The Poor Widow’s Son or The Pomegranates in Question

In which we find out that princesses definitely can decide their own destiny, that seeking your fortune can take a very long time and that the gift of pomegranates is always welcome.

A Fascination of Pomegranates

This story is fascinating. I hadn’t read a lot of Armenian folklore previously but this leapt out at me. I’m not sure if it was for its unusual nature or the fascination with wonderful pomegranates. It could have been either or both. I particularly enjoyed how the princess managed to improve the family finances in such a practical but smart fashion. The elements of fantasy and symbolism were intriguing and left me wanting to investigate the story and to find out if this was common to Armenian folk tales.

A Long & Sometimes Violent History

First, lets go back in time: Armenian folklore would not be complete without a brief history of Armenia. The history of Armenia is filled with violence, domination by empires, and has a far-flung diaspora as a result of both. This has shaped the modern national and international identity of its people.

Armenians have lived in the area near modern-day Turkey, between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas, for thousands of years. They were ideally placed along the trade route between Europe and “the East” that became known as the Silk Road . They were very prosperous and rich in ancient history. The Armenian people were united into a single nation once prior to the modern age: in the very end of the first century BCE, by King Tigran the Great. The unification did not last long, eventually the Armenian people fell under the shadows of first the Byzantine Empire and later the Ottoman Empires.

Life in the Ottoman Empire

The Armenians did not fare well under the Ottoman Empire. They were often treated as second-class citizens. They enjoyed certain protections but they were also frequently the victims of prejudice and official oppression. In the early 20th century many Western nations began to officially object to the treatment of the Armenian people.

The Ottoman Empire, by then very weak and disorganised, decided that this meant the Western powers might intervene militarily. Their solution was to forcibly evict much of the Armenian population. Millions were driven out of the country, and many were killed in what is now known as the Armenian Genocide. This is why the Armenian diaspora is so large, many Armenians fled their homeland for their lives during this period.

Today Armenia is one of several post-Soviet republics establishing itself as an independent nation for the first time in thousands of years. It has the enthusiastic support and affection of its far-flung refugees. A history of domination and oppression has had the ironic effect of making expatriate Armenians fiercely proud of their heritage. This guarantees that the Armenian way of life continues, no matter where its people have settled.

The Tradition

Armenia has a great tradition of oral storytelling. Sadly, due to the events and circumstances above there have been fewer attempts to collect these stories in print. I have read several books of tales in order to research this wonderful tradition. These include ‘The Golden Maiden and other folk tales and fairy stories told in Armenia’ collected by AG Seklemian, where this story originates, ‘Armenia Folk Tales and Fables’ by Charles Downing and ‘100 Armenian Tales and their Folkloristic Relevance’ by Susie Hoogasian-Villa. In addition I read other books of legends, festivals and folk songs as well as academic papers.

The environment definitely influences the folk tales. As Seklemian says

“one of the greatest factors in the formation of the distinctively Armenian tales was, no doubt, Mount Ararat. That majestic mountain, situated in the middle of an extensive plateau in the heart of Armenia, and seen from points distant a three or four days’ journey, would naturally draw the attention of the people. The many mythological and historical facts attached to it; its hoary, inaccessible peak covered with everlasting snow; its towering heights piercing the sky; its high, steep precipices; its deep cañons; its underground caverns; its fierce storms, and the wild beasts and large birds living on its slopes—would naturally give birth to half-true and half-imaginary stories which gradually and by lapse of time would grow into legendary tales.”

The Golden Maiden, and other folk tales and fairy stories told in Armenia collected by A. G. Seklemian
All Roads Lead to Silk

Armenia’s location on the Silk Road also influences the stories, often demonstrating elements that appear commonly in Turkish, Indian and Persian folk tales as well as their own rich Armenian tradition. 100 Armenian Tales is incredibly interesting as the author/editor is from the Armenian Diaspora herself and collected the tales from her Armenian community in Detroit. She analyses the roots of these tales, their similarities to tales from other cultures and stories collected in Armenia itself. She also examines how these stories have been affected by their teller’s emigration from the country.

