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The Pomegranate Fruit - its efficacious qualities and status in the Zoroastrian religion and folklore [i]


















Punica granatum (Punicaceae) or pomegranate is the traditional fruit of the central Iranian plateau where it originates. It is also one of the most ancient fruit trees to be domesticated and is known to have been grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The pomegranate grows from Iran to the Himalaya in northern India and was cultivated and naturalized over the whole Mediterranean region since ancient times. The field gene bank maintained by the Seed and Plant Improvement Institute (SPII) at Yazd in central Iran has over 700 different types of trees, some of which going back to antiquity. Its only related species in the wild is P. protopunica, which is endemic to the island of Socotra (Yemen) in the Indian Ocean. It is widely cultivated throughout India and the drier parts of Southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and tropical Africa. Spanish settlers introduced the tree into California in 1769. In U.S. it is grown for its fruits mainly in the drier parts of California and Arizona.

There is no other fruit crop that has high medicinal value compared to that in pomegranate. It has some cultural significance in Iran (it signifies immortality, fertility, or reproductive energy), where is found in the central courtyard of every home on the Iranian plateau. The pomegranate flower is included in Zoroastrian religious rites. During the navjote and marriage ceremonies, a few ‘danas’ grains of the pomegranate fruit are included in the ‘ses’. The child whose navjote is going to be performed is asked to chew a pomegranate leaf, after the purification bath. It is said that a dying Zoroastrian in ancient Iran was given a few sips of the ‘haoma’ juice, but if no ‘haoma’ was available, he was given some pomegranate juice or if already dead a few grains of the pomegranate fruit were placed in the person’s mouth.

Pomegranate is also used during the ‘navar’ ceremony whereby a young man is inducted in to Zoroastrian priesthood. A number of ‘mobeds’ meet at the house of the candidate one day before the initiation. They prepare a crown and a ‘vars’. The crown is a turban wound to fit the candidate's head. It is decorated with gold and silver chains with hanging coins and has other ornaments that make it look like a crown. Each twig is wrapped with colored wool to make the vars multicolored. The twigs are made to make a circular pyramid in a plate. It is covered with a thin net. Four mirrors, dry fruit, candies, and a pomegranate fruit are also kept in the plate during the ceremony.

Because of its many seeds, the pomegranate has long stood as a symbol for fertility and included in marriage ceremonies. A refreshing delicacy, it is loved by those who dwell in hot, thirsty lands. The plant grows wild in Syria and Iran and is cultivated in Israel, where 3,000 tons a year are grown annually. It is a shrub or small tree that can grow as high as fifteen feet, with a straight stem, reddish bark and plenty of spreading branches. The dark green leaves are highly polished and the pomegranate flowers are red. When ripe, the fruit is about the size of an orange, has a thick maroon jacket enveloping the pulp. Syrup made from the pomegranate seeds is known as grenadine. Grenadine is common in Northern India not only for desserts, but also to marinate meat; due to its content of proteolytic enzymes, it acts as a meat tenderizer. Pomegranate juice, either fresh or in the form of grenadine, is a common souring agent in Western Asia and may be used, e.g., in the Turkish or Arabic salad (tabuleh) made from precooked cracked wheat (bulgur), parsley and possibly raw vegetables. Lastly, dried pomegranate seeds make an interesting alternative for raisins in cakes and other European sweets.

From its origins in central Iran the pomegranate spread to West Asia and the regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It reached Spain and pomegranate orchards dotted the entire region that was termed as “Grenada”. From Spain the missionaries took it to the New World when they landed in Mexico. Later, they traveled northwards in to California and the tree was established in the San Jaoquin valley. Eastwards, the pomegranate spread to India along the marine and land-based trade routes. It spread to China through Samarqand. The pomegranate, along with the peach and the citron, was one of China's 3 blessed fruits. To the Chinese, it was a symbol of fecundity and a prosperous future. The many seeds represented numerous male offspring earning fame and glory. The first sherbet was made from snow mixed with pomegranate juice. In ancient times pharmacists made an astringent medication for treatment of dysentery from the blossoms.

Beginning around 200 B.C. great camel caravans of merchants and traders traveled by lonely and barren desert tracks and lofty mountain passes which became to be known as the Silk Road. Exchanges of goods, seeds, religious philosophy, and technology transformed every culture through which the great route passed. The Silk Road stretched 5,000 miles from Xi’an, the ancient capital of China to the very doorstep of Europe, Rome. Today, the Silk Road remains in the imagination of journalists, historians, anthropologists, and adventurers as a symbol of the joining of cultures of the east and the west. Many a bag of pomegranate seeds and cuttings were transported to new areas for cultivation.

