Apple Mythology: Folklore and Seasonal Traditions

By Brooks, Iris | The World and I, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Apple Mythology: Folklore and Seasonal Traditions


Brooks, Iris, The World and I


"Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits."-Henry David Thoreau

The next time you bite into a crisp apple, savor a slice of its iconic pie, or sip some aromatic cider, consider the storied past of this legendary fruit associated with love, war, temptation, immortality, and holiday traditions in many lands. Apples have been called upon for their divine inspiration in paintings and poetry (the Welsh describe the apple tree as the noblest of all trees) as well as for their breadth of healing properties.

The apple-which now has many thousands of varieties from the Albany Beauty and the more common Baldwin to the less known Zabergau Reonette-is the oldest cultivated tree in Europe. Enjoyed from prehistoric times, petrified apple slices have been discovered in 5000-year-old tombs. According to "pomology," the science of apple and fruit growing, apple trees live about 200 years, taking about 4 or 5 years to first produce fruit. Early American settlers were required to plant 50 apple or pear trees, at a time when apples were also known by fanciful names such as "winter banana" and "melt-in-your-mouth."

FACTS AND FOLKLORE

Apples represented temptation on the forbidden tree embodying knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. Were Adam and Eve tempted by the apple, or was the forbidden fruit, as some believe, a fig, pomegranate, pear, or apricot? Apples have started wars (such as the Trojan War), and were called upon by healers and shamans for a multitude of purposes. Linked with the divine, apples are considered sacred to some, such as the Druids (to whom they were connected with transformational journeys), associated with witchcraft for others, and in some cultures, served as an emblem of protection.

Merlin sat under an apple tree to teach and received knowledge from the Faerie Queen, who ate magic apples, while in Brittany apples were often eaten before prophecies were decreed. For European farmers, apple trees were blessed by singing (wassailing), a way of giving thanks for the harvest and chasing away evil spirits.

In European folk tales, a magic apple curses Snow White, putting her into a long sleep. Apples were also thought by the medieval church to possess demonic attributes. But British tales also mention apples are buried in churchyards to feed the dead. And for the Green Man, the apple served to detoxify and transform negative emotions.

Folklore from Switzerland speaks of the courage of William Tell, who shot an apple from his son's head, in defiance to a tyrannical ruler. And in Chinese, the pictogram for apple translates as peace, so the gift of an apple imparts the meaning of "peace be with you."

American folklore speaks of the kind, Johnny Appleseed (actually John Chapman, who lived from 1774-1845) planting and caring for thousands of apple trees while assisting farmers with apple culture and care as he walked barefoot over many miles. He would be pleased to know October has been designated National Apple Month in the United States, a holiday dating back to 1904 and most US apples are still picked by hand.

MAGIC, MYTHOLOGY, AND ETERNAL LIFE

In Norse mythology apples were associated with eternal youth, since their Goddess Idunn -the keeper of the orchard and Goddess of the Spring-fed the precious apples to the Norse Gods and Goddesses to provide them with immortality. When Loki tricked her to turn over the golden apples, the Norse gods became less powerful. But Loki, who transformed into a falcon, retrieved Idunn (a name translated as "the rejuvenator" or "industrious") along with the apples, so the Norse deities regained their youth and power.

Norse gods were not the only deities associated with apples. There were Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, and Celtic gods and goddesses who are strongly linked with apples. Eternal life in Celtic tradition led to Avalon, the isle of Apples, which was guarded by the Queen of the Dead. …

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