The Princess Who Was Responsible for her own Future

Now to our tale, called ‘The Poor Widow’s Son in the Seklemian collection or Wisely Spent in Hoogasian Villa’s collection. There are versions of this story in the Azerbaijani, Greek, Italian, Persion, Russian, Caucasian, Georgian and Turkish traditions. This story can be classified as both a ‘Princess Who Was Responsible for her own Future’ and ‘Observance of The Master’s Precepts’ tale. The second type of tale is fairly common across the world. There are examples from Celtic, British, Mexican and Russian traditions. The first is rarer though and does not seem to appear in Western tales.

Never Underestimate the Patriarchy

I would suggest that it is rarer because a patriarchal world is not overly keen on a woman disrespecting her father and then still having a good life and a happy ending. I found the Fifth Captain’s Tale in 1001 Nights as well as Kupti & Imani, a Punjabi tale collected by Leonora Lang in the Olive Fairy Book. In Kupti & Imani, sewing and weaving are also the Princess’s route to improving her fortunes before magic takes over. There is probably much to be said about how using traditional female skills ensured that the Princesses retained their femininity in the ear of the audience even if they were adopting more traditionally masculine attitudes.

Pomegranates, a study in folklore

I would suggest that the most significant folklore element in the story is the pomegranate. In Armenian culture the pomegranate represents fertility, abundance, and marriage. The fruit played an integral role in a wedding custom widely practiced in ancient Armenia; a bride was given a pomegranate fruit, which she threw against a wall, breaking it into pieces. The resulting scattered seeds ensured the bride’s future children. Armenia has a detailed history of interaction with the pomegranate, with actual fossilised remains evident from as far back as 1000 BC.

The pomegranate is also significant in the folklore of other traditions. This includes Azerbaijan, Ancient Egypt, Ancient & modern Greece, China, India, Iran, ancient Persia and Ancient Israel. It is present in European christian motifs, appearing in a fourth century mosaic of Christ, as well as paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. The pomegranate also plays an important part in Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration. The seeds representing the potential merits of the year ahead.

Pomegranates in a Time of Splendour

Have I wet your appetite for the pomegranate yet? As well as having folkloric significance, it is also delicious and has a long and glorious food history. Pomegranates have been cultivated throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and Mediterranean region for several millennia. A large, dry pomegranate was found in the tomb of Djehuty, the butler of Queen Hatshepsut in Egypt. There are also Mesopotamian records which mention pomegranates from the mid-third millennium BC onwards.

The 14th century BC Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of Turkey contained remains of pomegranates. As the other things found on the ship included ivory, gold jewellery and perfume, it does suggest that pomegranates may have been considered a luxury item at that time.

Who Needs Tomatoes?

Pomegranate juice, molasses, and vinegar were widely used in many Iranian foods before tomatoes arrived in the Middle East. They are still found in traditional recipes such as fesenjoon, a thick sauce made from ground walnuts and pomegranate juice, often served with duck and rice, and in ash-e anar, a pomegranate soup.

Pomegranate molasses and juice are used in Turkish & Syrian cooking both to marinate meat for kebabs and garnish sweet & savoury dishes. The seeds are used dried, as a spice in Indian and Pakistani cooking. It also appears regularly in Greek cooking, especially to accompany aubergine and glaze lamb kebabs but you can also get pomegranate jam and liqueurs.

An English Love Story

Pomegranates are a very popular ingredient in the UK now especially with the influence of Ottolenghi and his popular cookbooks. Pomegranate molasses has received an unexpected surge and can now be purchased in most large supermarkets whereas 10 years ago you would have to order online or visit specialist food shops. The health benefits of pomegranate juice are practically miraculous if you believe everything you read online.

This is a recent phenomenon but the use of pomegranates in English cooking is definitely not new. There are recipes for a range of dishes which appear in medieval cookbooks dating from 1381. There are three recipes that appear in the ‘Forme of Curry’ (1390). Sawse Sarzyne, (Saracen sauce for serving with Capons), Berandyles ( A sort of spiced chicken paté), and Comyn (possibly a sort of eggless, dairy free sweet custard but probably not much like Bird’s Custard, although who knows).

A Very English Divorce

Pomegranates did however became less common in texts after this and had sadly disappeared by the 17th Century except for a couple of references. One was as a treatment for a dietary complaint (The English Housewife 1631) and as a garnish for capons and beef (The Accomplisht Cook 1661) alongside other fruits including pineapple.

