I am an apple addict – a day without my dose of Granny Smiths is a day that does not feel quite right. For many years the Braeburn apple was a staple of my lunch box but weirdly, it took me a long time to master eating one that wasn’t pre-sliced and I remember feeling a real pride when I felt that crunch that meant I’d finally managed it. The apple is above and away the most famous of all the fruits and it has featured frequently in the fairytales and myth-making of our culture. Some have speculated that the apple’s spherical shape make it reminiscent of a globe, hence while it has been associated with power ruling. In other instances, it has symbolised death, accuracy and also seduction, with the Latin word for apple málum and the Latin word for evil malum being almost idential. With the popularisation of the Apple company, the apple continues to loom large within our global imagination. It seldom appears without some associated meaning and so I’ve been meaning for some time to think about what these are.
The Apple of Knowledge, The Book of Genesis
The seductive apple, the only fruit within the Garden of Eden which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat. The Devil tends to get the blame for convincing Eve to eat it, but when you re-read Genesis, he’s actually nowhere to be seen. It’s a serpent who persuades Eve to disobey God and to pick the apple. After consuming it, Eve and Adam covered up their nakedness, being passed beyond a state of innocence. They experienced lust and became aware of sin and they had to leave the Garden. The juxtaposition of the serpent with the apple make it very clear that it is a particular kind of knowledge that Genesis believed that Adam and Eve ought to remain in ignorance about. This is further underlined by the punishment meted out to Eve, that she shall sorrow in childbirth for her disobedience. The apple taught them about sex.
The Apple of Mortality, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
We all know this story, but it was interesting to see how far it echoes that of the apple of knowledge above. Snow White has been warned by the dwarves against talking to strangers, but like Eve, she allows herself to be persuaded that the apple will grant her new powers. The Wicked Queen has poisoned one half of the apple, turning it red while the other half is white, allowing her to take a bite from it herself to assure Snow White that it is safe. Again, there is some symbolism here about lost innocence, with Snow White biting down on red and so succumbing to a death-like slumber. Snow White is hated for her beauty and in consuming the apple, she falls victim to mortality, the enemy of all beauty. Tragically, the computer genius Alan Turing also consumed a poison-laden apple following on from his arrest for homosexuality, also apparently choosing mortality over a world which was unable to accept him. The symbol of the apple with a bite taken out of it is particularly powerful these days when everyone seems to carry an iPhone, although Apple themselves have confirmed that their logo has nothing to with Snow White or even the awful death of Turing.
The Apple of Accuracy, William Tell
There are a number of stories about an expert marksman being obliged to shoot an apple off the top of his child’s head, but the best known puts William Tell at its centre. Having failed to show appropriate respect to the hat belonging to Gessler the new squire (or Swiss equivalent), William Tell is arrested and punished by being forced to fire a shot at an apple on his son’s head, with the expectation that he will fail and the child will be killed. Naturally, the expert marksman hits it precisely and the boy lives. Tell later rises up against Gessler and assassinates him as punishment. Take that. Famously, Hitler banned the play of this story as he did not think it appropriate to celebrate a ‘Swiss sniper’, but here in striking down the apple, it is clear that Tell was striking down the oppressor. No wonder Hitler hated the symbolism.
The Apple of Discord or The Apple of Beauty, Greek mythology
I always kind of liked how the Trojan War essentially boiled down to an argument over who got asked to a wedding. Eris, goddess of spite, did not receive an invitation and so turns up anyway with a golden apple labelled (as above) For The Fairest. Falling for the trick, goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite fall into an argument over which of them can claim the apple, ultimately calling upon mortal man (and secret Trojan prince) Paris to adjudicate. He selects Aphrodite since she promises to make the most beautiful woman in the world fall in love with him (Helen) and thus the seeds of war are sown. Again though the apple is seen to symbolise seduction and temptation, with those who ought to know better falling victim to its power.
I always enjoyed the painting below, which shows Elizabeth I happening upon Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, with the implication clear – with this queen around, there is no need for Paris, she is the clear winner. Not perhaps the most subtle of image, but when one looks at how she carries her orb, the similarities between it and an apple are striking.
Apple of Healing, The Twelve Labours of Hercules
Remaining with Greek mythology a little longer, apples take on a different meaning within Heracles’ Twelve Labours. A long-term thorn in Hera’s side given that he was the son of her husband’s relationship with another woman, Heracles was often being tortured by her and then given fun things to do to put right the wrongs he had done when Hera sent him insane. Hera owned a wood of precious apple trees given to her by Mother Earth which were tended by the Hesperides, the Daughters of Evening, and guarded by a fierce dragon. The apples growing there were golden and had the power to heal and renew. For his eleventh task, Heracles had to go and get some of these, which involves trekking through Africa to get to the garden, tricking Atlas into doing his dirty work by strangling the dragon, then tricking Atlas into taking the world back on his shoulders and then somehow getting the apples back to base. All in a day’s work of course, but if the apples weren’t so precious and beautiful, would they be anything like as alluring?
