By Heather Abraham
Did you know that there are an infinite number of apple varieties? Apparently, each seed in an apple, if planted, will give birth to new varieties of apples and none will be a clone of the parent tree. I learned this astonishing fact while watching The Botany of Desire, a PBS special tracing four different plants and their impact on human history; the apple tree, tulip, cannabis, and the potato were all featured in this fascinating journey through the world of plants and the amazingly complex role each played and continues to play on the stage of human history.
According to Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire, apples originated in the mountains of Asia where today, ancient apple forests can still be found in the mountains of Kazakhstan. Throughout the centuries, apple trees were selected for their sweetness and cultivated by systematic grafting from edible trees onto sturdy root stocks. This process is the only way to ensure the propagation, continuation of specific varieties, and the edibility of the fruits. Two of the plants so thoroughly researched by Pollan, the apple and cannabis, have functioned as sacred symbols and have been incorporated into the sacred narrative of many religious traditions. In this article, I will focus on the mythological and religious history of the apple.
In Greek Mythology, the apple was center stage in the initiating events that would eventually lead to Paris’ abduction of Helen and ultimately, the Greek invasion of Troy so richly described in Homer’s Iliad. Eris, the Goddess of discord, angry that she was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles), tossed a golden apple, inscribed with the words ‘for the most beautiful one,’ into the wedding feast. Of course, this was the harbinger of much discord as Athena (Goddess of War and wisdom), Aphrodite (Goddess of love), and Hera (consort of Zeus and queen of the Olympian gods), each claimed the apple as their prize. Paris (a prince of Troy) was selected to judge the matter and declare the winner of the ‘golden apple.’ As the fierce competition between Goddesses played out, Paris was offered bribes from each; Hera offered Paris the crown of Europe and Asia, Athena offered knowledge and skill in war, and Aphrodite offered Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris, obviously a vain and sensual young man, chose beauty over kingship and knowledge awarding the ‘golden apple’ to Aphrodite and thus initiated the events that would culminate in the greatest war narrative of the western world.
Today, the apple, although not specifically mentioned in Genesis, is believed by many to be the ‘forbidden fruit’ from the mythic Garden of Eden. The image of Eve’s eating and presenting Adam with an apple was introduced during the Renaissance period as many Renaissance artists incorporated Greek mythological imagery into their biblical works of art. The golden apples of immortality from the Garden of Hesperides or the apple from the Judgment of Paris were, most probably, the apple myths that Renaissance artists embraced, reimagined, and incorporated into Old Testament narratives. Suddenly, the events enacted by our biblical progenitors and embraced by Augustine as the source of Original Sin could be visualized in vivid color, the red forbidden apple center stage in the drama of humanity’s fall from grace. Thus for Christians, the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) apple became a symbol of knowledge, temptation, mortality, and sin. Whereas in New Testament inspired works of art, apples are often incorporated in portraits of Jesus and the Madonna thereby representing redemption.
In The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Barbara G. Walker discusses the apple’s place in European myths. “The Celts called the western paradise Avalon, “Apple-land,” a country ruled by Morgan, the queen of the dead.” Mythic Avalon was named for the beautiful apple orchards which were believed to symbolize the sacred heart of immortality. Walker also writes that the
Scandinavians thought apples essential to resurrection, and placed them in graves and the Norse Goddess Idun kept the magic apple-land in the west, where the gods received the fruit that kept them deathless. Apples carried souls from one body to the next.
Apples were also revered as magical fruits since when cut across its equator, the seeds form the magical five point star or pentacle held as sacred by many ancient religious traditions as well as some modern day Wiccans.
A more modern story of the apple, which involves myth and religion, originated in the 18th and 19th centuries with an apple enthusiast named John Chapman, aka the mythic Johnny Appleseed (1774-1845). As most of you know, Chapman’s love of apples led him to travel the mid west planting apple seeds. What is not commonly known is that Chapman, a Swedenborg Christian believed that all of God’s creation (nature) was perfect and consequently, he did not propagate his sporadically placed orchards with apples from grafts but planted seeds which, we have already learned, resulted in new varieties of apples. Chapman’s efforts resulted in hundreds of varieties of apples; the vast majority of which were inedible! This seems a little counterproductive at first glance, but the story of Johnny Appleseed’s legacy doesn’t end with apples rotting in the sun. According to Pollan, “what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.”
Settlers, presented with huge quantities of inedible apples, began harvesting the apples and set about producing, from recipes brought from Europe, what today we refer to as hard cider. Given that clean drinking water was a scarcity, hard cider became for many Americans a safe alternative. According to Pollan, hard cider was consumed in huge quantities by Americans including President John Adams who regularly began his day with hard cider for breakfast! Ultimately, the demise of hard cider as a common American beverage was determined by a grassroots social and religious movement known as the Temperance movement.
The Temperance Movement began when a few hundred Connecticut farmers, targeting the whiskey industry, formed the first Temperance association in 1789 which quickly spread to many other states as domestic problems associated with alcoholism began to rise. Although it began as a movement that advocated moderation, the movement quickly became a mission promoting abstinence; embraced by many Protestant ministers concerned with the health and welfare of their congregations and the rising use of alcohol related poverty and domestic violence.
The dawning of the second Great Awakening saw many Christian denominations embracing the concept of abstinence from alcohol and the newly formed Seven Day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) joined in the battle against the evils of drink by formally embracing the prohibition of alcohol. As hard cider was by far the most popular alcoholic drink in America, the apple became symbolic of the evils caused by rampant alcohol abuse. Some farmers went so far as to destroy their crops and chop down their apple orchards. The eventual adoption of the eighteenth amendment saw the demise of the American hard cider industry until the later part of the 20th century. With the explosion of microbreweries in the early 1990’s, boutique brewers resurrected the hard cider apple industry and began producing a modern version of hard cider severed up in frosty glasses in trendy bars across America.
Kate Daley-Bailey, a regular Religion Nerd contributor, pointed out to me that the apple is also on prominent display on the book cover of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling book, Twilight. Although not a symbol used in the Twilight series, Meyer chose the fruit as a symbolic reference to the events that play out in the Twilight saga. On her official website, Meyer explains her decision to feature the apple on the Twilight cover.
The apple on the cover of Twilight represents “forbidden fruit.” I used the scripture from Genesis (located just after the table of contents) because I loved the phrase “the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.” Isn’t this exactly what Bella ends up with? A working knowledge of what good is, and what evil is. The nice thing about the apple is it has so many symbolic roots. You’ve got the apple in Snow White, one bite and you’re frozen forever in a state of not-quite-death… Then you have Paris and the golden apple in Greek mythology—look how much trouble that started. Apples are quite the versatile fruit. In the end, I love the beautiful simplicity of the picture. To me it says: choice.
So what’s the significance of this nerdy journey through the apple’s mythic and religious history? Living in our modern (western) world of abundance in technology and goods, I believe we too often forget the old stories and by extension, loose the sense of wonder (the mythos) of our ancestor’s world. The apple is not simply a delicious snack but is something that, through the ages, held mythic and religious meaning for many cultures. The apple is a symbol steeped in ancient history, myth, and mystery and is a living reminder that for every action there is a reaction and accountability. So the next time you pick up an apple, remember the old stories mythically embedded in every crunchy bite!
- Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. New York: Random House. 2001.
- PBS special: The Botany of Desire
- Barbara G. Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, 49
- Stephenie Myer’s Page: http://www..com/twilight_faq.html#apple and http://www.stepheniemeyer.com/