Three pomegranates can be seen on the silver shekel of Jerusalem, the coin mentioned in the Bible. It was in circulation from 143 to 135 BC. Hiram of Tyre used the pomegranate in building Solomon's Temple. In fact, the walls of Solomon’s Temple are reported as having been literally covered with decorations, in which, this fruit appears the most conspicuous. It is also mentioned in regards to the ephod (part of the gorgeous ceremonial dress of a Jewish high-priest) that was bordered at the hem with embroidered pomegranates.

In the Iranian city of Meybod there is the Narin Qal`eh, which used to be called the castle of pomegranate (Qal`ehi Anar) that is now lying in ruin. This six-storied castle can be seen from any angle in the city. The castle was said to have been erected at the time of King Solomon. Another story has it that this is the castle or white fortress (Dezhe Sefid) stipulated in Shahnameh epic of Ferdowsi. The history of this castle is indeed considered to be older than the Achaemanid era. From a historic and architectural point of view this castle is of no less of significance than that of the Persepolis to many scholars of Iranian history.

The medicinal powers of the pomegranate are mentioned in Greek mythology as well. People of the Near East and the Greeks and Romans associated the pomegranate with fecundity. In Greece, the pomegranate was involved in the folkloristic story of the goddess of agriculture, Demeter, and her daughter Persephone. When Hades, the god of the underworld, abducted Persephone, Zeus promised to retrieve her if Persephone had not eaten anything in the underworld. When it was discovered that she had eaten a few kernels of a pomegranate given to her by Hades, a compromise settlement was made: Persephone was allowed to stay with her mother nine months of the year but was required to spend the remaining three with Hades. The story can be seen as an allegory representing the cycle of growth, decay, and regeneration of vegetation, the time in the underworld representing the resting period of the seed during the winter. The story of Persephone was reenacted every year at the temple of Demeter at Eleusis near Athens. In these rites, called the Eleusinian mysteries, the pomegranate was considered the mystic fruit. These ceremonies were the most important and impressive of all Greek religious celebrations and were later adopted by the Romans. Even the ancient Egyptians revered the pomegranate. Fragments of the pomegranate fruit rind and seeds were found buried inside the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (1343–1325 BC). Due to its many kernels arranged in clusters, the pomegranate fruit has long stood as a symbol for fertility and the flower bud, sexuality. In fact, in the book on oriental lovemaking written by Sheik Nefzaui of Tunisia in 1500 AD, the pomegranate juice has been described as having several beneficial effects, especially for fertile women.

A refreshing delicacy, it is loved by those who dwell in hot, thirsty lands. The plant grows wild in Syria and Persia and is cultivated in Israel, where 3000 tons a year are grown annually. It is a shrub or small tree that can grow as high as fifteen feet, with a straight stem, reddish bark and plenty of spreading branches. The dark green leaves are highly polished and the pomegranate flowers are red. When ripe, the fruit is about the size of an orange, has a thick maroon jacket enveloping the pulp. Syrup made from squeezing the pulpy pomegranate kernels with the addition of sugar is known as grenadine. The juice is commonly used in Northern India not only for desserts and sweets, but also to marinate meat; due to its content of proteolytic enzymes, which acts as a meat tenderizer. Pomegranate juice, either fresh or in the form of grenadine, is a common souring agent in West Asia and North Africa and may be used, e.g., in the Turkish or Arabic salad (tabuleh) made from precooked cracked wheat (bulgur), parsley and possibly raw salad vegetables. Lastly, dried pomegranate kernels make an interesting alternative for raisins in cakes (muffins), ice creams and other sweets.

During the First World War, the French named their hand-tossing explosive as a hand “grenade”, after the seed scattering properties of the exploding pomegranate fruit at maturity. The French military division that wielded this lethal weapon in war was likewise called the “Grenadiers”.

One can dry the fruit in the sun and use it in a potpourri bowl (which is placed in bath-rooms in America and Europe) or in the old times was hung on the door-back with a dried bulb of garlic, some cinnamon sticks and a horseshoe for good luck. They also used to break a pomegranate in front of the home entrance to ask the gods for prosperity. The leaves turn yellow in the autumn and give the tree a totally different look.