There doesn’t seem to have been a good reason for this but I suspect one main reason was an inability to get the plant to fruit here. It was introduced as an exotic plant in the 17th Century but although it could be persuaded to grow in the cooler, weather of the British Isles it was not prepared to fruit. Pomegranates never had the cachet of pineapple and so no-one spent time working out if they could be raised in 18th Century hot houses.

Revel in the Recipe

Now to our recipe, I considered a sweet dessert but I thought it would be a missed opportunity to raise a cheer for the cause of using fruit in savoury recipes, especially meat ones. I grew up with this combination and I love it. It tastes special and exotic and takes me away to distant places even if only for a few mouthfuls. Then I had to make a choice from two recipes, both of which I love but I decided against the yoghurt meatballs because pomegranate is more of a garnish there. I’m sure I’ll find a reason to shoehorn it onto this site somewhere but today we are all about the slow cooked lamb in pomegranate juice.

As I mentioned above this is a classic combination, the juice and the slow cooking result in melting, tender lamb and the juice is reduced to form a spicy, sweet & sour glaze. This is definitely a celebration dish both for time and budgetary reasons. The joint is marinated in a spice mix for 24 hours before cooking, and as we know high welfare, locally sourced, good quality meat is not cheap (nor should it be).

We had it for Christmas one year and it certainly felt special enough, the glowing colours on the table were a joy in the middle of a dreary winter. It might be fanciful but I think a medieval person would recognise it in the same way, even if the potatoes were a bit of a mystery.

Lamb Shoulder with Pomegranate Glaze



Prep time


Cooking time




  • 1.5-2kg lamb shoulder joint on the bone

  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped

  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon

  • 2 tsp ground cumin

  • 1 tbsp dried oregano

  • 1 lemon, flesh chopped, peel removed

  • 1l pomegranate juice (don’t worry if your bottle is 750ml)

  • 2 tbsp runny honey

  • 250g plain yogurt

  • Seeds from 1 pomegranate or 100g tub prepared seeds

  • Handful mint leaves, mostly chopped but leave a few small leaves for garnish


  • Mix the garlic, cinnamon, cumin, oregano and lemon in with 1 tsp salt and 2 tsp black pepper. Put the lamb in a large roasting tin and tip the marinade over the top. Massage all over the lamb and leave for 24 hrs in the fridge covered, or up to 2 days.
  • Remove lamb from the fridge 1 hour before cooking. Heat oven to 160C. Scatter the onions around the lamb, tucking some underneath, then pour over the pomegranate juice. Cover the lamb with foil and cook for 4 hrs.
  • Remove the foil, carefully pour the meaty pomegranate juices from the tin into a large saucepan and add the honey. Increase oven to 220C, re-cover the lamb and continue cooking for 30 mins. Meanwhile, bubble the cooking liquid over a high heat until reduced, thick and syrupy – this may take up to 30 mins.
  • Pour the sticky pomegranate glaze over the lamb and onions and return to the oven for another 30 mins, uncovered, until the glaze is bubbling and just starting to char, and the lamb is really tender. Mix the yogurt, most of the pomegranate seeds and mint leaves in a small bowl. Shred the lamb at the table and serve with the sticky onions and the minty pomegranate yogurt. Scatter over the remaining pomegranate seeds.
Further Reading

The Golden Maiden

100 Armenian Tales and Their Folkloristic Relevance

Olive Fairy Book

Armenian Legends and Poems by Bryce, Boyajian, and Raffi

Armenian Legends and Festivals by Louis A. Boettiger

Armenian Literature: Comprising Poetry, Drama, Folk-lore and Classic Traditions

Essays in the Study of Folk-Songs (1886) by Martinengo-Cesaresco

Armenian Folk-tales and Fables – Charles Downing

Armenian literature, comprising poetry, drama, folk-lore, and classic traditions; tr. into English for the first time, with a special introduction

Armenian Folk Beliefs by Manuk Abeghyan

Analogies in Iranian and Armenian Folklore

Armenian Folklore Bibliography

Armenian Folklore and Mythology Resources at Internet Archive

The Forme of Cury

Featured Image – Photo by Zahra HOOSHANGI on Unsplash