August 13 – The Feast of Pomona, Goddess of Fruit

As we approach the middle of August, the heat of Summer is still on full-blast. Gardens are bursting with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and a whole slew of other crops. Thoughts of the cool crisp breezes of Autumn are beginning to creep into people’s minds as they sweat and roast in the broiling sun, with their air conditioners cranked up to maximum.

However, to the ancient Romans, Summer had already ended by this point.

The ancient Roman seasonal calendar was different from ours. To us modern-day people, the Autumnal Equinox in late September marks the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn. However, to the Romans, the Autumnal Equinox marked the mid-point of Autumn. To them, the real beginning of Autumn took place in early August.

Ancient Roman still life painting from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii. Naples National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy.

Not long after their Autumn began, the Romans held the first of several festivals dedicated to the Fall harvest. August 13 was the date of a feast day dedicated to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and the patron deity of orchards, especially apple orchards (1). In fact, the French word for “apple”, pomme, comes directly from her name. The Feast Day of Pomona occurs not long after the beginning of Autumn in the ancient Roman calendar, and it may be seen as a celebration of the arrival of Autumn in ancient Italy.

Pomona is often represented in ancient Roman iconography as a woman crowned with fruit. In one hand, she hefts up the hem of her robe which is used as an impromptu basket to hold the harvested fruits of the orchard, and in the other hand she holds a pruning hook (2). A sacred orchard dedicated to her lay outside the port-town of Ostia about twelve miles away from Rome (3).

Pomona, by Nicolas Fouché (circa 1700).
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary.

Much of the mythology centering on Pomona is recorded by the ancient Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Legends say that Pomona was either a goddess or a nymph who took delight in tending to her garden. Naturally, she was utterly beautiful as all nymphs are, and so when the young and handsome Vertumnus, the god of the changing seasons, passed by her garden and saw her, he immediately lusted for her. Despite his efforts to woo her, she would have none of it. But Vertumnus was not discouraged, and he persistently pursued her hand until she finally relented. The two became deeply in love and were inseparable from each other. Unlike other stories of Greco-Roman mythology which are rife with tales of adulterous philandering gods and goddesses screwing around behind their partners’ backs (I’m talking to YOU, Zeus!!!), Vertumnus and Pomona never cheated on each other.

The feast day of both Pomona and her husband Vertumnus took place on August 13, according to Propertius (4). This is because the temple of Vertumnus, located on the Aventine Hill, was dedicated on August 13, 264 BC. The timing was deliberately chosen to coincide when the first fruits of the harvest would be ripe sometime in mid-August (5). The flamen Pomonalis, the chief priest of the worship of Pomona, was a minor-ranking member of the Roman clergy, chosen from among the Plebeian Order (6).

The thing most associated with the goddess Pomona was the apple. Today, there are thousands of varieties of apples, and even in ancient times there was a certain number to choose from; Pliny the Elder mentions in his Natural History that there were twenty-five varieties of apples that were grown in the Roman Empire (7). Today, Italy is the sixth-largest producer of apples in the entire world, producing approximately 2.2 million tons of apples every year. Most apple farms are located in the northern part of the country, where the weather is a bit cooler; apple farming is especially popular in Trentino (8).

Apple trees will flower in April or May, depending upon the weather. Different varieties of apples ripen at different times of the year. The vast majority of apple varieties have their fruits ripen in September or October, but there are a handful of varieties that ripen much sooner, beginning in the middle of August. The Feast of Pomona, which takes place around this time, celebrates the first apple harvest of the year, and on August 13, people made an offering to Pomona of the first ripe fruits of the year’s harvest (9). It is also said that the Halloween tradition of bobbing-for-apples comes directly from the ancient Roman feast of Pomona (10).

It is curious that the Romans should have a feast held in honor of Pomona during the time when the first crop of apples are harvested, and yet there does not appear to be a corresponding festival for when the apple blossoms first appear in Spring. Surely, if the Romans wished the goddess to bestow their favor on her, shouldn’t they offer sacrifices and other holy rites to her when the apple trees begin to flower in late April or early May? What good is it to have flowers if they do not swell into fruit? After all, apples are what Pomona is most associated with, so it would make sense to me that the Romans would try to propitiate and please this goddess as much as possible in Springtime in order to ensure a good apple harvest in August and September. I can easily imagine dwellers of the rural countryside of northern Italy and elsewhere assembling at their apple orchards, making offerings, raising up their hands, and (to paraphrase a certain 1970s British cult movie) shouting aloud “Great and almighty Pomona, bountiful goddess of our orchards, accept our sacrifice, and make our blossoms fruit!!!” Yet, I cannot find any mention made of any rituals held to Pomona during the Spring. If there was indeed such a ritual, I do not know of it. Perhaps it was combined with other Spring fertility rituals that the Romans held, such as the Cerealia of April 12-19 and the Floralia of April 28.

Oh guardian nymph, thou keeper of tree and soil,
The voice of love now clear in the garden calls.
He comes to thee who brings the harvest.
Open thy arms to embrace Vertumnus!
Oh guardian nymph, Vertumnus is calling thee.
Pomona, hear and answer thy lover’s plea,
See now he comes who brings the harvest.
Open thy arms to his love Pomona,
Pomona, Pomona, Oh goddess of earth!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MzuMcWqBdw

Source citations:

  1. The Dublin University Magazine. No. CCXXXVIII. Vol. XL (October 1852). Page 383.
  2. The Dublin University Magazine. No. CCXXXVIII. Vol. XL (October 1852). Page 383.
  3. Mike Dixon-Kennedy. Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1998. Page 257.
  4. Oskar Seyffert. A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Mythology, Religion, Literature & Art. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 684.
  5. Johnson’s Revised Universal Cyclopedia. Volume VI. New York: A.J. Johnson & Co., 1890. Page 361.
  6. The Cyprus Agricultural Journal. Volumes 32-35. 1937. Page 10.
  7. Mike Dixon-Kennedy. Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1998. Page 257.
  8. Italia Outdoors: Food and Wine. “Apples”. https://www.italiaoutdoorsfoodandwine.com/index.php/food-and-wine/food/veneto/27-food/all-regions/6-apples.
  9. Oskar Seyffert. A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Mythology, Religion, Literature & Art. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 684.
  10. The Haunted History of Halloween. The History Channel, 1997.

Bibliography:

  • The Dublin University Magazine. No. CCXXXVIII. Vol. XL. October 1852.
  • Johnson’s Revised Universal Cyclopedia. Volume VI. New York: A.J. Johnson & Co., 1890.
  • Seyffert, Oskar. A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Mythology, Religion, Literature & Art. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891.
  • The Cyprus Agricultural Journal. Volumes 32-35. 1937.
  • The Haunted History of Halloween. The History Channel, 1997. Narrated by Harry Smith.
  • Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
  • Italia Outdoors: Food and Wine. “Apples”. https://www.italiaoutdoorsfoodandwine.com/index.php/food-and-wine/food/veneto/27-food/all-regions/6-apples.


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