The Chinese mention pomegranate juice as a longevity drug. But the pomegranate, whose main attraction has been as a fruit, is now coming into its own as a modern medical resource. Two separate Israeli medical research groups, are developing a broad range of treatments and products derived from the fruit; At the Lipid Research Laboratory of Haifa's Rambam Medical Center, Dr. Michael Aviram, a biochemist for 20 years, has researched ways to prevent and break down the deposits of cholesterol in the arteries -- arteriosclerosis -- that cause strokes and heart disease. Searching for natural antioxidants, he says he tested "many different substances before focusing on the pomegranate". Its juice, he found, contains a particularly powerful antioxidant, a flavonoid, more effective at fighting heart disease than those known in tomatoes and red wine.

For the past year, he has tested the medicinal value of the juice by providing it to Rambam patients suffering from carotid artery stenosis, a narrowing of those arteries that bring blood to the brain. The results, he reports, have been rapid with improvements noticed as early as after the first month. The potential exists, Aviram says, for high-risk patients to be spared bypass surgery simply by drinking pomegranate juice. To make the consumption of pomegranate more palatable, he is working on developing a pill with the same medicinal attributes as the concentrated liquid. Dr. Ephraim Lansky, the founder of the Rimonest Company, is even more upbeat on the prospects for pomegranate. He suggests that research may prove the pomegranate is a virtual cure-all. Its juice, flesh, and even its skin, he believes, contain properties to counter not only cholesterol, but aging, and perhaps even cancer and AIDS, as well.

The primary shareholder and head researcher of Rimonest, Lansky is a University of Pennsylvania-trained physician, with a doctorate in psychology and biology. He is qualified as a homeopathic physician and acupuncturist. He is currently marketing Cardiogranate; a pomegranate juice concentrate that he says combats high cholesterol. He is also developing a cosmetic line of anti-aging creams, massage oils, masques and toners, using estrogen-rich extractions from pomegranate seeds and peel. As a practicing homeopathic professional, he prescribes pomegranate juice for fever and gives it to menopausal women for combating ‘hot flashes’. Dr. Lansky is also about to begin tests on mice in Israel's Beilinson Hospital and the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, in order to confirm the efficacy of pomegranate in counteracting the proliferation of human breast-cancer cells.

In India, the pomegranate has been regarded as a food-medicine of great importance. All parts of the tree, the roots, the reddish brown bark, leaves, flowers, rind and seeds, have featured in medicine for thousands of years. The medical authorities of ancient India have described it as a light food and a tonic for the heart. The ancient medical writers of Arabia regarded it as- a fruit that is good for the inflammation of the stomach and pain of the heart. The sweet varieties of the fruit are considered a good laxative, while those that are intermediate between sweet and sour are regarded as valuable in the stomach inflammations and heart pain.

The juice from the fresh fruit is an excellent cooling beverage for alleviating thirst in cases of fevers and sickness. It acts on the liver, heart and kidneys and tones up their functions. It supplies the required minerals and helps the liver to preserve vitamin A from the food. It increases the body's resistance against infections, particularly tuberculosis.

Digestive Disorders
Pomegranate juice is of great value in digestive disorders. It is an appetizer, a digestive food item and is useful for patients suffering from colitis and mucous. It binds the stools and tones up the intestines. A tablespoonful of the juice mixed with equal quantity of honey can be given with beneficial results in bilious vomiting i.e. bile containing fluid and nausea, burning in chest due to excessive secretion of bile, flatulent colic and morning sickness. The bark of the pomegranate tree may be used as a very strong purgative, but it has several side effects.


Diarrhea and Dysentery
The chief value of the pomegranate is its astringent properties that cause cells to shrink-and it is a valuable food medicine for diarrhea and dysentery. If the patient develops weakness on account of profuse and continuous purging, he should be given repeatedly about 50 ml. of pomegranate juice to drink. This will control his diarrhea. If the patient passes blood with stools, this will also stop by the use of fresh pomegranate juice. The flower buds are also astringent and are useful in chronic diarrhea and dysentery, especially of children.

Intestinal Worms
The bark, both of the root and the stems of pomegranate tree, is well known for its anthelmintic properties of destroying parasitic worms. The root-bark is, however, preferred as it contains greater quantity of the alkaloid punicine than the stem-bark. This alkaloid is highly toxic to tapeworms. 90 to 180 mi. of the cold decoction of the bark, preferably fresh bark, should be given three times at an intervals of one hour to an adult. A purgative should be given after the last dose. The dose for children is 30 to 60 ml. The decoction is also used for expelling tapeworms.

The juice of the fruit with the addition of a little saffron is useful in fevers to allay thirst. A sherbet of the ripe fruit is beneficial in the treatment of typhus, gastric and asthmatic fevers. The root bark is also given as a febrifuge in-i.e. to prevent fevers.


