I can’t say I devote too much time to keeping up with what the tweens and teens are watching these days, but apparently when it comes to “educational” programming, it has reached History Channel levels of bad. Yesterday, I had planned to be out for the afternoon. I turned on the TV to set the DVR to record something while I was gone, and the TV happened to be tuned to my local CBS affiliate, which was showing a syndicated educational program called Elizabeth Stanton’s Great Big World, in an episode on Armenia that first aired on June 13. Unbeknownst to me, this program has aired for the last five years, hosted by a 20-year-old who started the show when she was 15. The program is produced by American Television International, the brain trust behind Bristol Palin’s failed 2012 reality show.
Anyway, the premise of the show is that each week Stanton and a celebrity friend travel to a new location and talk about it for half an hour in an energetic and vaguely educational way. For at least the last batch of episodes airing this season, Stanton’s celebrity friend was former Disney Channel Teen Beach star Garrett Clayton, soon to be of the upcoming NBC Hairspray production.
In Armenia, Clayton visited the Temple of Garni, a Hellenistic temple to the sun-god Mihr constructed in the first century CE. The temple collapsed in 1679 and the current structure on the site is a reconstructed and rebuilt version of the old temple, made from the excavated ruins but with many repairs and new parts, completed in 1975. Since Clayton doesn’t pretend to know anything about the site, I will hold him blameless (there are worse ways to scam a free vacation!), but Stanton, seated in front of a green screen, tells her viewers several false facts: that the temple is the “oldest temple in the world,” that it is an original construction from Antiquity, and that it honors the god Mithras.
The first of these claims is laughably ridiculous and even a novice researcher should have figured out it is untrue. It is not even the oldest temple in the Greek style to survive. Even a kids’ show should acknowledge he difference between an original building and a rebuilt version that is only 41 years old. Indeed, those who rebuilt the temple used different color blocks to highlight which parts were ancient and which were rebuilt from modern materials. It’s kind of obvious. I can understand not knowing the difference between Mihr and Mithras, since both were sun gods and often equated with another (well, sort of—see below), but even modest fact checking would have uncovered the difference, like, you know, reading the signs at the temple site. I couldn’t quite hear if Stanton said “Mithra” or “Mithras” but the relief carving shown on screen seemed to be of Mithras. This is a little insulting to the Armenians, since Mihr is a native Armenian god of the sun and truth and Mithras was a Roman adaptation and wholesale revision of the actual god they meant to cite, Mithra, the Persian god of the sun and truth. (Mithras and Mihr likely both derive from an earlier Indo-Iranian or Indo-European mythic figure.)
But this was nothing compared to a claim that left me both flabbergasted and astonished that that “educational” TV can lie so blatantly: Stanton told her viewers that the pomegranate, the fruit that unofficially symbolizes Armenia, contains exactly 365 seeds and that during leap year the pomegranate grows 366 seeds. This was not presented as a joke so far as I could discern (but maybe I am just out of touch with the teens these days?), and Stanton actually told her viewers that pomegranates know what year it is and grow extra seeds for leap year.
That’s a neat trick since before 552 CE the traditional Armenian calendar did not contain leap years and as a result had actually drifted more than one full calendar year out of sync with the Julian calendar. After 552, the “Great Armenian Date” system aligned the Armenian calendar with the Julian calendar. This system persisted until 1920, when Armenia adopted the Gregorian calendar, with the Armenian church following in 1923. How, pray tell, did the pomegranates keep up with all the latest calendar news?
The claim that pomegranates grow exactly 365 seeds seems to be a modern version of an old Armenian folk belief relating to the pomegranate’s role in fertility, rebirth, and renewal (cf. Persephone and the pomegranate in Greece). Crudely, pomegranates were equated with breasts, hearts, or even wombs. The modern version of the tradition, reported in travel guides, has it that eating a pomegranate seed each day will bring good luck because each seed represents a day in the eater’s life for the coming year. The symbolic 365 number is not related to reality, of course. The Jews have a similar, and equally untrue, belief that pomegranates each hold 613 seeds, representing the 613 commandments found in the Torah. Clearly, both cannot be true, and anyone who has actually had real pomegranates knows that the number varies wildly, from around 165 seeds up to more than 1,300 seeds. I can recall buying a disappointing pomegranate one time that was mostly pith inside with almost no seeds. That said, the website linked above suggests that pomegranates from Armenia and Iran tend to have closer to 400 seeds than American pomegranates, which average more.
It’s interesting that I wasn’t able to find a reference to the 365-seed claim prior to this century, and it seems that the claim, if genuine, wasn’t well-known outside of Armenia before the internet. The oldest version I found is from a 2006 book discussing a 2002 movie, Ararat, in which a character ate a pomegranate seed each day during the Armenian genocide. Perhaps it is a derivative of the Greek myth equating Persephone’s pomegranate seeds to the months of winter. Or maybe it comes from the Classical belief, recorded by Hippocrates and preserved by al-Bīrūni (Chronology p. 266), that eating a pomegranate on the summer solstice brought good luck. The early modern English had a similar custom, recorded in Dyetts Dry Dinner (1559), that eating three pomegranate flowers would protect one form “eyesore” for a year. Or maybe the whole thing is claptrap sold to tourists as a “charming” folk custom. I can find no one who claims that pomegranates know when it is leap year.
At any rate, shows aimed at impressionable audiences ought to do a little more research to check the “facts” that they deliver. Stanton is only 20 and I’m sure does not write her own scripts. The adults in charge should recognize that tweens and teens deserve better. Otherwise, what will they do—watch the History Channel?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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