What Bob Dylan sang about corn and cultural references to pomegranates

Jim Chatfield
 |  Special to Akron Beacon Journal

I gave talks last week in Columbus at the Ohio State University’s green industry short course, which offers specialized training in a short amount of time. There was also time to go on campus to walk OSU’s “other” arboretum, the Chadwick Arboretum. Squirrels were enjoying the shriveled-up Sargent crab apples, fall witch hazels were finishing up their butter-yellow blooms as winter looms, and ornamental bark features were in the forefront: on sycamores, on Persian parrotia and with the glorious patchwork of lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana. Meanwhile at Mirror Lake the OSU College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences were served by tiny little food delivery robots.  

Cornucopia and Bob Dylan

I recently read a fascinating book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters” by Harvard classics professor Richard F. Thomas. It details the influence of Roman poets Virgil, Catullus and others on the Dylan oeuvre. The case is convincing, and I agree with Thomas about the literary depth of Dylan’s work and his deserving the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature.  

That said, something more topically botanical caught my eye in the book: namely the use of “corn” in Dylan’s “Early Roman Kings” song on his 2012 album “Tempest.”

Dylan’s lyric of “All the early Roman kings in the early, early morn’/Coming down the mountain, distributing the corn,” and Thomas’ words of “Corn distribution was a form of dole, and there was even a magistrate responsible for the allotment of cheap or free grain to an urban populace, whose unrest in times of famine, which happened often enough, would pose a serious threat to the state” brought me up short.  

Why? Because what we know as corn, Zea mays, is a New World plant, native to Central America and Mexico, derived from the wild grass teosinte. Corn made it into what is now the southwest U.S. thousands of years ago and then northward and eastward. Corn did not make it across the pond into Europe until Columbus brought it back from Cuba. So, no Roman Empire corn. What gives?  Was Bob Dylan fantasizing again?  

Not exactly. The early origins of the word “corn” were for “grain with the seed still in,” and referred to any grain found in a particular region, and in ancient Rome a common word for wheat (Triticum spp.) was corn. Another example: Later in Scotland, corn was the name for what we call oats (Avena sativa).

We do owe those Romans the Latin language that was used for the botanical and zoological names of plants and animals that help clear up much of the confusion with common names. If you are working on “Maggie’s Farm” today, corn means Zea mays, though Maggie’s Farm was not really a farm.  

Incidentally, for a more penetrating treatment of “why grain matters” take a look at “Oceans of Grain,” a 2022 book by the University of Georgia historian Scott Reynolds Nelson. It details the historical and also quite contemporaneous geopolitical importance of grain in the form of wheat with regard to the chernozem soils of Ukraine. From 10 millennia ago to Holodomor, Stalin’s deliberate famine in Ukraine, to today’s Russian aggression into Ukraine and its effects on Ukrainians, and on to food politics in Europe and Africa.  

Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

Last week I noted that pomegranates have arils, fleshy coverings of the seeds. Learning this led to much more. First of all, as a plant it grows to 15-25 feet or so and is native to Iran and India, which along with China leads the world in pomegranate production today. The U.S. grows little, but some in Arizona and California. The bright red flowers and developing fruit “crowns” (calyx or group of sepals) are attractive, with the fruits (large berries) having something of an ungainly reddish-brown, leathery, squarish look.   

Cultural references are exceedingly rich, as you will find in Wikipedia and other more detailed sources. Ancient Egyptians saw them as emblematic of prosperity. For early Greek myths they were the “fruit of the dead,” the color of the blood of Adonis. Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, spent some months there with her husband, Hades, depending upon the number of seeds in the pomegranates. Her mother Demeter, mourning the time of her absence, withdrew fertility on the earth, thus the idea of growing seasons.  

There are abundant references to pomegranates in the texts and customs of world religions. Moses received pomegranates from advance scouts promising fertility in the Promised Land. Some scholars think the “forbidden fruit” in the Garden of Eden story was a pomegranate, more believable than apples, actually, since the posited location of The Garden to many is the Tigris and Euphrates area where pomegranates grow, and the original apples (Malus) were further afield in Kazakhstan. Later, The Song of Solomon (4:3) reads: “The lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate within thy locks.” 

Judean coins depicted the calyx crowns. Fruitfulness is symbolized on Rosh Hashana by pomegranates. Botticelli and DaVinci portrayed pomegranates in the hands of the Virgin Mary and an infant Jesus. Pomegranates are symbolized in Islamic artifacts, in Christian religious decorations. A wedding custom in Armenia is of throwing ripe pomegranates against the wall with the scattered seeds predicting many children. Hopefully the wall can sustain staining! 

Oh, and by the way, those pomegranate seeds and arils are delicious in salads and trail mixes. The original grenadine syrup was colored and flavored with thickened and sweetened pomegranate juice. Mix seeds with goat cheese, make pomegranate martinis, pair with pears and spices and sugar. High in vitamin C and zinc, pomegranates purport a bevy of health benefits, though the verdict is unclear as to how beneficial.

I fear becoming a pomegranate publicist, but I do like to munch on those seeds. I am not, however, quite as extreme as what 18th century botanist Peter Collinson said to John Bartram in 1762: “Of all trees this is the most salutiferous to mankind.”   

Winter solstice

The time is coming: precisely at 4:48 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21. It is the moment the sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn, beginning its return journey northward.  This results in the shortest day and longest night of our year. Winter begins and daylight shall increase thereon until the summer solstice at 10:57 a.m. on June 21. Wednesday brings the longest noontime shadow of the year.  

In the pre-Christian Feast of Juul, fires were lit to symbolize the heat and light of the returning sun — Juul or Yule logs were burned to honor Thor.  The Roman festival of Saturnalia recognized the coming solstice, starting on Dec. 17 and continuing through next week to celebrate Saturnus, the Roman god of agriculture and harvest. Quarrels and grudges were erased, wars postponed, carnivals ensued.  I approve — let the increasing sun shine on!  

Jim Chatfield is a horticulture educator and professor emeritus at Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write to chatfield.1@osu.edu or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.