Any theory of watermelon domestication needs to consider the “Etsy Hypothesis,” namely that humans do really weird things when they’re bored.
Episode 42: In which Hades and Persephone host Theseus and his little buddy as permanent guests, and watermelons make the mortal news.
This cross-over episode of Real Housewives of Hades (a Mt. Olympus spin-off) and Real Housewives of Mt. Olympus brought to you by the latest archaeological news on SmithsonianMagazine.com – and by CLAS-B 314 The Environment in the Ancient World.
[SETTING: Breakfast in Hades Palace in the Underworld]
PERSEPHONE, QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD AND RELUCTANT WIFE OF HADES: Hermes brought the mail from Olympus today. Oh look, my mom sent a care package! Let’s see…some ambrosia, some cookies, and…a scroll with some mortal news. (reading) “Saw this and thought of you.” How sweet!
HADES, KING OF THE UNDERWORLD AND OVERLY-ENTHUSIASTIC HUSBAND OF PERSEPHONE: I don’t see why she doesn’t come down here and give you her packages herself.
PERSEPHONE: Probably because she hates dead people, just like all gods. The only Olympian visitor we ever get is Hermes, and he’s on the clock when he’s down here. But Thetis stops by to visit Achilles, and we get plenty of mortal heroes passing through, so that’s nice.
HADES: Speaking of which, can we revisit these two? (gestures to THESEUS, KING OF ATHENS AND SLAYER OF THE MINOTAUR and PIRITHOUS, KING OF THE LAPITHS AND ROBIN TO THESEUS’ BATMAN) Is there a reason they have to be here?
PERSEPHONE: You tell me. You’re the one who invited them to eat and then stuck them to that bench for eternity. Oh listen to this, the mortals have used something called genetics to trace the origins of when humans first domesticated the watermelon. Turns out it was about 4,000 years ago in North Africa. Neat!
HADES: Why would watermelons remind your mother of you? And you know very well I needed to punish these two somehow. They were trying to steal my wife. I planned on feeding them to Cerberus, but nooooo, you wouldn’t let me get rid of them.
PERSEPHONE: Huh, it turns out that mortals may have domesticated watermelons for their highly nutritious seeds, not the part people eat now. Apparently the closest relatives to modern watermelons have nasty tasting flesh, and what archaeologists actually find humans saving is the seeds. And the mortals figured this out using ancient seeds from caves and Egyptian tombs!
HADES: Still not seeing the connection. And I also don’t see why you’d want to eat breakfast every morning with your attempted kidnappers.
PERSEPHONE: I mean, you have to see the irony of that statement, right? And eating tasty seeds from a round fruit with bitter tasting flesh? You seriously don’t see the connection? Theseus, back me up here.
THESEUS: (clearly terrified) Um, because you ate pomegranate seeds and now have to spend half a year in the Underworld? Please don’t smite me!
PIRITHOUS: At least you got to escape!
THESEUS: Yeah, a lot of good Hercules’ rescuing me did. When I died, bam, I’m back here. Just when you think you’re out…
HADES: Oh yeah, my nephew used to stop by all the time. Why do we never see him anymore?
PERSEPHONE: Because he’s a god too, now. Do you seriously never read our family’s newsletters? I’ll tell him you say hi when I’m back on Mt. Olympus in March.
HADES: Don’t do that. I’m the dread King of the Underworld, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. I do not “say hi.”
PERSEPHONE: (giggling) You “said high.” Wow, I’m starved for comedy down here. Pirithous, heard any good jokes lately?
PIRITHOUS: Um, no, I’m stuck on this bench and you’re the only one I talk to, so if you didn’t tell me a new joke…
PERSEPHONE: Man, I could really go for some watermelon right now. I’m going to head over to Tantalus and see if watermelons are one of the fruits the Furies are using to torture him. (leaves)
HADES: (calling after her) Don’t just leave me here with these two! You know I never go outside the palace!
[A long moment of awkward silence]
THESEUS: Agoraphobia must really be terrible when you’re the “One Who Receives Many.”
HADES: Shut up.
To learn more about how the ancients interacted with the natural world around them, enroll in our new 1-credit “appetizer” course CLAS-B 314 The Environment in the Ancient World, coming as a late-start class in Spring 2024 with no pre-reqs! Or to learn more about how ancient seeds (and pomegranates!) are upending the date of the destruction of Pompeii, check out CLAS-C 419 Art and Archaeology of Pompeii, coming up Spring 2025 with no pre-reqs. Can’t get enough of Ancient Greece and Rome? Earn a Classics Minor in just 15 credits!