Vaginal/Anal Itching
The skin of the pomegranate fruit is considered highly beneficial in the treatment of anal or vaginal itching. This nasty discomfort may result from unhygienic habits or from worm infection. The skin of the fruit should be roasted till it is brittle and black. It is then powdered. The powder is mixed with a little vegetable oil and applied over the anus.


Kidney and Bladder Stones
The seeds of sour and sweet pomegranate are useful as a medicine. A tablespoonful of seeds, ground into a fine paste can be given along with a cupful of horse-ram soup to dissolve gravel in kidneys and bladder.


Teeth and Gum Disorder
Powder of the dry rind mixed with pepper and common salt is applied as a very good dentifrice-i.e. tooth paste or powder. Its regular application strengthens the gum, stops bleeding, prevents pyorrhea, cleans the teeth and preserve them for a long time.

Some folk remedies are as follows:

  • Boil 100 grams of pomegranate rind in 4 cups of water. Use this infusion to brush teeth every morning to treat gum inflammation and purulent infections.

  • Boil the rind of the fruit and rinse mouth with this infusion 2 to 3 times a day to disinfect tonsils and throat.

  • Boil the rind of the fruit and rinse mouth with this infusion 2 to 3 times a day to treat canker sores.

  • Take 50 grams of dry pomegranate root bark, soak it overnight in 1 or 2 glasses of cold water. Boil it for a few minutes the following morning, let it cool and drink every 15 minutes until you have taken it 2 or 3 times to expel Taenia solium, the tapeworm.

Other Uses
The pomegranate is used as a table-fruit. Its juice is regarded as a delicacy and is made into excellent sherbet and drunk with the addition of water and sugar. It is also used in preparing syrups, ice creams, jellies and marmalades. The pomegranate has a very good keeping quality. It can be kept well for about six months in cold storage. Its thick rind protects its succulent seeds from much rough handling. For culinary purposes. pomegranate seeds have an astringent smell and sweet-sour taste. A sweet and fresh syrup, known as grenadine, is made from the juice of pomegranate. Pomegranate syrup, used in Middle Eastern cooking, has an intense concentrated flavor. Pomegranate seeds are used in Indian cooking as a souring agent. Crushed seeds are sprinkled in some of the Middle Eastern cuisines.

All parts of the tree have been utilized as sources of tannin for curing leather. The trunk bark contains 10 to 25% tannin and was formerly important in the production of Morocco leather. The root bark has a 28% tannin content, the leaves, 11%, and the fruit rind as much as 26%. The latter is a by-product of the "anardana" industry. Both the rind and the flowers yield dyes for textiles. Seeping the leaves in vinegar can make ink. In Japan, an insecticide is derived from the bark. The pale-yellow wood is very hard and, while available only in small dimensions, is used for walking sticks and in woodcrafts.

The fruit has a fairly long shelf life at room temperature, and hence was carried on long journeys through desert climates as a source of water and nourishment. Today, pomegranates make nice ornaments for fruit bowls or Christmas wreaths, as the fruit are marketed around the holiday season. A red dye is obtained from the flowers and also from the rind of un-ripened fruits. The dye can be red or black and it is also used as an ink. It is coppery-brown in color. No mordant is required. A fast yellow dye is obtained from the dried rind. Plants are grown as hedges in Mediterranean climates. The wood of the tree is very hard, compact, close grained, and durable. Hence it is used for making agricultural implements in Iran.

The fruit should be eaten immediately after they are cut open as the seeds lose their color quickly. Pips should not be swallowed whole while eating the fruit. This is said to have bad effect in the intestines and may cause appendicitis.


The pomegranate has been one of the oldest fruits consumed by humans. It was domesticated and brought in to cultivation on the central plateau in Iran, around the town of Yazd, where most of the Zoroastrians congregated after the fall of the Sasanian Empire around 640-642 AD. As the fruit, leaves and flowers of the tree are included in Zoroastrian religious ceremonies, the tree is grown within the open spaces in every Zoroastrian home in Iran. It is also found in the gardens of most Zoroastrians fire-temples and shrines. The pomegranate is mentioned in several folkloristic stories and mythology and its medicinal uses are legendary. In recently years, researchers are finding new medicinal uses for this very ancient fruit.

[i] This paper was posted on vohuman.org on July 7, 2005.  It also appeared in the proceedings of the International Conference on the Agricultural Heritage of Asia, held at Secunderabad, India on December 6-9, 2004. Parts of this paper have also been published in FEZANA Journal, Spring 2005 Issue, Vol.18, No.1