power. 

Strip of velvet cloth of gold and silver with a pattern of pomegranate palmettes. Italian. C.1530-1569. Source: the Whitworth

The proponents of the Design Reform movement in 19th century Britain were enthused by the designs found in the vast array of arts and crafts that were being uncovered by collectors and travellers abroad, and proposed that these were the foundations of good taste that should be followed to return Britain to its place in the forefront of good design and manufacture.  The seminal book on the subject was Owen Jones’s ‘The Grammar of Ornament’, which is stuffed full of details taken from architecture, manuscripts, and textiles from cultures spanning world history and includes a chapter on natural forms.  John Ruskin, William Morris and Walter Crane were prime movers in the Arts and Craft and Reform movements and their work displays constant references to Renaissance and ancient historical artistic motifs.  The pomegranate took its place at the forefront, with designs made the 19th century still being produced today.

Sidewall, Fruit, 1862; Designed by William Morris (British, 1834–1896); England; block printed on paper; H x W: 68.5 x 57 cm (26 15/16 x 22 7/16 in.); Gift of Cowtan & Tout, Inc.; 1935-23-15. Source:

Fireside Tale

In 2004, I stayed at the home of my Brazilian drum and percussion teacher, on what is known variously as Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and Christmas in the Orthodox Church, which is the day celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings to acknowledge the birth of the Messiah.

In Brazil it is called Dia de Reis or Day of the Kings and is part of a cycle of festivities called, variously, Folia de Reis, Bumba-meu-boi, and Boi de Reis. Groups called Reisados perform it; they go from house to house on the night before Dia de Reis, where they announce the arrival of the Messiah, ask for gifts and give praises to the homeowners.  In between, songs, dances and music are performed, which mix folk tales, news stories and religious and moral themes, taking the opportunity to use satire and comedy to criticise local celebrities and the powerful in church and state.

Elements of these celebrations are found in all the cultures and traditions that go to make up modern Brazil – threads are drawn from Native Brazilian narratives, Morris dance characters, Church liturgy, customs from African nations, Passion plays, contemporary affairs; all creating a uniquely Brazilian theatrical expression.

Glossary: Folia de Reis = procession or parade of Kings, Boi de Reis = King’s ox, Bumba-meu-boi = bumba has no proper translation but is the action of a smart slap on the rear, meu = my, boi = ox, so it’s more or less ‘whup my ox’.  Hope that’s clear-ish.

What has all this got to do with pomegranates?  I present to you the custom that I have practised, with widely divergent annual results, every Epiphany, ever since.  If you wish to participate you will need a pomegranate, a piece of paper and possibly some sticky tape, depending on your paper folding technique.

Open up your pomegranate and select 3 arils (the fruity bit that surrounds the actual seed).  Take aril number one, and eat the fruit from the seed, taking care not to swallow the seed itself.  While holding the seed between your teeth say, “Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, please give me money” 3 times.  (Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar are reportedly the names of the Three Kings or Magi, although Biblical texts to support this assertion are unavailable).

Repeat this for the remaining 2 arils, then put the 3 seeds in a small piece of paper, fold it up and keep it in your wallet – this will ensure you have enough money to see you through the year, although you won’t necessarily win the lottery big-time.

I looked for this custom on-line and found a few variants, one which takes place at New Year’s Eve and involves 7 seeds and jumping 7 waves, and another that is on Epiphany but calls for 9 seeds, throwing 3 over your shoulder, 3 in the fire and keeping three in your wallet.  You only have to say the charm once per seed, but still say it 9 times.  You can ask for health, wealth and happiness if you don’t want to only demand cash.  Basically, like all good traditions, this is one that you alter to fit your circumstances!

*Disclaimer: I didn’t promise this would be easy or even make sense.  It’s tradition, what can I say?

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