If you’ve ever been to a witches’ Samhain ritual, there are probably several things that seem familiar, some that seem pretty mysterious, and other pieces that might seem like you should understand it, but maybe it still doesn’t make too much sense. The part that new witches attending my rituals ask about most frequently is the part where the priestess or priestesses hold up a pomegranate in one hand and an apple in the other. This is a reference to the meaning of the transition so prominent at Samhain, of connecting Life to the time of Death, and recognizing that Death always brings new life.
In most traditions, the priestess holds the pomegranate, and says something like, “Behold the fruit of Life, which is Death.” I was taught to do this dramatic thing of squeezing the pomegranate, and allowing the juice to run down my arm like blood. In the other hand, the priestess holds an apple cut cross-wise to reveal the pentagram at the center, saying “Behold the fruit of death which is rebirth!” She then passes the apple before everyone to show the pentagram at the center. The priestess holding both, one in each hand, symbolizes that the two sides: life and death, are held in balance by the Goddess. If you are someone who doesn’t believe in Divinity, it doesn’t really change much. The idea is that the polarity of life and death should always be held in balance.
Samhain is a time to honor the ancestors from whom we come, and to recognize the time of death that comes every year, changing the world. The ancient people of the Mediterranean cultures (Greece, Scythia, Arcadia, from Spain to the edge of Asia) told the story of Demeter and Persephone. In most of the tellings of this myth, Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, searches for her everywhere (there are so many variations on this story I could write just about Demeter for a LONG time). Eventually Demeter is informed by Hecate, that her daughter was brought down to the underworld. Demeter flies into a rage, and in her form as Demeter Erynis, or the Angry Demeter, torches the countryside, and refuses to nourish the people with her gifts of fruits and grains.
The Gods had wronged Demeter in many ways, that are too long to include in this article, but they recognized that the human race would die out if Demeter continued her mourning for Persephone by not allowing anything to grow. The Olympian Gods recognized that they needed human worship, and that Demeter was the key. No Demeter, no human relationships, because… no food equals no humans. So Hermes, the messenger was sent to bring Persephone up from the Underworld. There was just one problem. Persephone had been warned that she should not eat or drink anything while in the underworld. But one day Persephone was overcome with hunger and thirst and ate just a few seeds from a pomegranate. These few seeds bound her to the underworld. Demeter bargained with Hades though, and the seeds represented the amount of time Persephone would need to stay in the land of the Dead, one seed for each month. In some tellings it is three seeds, in others, six.
The way it is often shared is that Demeter, thrilled with having her daughter returned to her was the inadvertent creator of the seasons. When Persephone has returned everything blooms, and green returns to the earth. When Persephone returns to Hades, the Earth is barren as Demeter mourns. This is an oversimplification though of the Eleusinian Mystery that told the story in detail. The rituals and stories of Eleusis have been lost to us. There was quite a curse put on people who had undergone the ordeal. Should they write down the secrets, or share them with the uninitiated, they would suffer gravely. As a result, we know very little.
So the pomegranate binds human beings to the underworld. It is ironic, because the pomegranate, when cut open is filled with seeds. It is a symbol of fertility the world over because of its association with the capacity to create new life. And yet, it was this very fruit that created the connection to Death for those who inhabited the Ancient world of the Mediterranean cultures.
In the Celtic cultures, whose people either originated, or passed through this area of the Mediterranean on their way to Western Europe, the Apple was a symbol of the Summerland, the paradise of the Celtic peoples. The Celts referred to their version of the Afterlife, as The Isle of Apples. It was this place that the Celts believed they would inhabit after death, an ever-green paradise filled with apples for the dead to eat. It is this apple that gets conflated with the myth of Eve and the Garden of Eden. Little is known about the Isle of Apples except these aspects. Some believe that Avalon of the Arthurian legends is the same Apple-filled paradise.
When we stand in the circle at Samhain honoring the ancestors, and discussing the balance of life and death through the fruits of the pomegranate and the apple, we are connecting to those ancestors in a very ancient way, unifying the myths through space and time. We honor those who came before, we honor the experiences of living and dying. And we honor the continuity of being across life, death, and time. We see our ancestors, and we see ourselves and our contribution to the future as part of the same line of honor and grace that created us- and we continue forward honoring the future of those for whom we now make the world.
By Marianne van der Hove