|Porphyry & Pomegranates|
|E. E. Rehmus|
Issue #41 (January 1985)
A word can depart a long way from its original meaning
Porphyry, the hard rock enclosing crystals of feldspar or quartz, is so named for its purplish color--Greek porphyrites, the rock, and porphyra, the "purple-fish" (which in Latin was purpura). Please
notice right away that the second R in the word becomes L in Modern English. This equivalence of R's and L's is common in all languages and indicates no linguistic rule other than disdain for any differences between them. I mention it only so that later on you will not become suspicious of the recurrent [quoteright]shifting back and forth between these letters. The color purple (French pourpre is ultimately a reduplicated form from the Greek phyrein "to mix or stir violently," and is a cognate of the Sanskrit bhur, "to be active." Unfortunately, the word bears no demonstrable relationship to words for "butterflies" (of purple or any other color) in any of the Nostratic languages: Finnish per-honen, Hebrew par-par, Latin pa-pilio(n). Nor does porphyry really have much to do with pomegranates, except perhaps in a metaphorical sense. My intention was merely to emphasize just how far a word can depart from its original meaning. Thus you will be in a proper frame of mind for the distances we have to travel in pursuing the ramifications and philological fancies of the pomegranate.
Literally, the whole thing probably meant something like 'asshole punk,' though you needn't take my word for it.
Pomegranate is from the Latin pomum granatum "an apple filled with seeds." The French have dropped the apple and make do with grenade whence the explosive that we, on the other hand, believe more closely resembles a "pineapple" and grenadine which can be either the liqueur made from the juice of this fruit or the dress fabric shot with "grains." In Spain, of course, it turns up as Granada, the ancient Moorish capital, site of the Alhambra. Perhaps some clever reader can tell us why Granada is so named, since I have no idea whatsoever, apart from some connection to these ubiquitous pomegranates.
The word has a timeless mystical aura. In Egypt the pomegranate was sacred to Isis. The Hebrew word for it, rimmon, has important meanings in the Cabala. Its roots are many: ram, "to be worm-eaten, riddled with holes"; ramah, "to shoot." And this may possibly be the source of the Latin word rima, "a chink," giving rise to the Italian place-name, Rimini (Latin Ariminum). We can trace this finally to the Assyrian air god, Rammanu, and suggest a cognate in the annual 30-day Moslem feast, Ramadan,from Arabic ramed, "it was hot." To us the connection between heat and air might seem strained, but we frequently find fire linked to air in the ancient traditions and, after all, the air is hot in Arabia.
The idea of "Ramadan" is that of "consuming (or purifying) fire." But Rammanu appears to be the parent (or child) of a number of Semitic words. Even the Egyptian name Ra-meses, literally "offspring of Ra," may well be a pun on the original name (unless Ra himself can be derived from Rammanu). Perhaps we can connect the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, as well, since scholars seem so uncertain of his origin.
In Hindu mythology, Rama-Chandra, the hero of the Ramayana, is called the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, if there is any connection, but even though we know that Chandra is the moon, we don't really know what "Rama" means. According to Cirlot (Dictionary of Symbols, New York, 1962), the priestess Rahab symbolized primordial Chaos overcome by God in the Beginning, and compared to Tiamat, who in Chaldean mythology was vanquished by Marduk. She was apparently the elemental idea behind all the early creation myths.
But Marduk himself must also belong to this same group, when we recall that the Egyptian word for "pomegranate" was mar, as was surely the Babylonian word as well. In Armenian his name survives as the plural of mart i.e., mardik, "men." And the Avesta speaks of Gayo-Mart, the man from whom all races descended--the Aryan equivalent of Adam.
From this same root, whatever it was, we find many words for "man" in languages all around the globe, including the Roman war god, Mars, originally Ma-Vors (Devourer [?] of . . . [?]), and Sanskrit marya, "young man." Then compare Syriac mar and Persian mard, both meaning "man"; Assyrian martu, "son," and Mar Banuti, the Assyrian patrician class, whence the name of the African blacks known as "Bantu." Even the Pygmies have the word--mara or mala, "chief or king." In some places the word acquired a more feminine cast: Ethiopic mar'at, "bride" (the man's property), Lithuanian marti, "virgin" (an incomplete woman), Old Irish muir, "a siren." But the old names Maria, Miriam, Martha, etc., all originally referred to masculine things.
In Arabic and Hebrew, mar means "mister, sir or lord"---hence the Greek Mauroi or "Moors," the Arab lords who conquered Spain. In Latin mulus, "mule," was masculine because a mule cannot bear young, but otherwise mulier was once again a "woman." In Basque, which borrows from Latin rather more often than many suspect, it reverts to its first sense, mutil, "boy." The word, however, goes on to encircle the world. Even in as remote a place as Indo-China we find Lepcia maro and Sunwar muru cropping up as their words for "man." In the New World, Carib mulu, "man," is but one of many examples. In Japanese, mara is the vulgar word for "penis." We have to remember that vulgar words have indisputably ancient family trees and are of great help to word historians, lest you think these good doctors are mere degenerates. And what of those strange white aborigines of Japan, the Ainu? May we wonder from what unknown antecedents they derive their word for "brother," ramahu? Finally, tied to all these is our own European word "male," which comes in a roundabout way from Latin masculus <-- mas, maris ± culus. The first part of the word means "little man" and the "culus" part, which you may recognize in the Spanish word culo, means just what you think it does! Literally, the whole thing probably meant something like "asshole punk," though you needn't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself in Theodore Thass Thienemann's The Subconscious Language. But whence that Latin mas maris?
In any case, the pomegranate, we have observed, because of its many seeds may stand mythologically for the male seed of fecundity. In passing, we might note that there is a word linking to M-A-R and its convolutions and conveying this idea, that is likewise repeated all over the world. Bali ar-maulaa, "egg"; Thai maled, "seed"; Samoan (fua)moa, "egg"; Persian (e)morg, "egg"; Assyrian (e)muki, "strength"; Basque (e)makoi, "fertility"; Hungarian mag, "semen"; Japanese (ta)mago, "egg": Telugu moga, "male."
Back to the pomegranate and Cirlot: "The Greeks believed the pomegranate sprang from the blood of Dionysus. There are similar beliefs linking anemones (lit. "wind flowers") with Adonis and "purple" violets with Attis. But the predominating significance of the pomegranate--as arising from its shape and internal structure, rather than its color--is the reconciliation of the multiple and the diverse within apparent unity. Hence, in the Bible, for instance, (the pomegranate) appears as a symbol of the Oneness of the Universe." We may recall that in the Tarot, the High Priestess card has a background of pomegranates as the design on the veil behind her throne. The veil, however, is meant to hide the Unknown from mortal eyes, so we still don't know what the pomegranate design is meant to hide or reveal.
But Cirlot also admits, as an afterthought, that "the pomegranate is also symbolic of fecundity"--no doubt recalling just in time the Biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply."