Pomona was the ancient Roman goddess of fruit trees and orchards, with a name derived from the Latin word ‘pomum’, meaning fruit, or orchard fruit. In contrast with many Roman deities, Pomona was an exclusively Roman goddess, with no direct Greek counterpart, although she is sometimes compared with Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest. In art she appeared as a beautiful, innocent young maiden wearing a fruit crown and holding a pruning knife. Her name may sound familiar today, as it became the root for many English and French words, including pomegranate, pomme (French for apple), and even pomme de terre (French for potato, or ‘apple of the earth’). We delve into the history behind this fascinating goddess.
A Wood Nymph
In Roman mythology, Pomona was a hamadryad, or wood nymph, who devoted her existence to the tending of fruit trees. Ovid writes in his Metamorphoses, “No other hamadryad of the wood nymphs of Latium tended to the garden more skillfully or was more devoted to the orchard’s care, hence her name.” According to numerous myths, her radiant beauty attracted several suitors, including Silvanus and Picus, but Pomona preferred to be alone, nurturing her sacred trees in the countryside. Describing her reclusive nature, Ovid wrote, “Still fearing boorish aggression, she enclosed herself in an orchard (pomeria), and denied an entrance, and shunned men.”
Pomona Married Vertumnus
One suitor in particular was determined to win Pomona’s heart: the trickster Vertumnus, god of seasons, change, plant growth, and gardens. According to Ovid, Vertumnus had the ability to shape-shift into different people, and he used this skill to win Pomona’s heart. He disguised himself as an old woman, and persuaded her to let him into her sacred orchard. He then told Pomona a warning tale on the dangers of rejecting a suitor, regaling the tragic story of Iphis and Anaxarette. After winning her heart, Pomona and Vertumnus married, and became complementary deities who brought forth great abundance and growth.
Goddess of Fruit Trees, Gardens and Orchards
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As goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards, Pomona’s most significant attribute was the pruning knife. In artistic depictions we often see her carrying this knife, along with a platter of fruit, or a cornucopia. Ovid describes the power she wielded with this seemingly humble tool, writing, “She carried a curved pruning knife, not a javelin, with which she cut back the luxuriant growth, and lopped the branches spreading out here and there, now splitting the bark and inserting a graft, providing sap from a different stock for the nursling.”
The Goddess of Abundance
Pomona’s associations with fruit trees and orchards naturally connected her to themes of abundance and opulence. She is most commonly represented in art surrounded by a lush and verdant, paradisiacal garden of color and life, representing her role as a nurturer who could bring forth life-sustaining produce. Romans dedicated the date of August 13 as a feast day in honor of Pomona, as this was the date when the first fruits of the harvest were ripe enough to eat.
Romans also organized the festival of Pomona for the 1st of November, which many have linked with the development of Halloween’s date today. During the festival, Romans made offerings of nuts and apples to the gods, and thanked them for protecting the harvest. In fact, many of the Halloween traditions of today are still associated with apples, including apple bobbing and toffee apples, which bear resemblance to Pomona’s sacred fruits.
Pomona Has Appeared in Art and Popular Culture
Over the centuries Pomona has been an immensely popular muse, inspiring a great many artists and writers, particularly from the 16th to the 19th century. These include Peter Paul Rubens, who depicted the wood nymph’s cherubic, innocent beauty, and later Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris, who reveled in the goddess’s close associations with the vibrant, lively fertility of the natural world which so closely chimed with their artistic interests.
As well as appearing in Karl Bitter’s 1916 Pulitzer Fountain in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, Pomona made an appearance in C. S. Lewis’ famed 1950s book series The Chronicles of Narnia, as a wood goddess who blesses an orchard near Cair Paravel.