The Periplus, Journeys and Diversions, is a fortnightly column penned by the author duo Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, who write as Kalpish Ratna. The column navigates and documents journeys of simplicity in everyday life. In this piece, they examine the power of freedom and sexuality embodied in the pomegranate through the tale of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility.
t was a horrid day, just as dull as the weather. I was late, and in my haste, I knocked over a vase that had stood precariously at the edge of my desk for ten years. As I watched it shatter I wondered if I could glue it together again. Someday, perhaps, but not on this task-ridden, ask-forbidden, mask-hidden, teeth-gnashing day.
The shattered vase reminds me that I have a bit of magic hoarded behind that ziggurat of books, apotropaic against the fanged and slavering day. It is an object that is more used to being on pillars, not behind them, in books, not around them. Something that looks like a Dukes cricket ball, scuff and shine halved by seam, with which Wasim Akram yorked out batsmen.
This particular orb, though, is stuffed with jewels. Six-hundred and thirteen of them, if you believe the scribe who penned Proverbs 31:10—31.
Like most other mystic numbers, that 613 is hooey, but who’s to contradict?
On a day like this, my price is not far above rubies, not when all I need to earn them is a sharp penknife and a clean white plate.
And here they spill, a scatter of tiny gems. Rubies, spinels, garnets. Each faceted and nucleated with a seed. Not gems, but arils. Not arils but sarcotesta, which is botanist code for a coarse insult: fleshy seeds.
I won’t sink so low. This jewel beyond compare is pomegranate, the fruit of immortality.
A fruit desperately needed on a morning like this, when every headline is an intimation of mortality.
Headlines remind me of the first ever [as far as we know] published manuscript. My brief brush with publishing was a three year stint as a Books Editor, the fiercest and most feverish education I’ve ever had. It was around this time that I discovered the ‘first ever’ page. It maybe wrong to call it a news sheet or a book. It resembles a Kindle, but the tablet isn’t backlit.
That publisher, like most publishers today, was a woman. And her story had something to do with another shattered vase, one that had survived 2,000 years when she told her tale. It survived another 3000, before it met a vandal’s sledgehammer in 2003.
The first ever page, written in 2300 BCE said What I have done here, no one has done before.
Scholars read it as a simple admission: this is a first in publishing history. True, but there’s a more personal note to it. The comment is addressed to the writer’s father: Wake up, old Dad, look at what your daughter’s pulled off.
Let’s line up the characters in this story: Dad is King Sargon 1 of Sumer and Akkad, united Mesopotamia. The writer/publisher is his daughter
En-hedu-anna, literally, Priestess of the Ornament of the Sky, even more beautiful in Sumerian: 𒂗𒃶𒌌𒀭𒈾.. En-hedu-anna’s writings were about the greatness of Inanna, the Goddess of Love, whose story decorates the vase that was shattered so recently, in 2003.
In the myth, Inanna stands poised between the two worlds. During her sojourn in the underworld, her powers are realized by—a pomegranate.
On the smashed vase, known as the Uruk or Warka vase, Innana is worshipped in several tiers of narrative decoration. The lowest is a border of vegetation. The plants represented are grain—and the pomegranate.
The pomegranate is celebrated in ancient literature as a contraceptive. This use is not unknown in modern India, but only in folk medicine.
The more sophisticated belief systems though have sustained the pomegranate, because of its many seeds, as a symbol of fertility.
Inanna has many avatars in world cultures. She is Ishtar, Aphrodite, Persephone, Eve, AdiShakti.
The Uruk vase reveals even-handed worship. It grants Innana the control over fertility, the power to bestow and to intercept pregnancy. The power of choice. Innana is the most ancient representation of freedom: the power to take charge of one’s body.
In later tellings, one part of Innana’s blessing is edited out. Women are blessed with fertility, but their power to control it is ignored. Do we even need to ask who’s telling this story? Sacred texts and early archeologists and anthropologists colluded in this erasure.
Or rather, these scholars, almost always Western, imposed their own cultural beliefs on cultures nobody knew anything about.
Luckily for us, En-hedu-anna and Innana are being reinterpreted by more enlightened minds.
How long will it take for Inanna to emerge as an individual, self-defined, unashamed of her sexuality, unafraid of its consequences?
For now, like all else, her story is on pause, lost somewhere between the shards of a broken vase and a ripe pomegranate.
(Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write as Kalpish Ratna. They are both surgeons, who explore the interface between science and humanities in their writings. Their book ‘A Crown of Thorns, The Coronavirus and Us’ is available on Amazon.in.)