The Apple of Trickery – Atalanta
Atalanta (not to be confused, as I did, with Atlanta) was a virgin huntress who was abandoned on the side of a mountain as a baby by a father who had wanted a son rather than a daughter. Reclaimed by him as an adult, Atalanta declared that she would not marry unless her intended could beat her in a foot race, with the agreement that if the suitor did not win, he would be put to death. Tough odds. After the requisite number of young men had died in the attempt, a young man called Hippomenes asked Aphrodite for help and out came the golden apples again. Aphrodite gave Hippomenes three of them to help slow Atalanta down in the race, since each time he threw one, Atalanta became instantly entranced by it and had to stop running to catch it. Not only that, carrying three apples does not optimise one’s running style so it was an easy victory for Hippomenes and they lived happily ever after. The message seems to be that apples engineered a number of the best known Greek myths.
Apple of Love
While it would be easy to think that it was just the Greeks who got excited over apples, they were fairly popular within British folklore too. Apple Day itself is October 21st and while it is a recent custom, the tradition of the orchard wassail goes back a lot further, where people used to visit cider-producing orchards reciting incantations and singing to the trees to encourage a good harvest. Apples crop up a lot in love spells and superstitions – if you manage to get the peel of the apple in one go and then drop it over your shoulder, supposedly it will spell out your future husband’s initial, or if you cut an apple and put a note to the object of your affections within it, your beloved would apparently begin to return your feelings. Is it the shape? Clearly there’s some reason why apples are so favoured.
The Apple of Gravity, Isaac Newton
I maintain that this qualifies as mythology because if you say the words Isaac Newton, most people will respond with something to do with apple tree. The odds are that he wasn’t actually sitting beneath an apple tree when he had his first realisation about gravity, but it made a good way of explaining it and the story stuck. Recent speeches such as the Science Must Fall talk in Capetown do demonstrate how this story does have the quality of myth for some people, as if gravity only came into being when the apple hit the ground. I can’t help but feel that there is a reason why Newton was not sitting beneath a pear tree or indeed watching some other object fall to the ground – as a spherical object, an apple can recall images of the cosmos itself, an appropriate metaphor to describe a challenging concept.
The Apple of Immortality, Norse mythology
Loki and Idun, John Bauer
The Norse goddess Iðunn was the keeper of the apples, until one day she was tempted out of Asgard by Loki who had promised her interesting new apples. While she is frequently described as beautiful, she is never described as too bright. Anyway, this had happened at the behest of Þjazi, a giant who wished to kidnap Iðunn but who was unable to access her while she was in Asgard. Þjazi swooped down in the form of an eagle and swept her away as soon as he saw her and whisked her away to his evil lair. With her gone, the other Norse gods found themselves going grey and becoming old, since the apples were actually sacred and had held the key to their immortality. Loki is forced to confess what he has done and is ordered to go and rescue Iðunn, which he does by turning himself into a falcon, flying to the lair and then turning Iðunn into a nut and carrying her back. Opinion among scholars is divided over whether Iðunn actually needs the apples to make the gods immortal – her name’s etymological meaning is ‘ever young’, but the symbol of the apple is prominent within a number of fertility-related legends. Apples mean life.
Apple Blossom Fairy, Cicely Mary Barker
In Chinese culture, the apple blossom symbolises female beauty, with the beauty and emperor’s concubine Yang Gui-fei, known as ‘Paradise-apple Girl’ (hai-tang nü). Cicely Mary Barker is noted for her botanical accuracy in her flower fairy artwork and here she does seem to capture the delicacy of the apple blossom petals. There is something here that seems to signify youth and rebirth – fitting in perfectly with so much of the other mythological references to apples.
The Divine Apple – Avalon, The Arthurian Legends
Avalon means ‘Isle of Apples’ and several of the most notable events within the Arthurian legends occur here. Excalibur is forged there and bestowed upon Arthur, but it is also here to which Arthur returns, grievously wounded by his son Mordred. Many have pointed out that when an apple is cut across, its pips make a five-pointed star shape, itself an important occult symbol for Pagans and Wiccans, as well as having religious significance within the Abrahamic faiths. Avalon itself seems to symbolise divine joy, with Arthur making a final and lasting peace with his sister Morgan as he passes over to it. There is a circularity to how eating the apple saw us cast out of Eden, but here the return to Avalon takes us back again to apples as we also return to a time of innocence.
The apple is an ambiguous piece of fruit, being tricksy and seductive at one turn but then life-giving and life-affirming at another – is it perhaps not so much the apple itself but who is holding it out to you?