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In the Garden of Hesperides
In the Garden of HesperidesMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
The apple tree is probably the oldest species of domesticated tree. Popular everywhere, it is grown in great numbers and many different cultivars.
The sole ancestor of many domestic varieties is the Malus sieversii. This tree lacks an English common name, but in the central Asian region from which it originates it is known as alma. It takes its name, from it the Kazakh capital Almaty (former Alma-Ata), meaning "father of apples".
The antiquity of apple cultivation and the tree's fundamental importance in early Europeans' lives is made abundantly clear by the number of legends and myths in which the fruit plays a decisive role.
In Greek myths, the nymphs Hesperides (also called the Evening Goddesses or the Western Maidens) were charged with tending Hera's (1) garden, located in the West of the world. In the garden of the queen of the gods grew the tree producing the fruit of immortality: the golden apple. (The same charge in the Norse lands was given to the goddess Idunn.)
Not fully trusting the nymphs, Hera placed near the tree an additional guardian—the hundred-headed dragon Ladon. According to one version of the story Ladon was later killed by Heracles when the demigod was commanded to steal the apples as his eleventh labor.
In another myth, Atalanta the huntress dared her would-be suitors to a race: she would marry the one who could outrun her, and the others would be killed. When she and Hippomenes fell in love, and Atalanta had no way to end the race, Hippomenes asked for the gods’ help. He was given three golden apples, which are usually identified with the Hesperides' ones. During the race he dropped the apples, one at time, and Atalanta stopped to pick them up, slowing enough that her beloved could win her hand in marriage.
Another apple plays a far darker role as the first cause of the Trojan War. The goddess Eris (Strife) was not invited to the wedding of the mortal Peleus with the nymph Thetis (later to be the parents of Achilles). She went, invisible, to the banquet and in retaliation tossed on the gods' table a golden apple on which was inscribed the word kalliste (to the most beautiful).
Three goddesses, Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera quarrelled, each one wanting the apple for herself. Finally they settled on having a mortal judge the matter. The chosen one was young Paris, son of Priamus, king of Troy. The prince's choice of Aphrodite, who, as an incentive, had promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world—conveniently omitting the fact that she was already married to the Greek king Menelaus—was the beginning of Troy's ruin.
Ruin is also associated with another famous apple: the one in the biblical book of Genesis, which Eve eats on the serpent’s instigation, sharing it with Adam and bringing death into the world.
The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is not named as an apple, in the biblical account. In fact during the Middle Ages/early Renaissance the banana was identified with the forbidden fruit. Travellers to Asia, where it was grown, called it fructum Paradisii (the fruit of the Paradise).
The later identification of the apple with the forbidden fruit may be due to the influence of esoteric/ alchemic thought, where the apple was seen as the symbol of knowledge, because if cut in half sideways it shows in its middle a pentacle, formed by the disposition of its seeds (2).
In Celtic traditions the apple is a fruit of wonder. The woman from the otherworld who lures Conle, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles to the Plain of Delight gives him an apple which feeds him for a month. In the same way, a blossoming branch of an apple tree is the gift a woman from the otherworld gives to Welsh king Bran, prompting him to travel to her land beyond the sea.
The name of Isle of Avalon, where according to tradition King Arthur awaits the time for his return, it usually interpreted as "isle of apples" or even "apple orchard". Few of the people who have seen Excalibur (in my opinion one of the best movies about the Arthurian myth), can forget the questing knights galloping out of Camelot to start their search for the Holy Grail in a fall of apple-blossom petals, the fast growth of the fruit after a long famine deftly indicating the connection between the king and the land.
Apples also feature often in folklore. From the Swiss tale of Wilhelm Tell shooting an apple off his son's head, to the popular name given to the larynx: Adam’s apple, interpreting the larynx protrusion as a piece of that ill-fated apple stuck in Adam’s (and his descendants') throat.
The health properties of the apple are also widely recognized with national variants of the saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away".
Apples are not rarely linked to marriage, as we have already seen in Greek mythology. In ancient Greece a man throwing an apple to a woman was proposing marriage, catching it meant she accepted Danish folklore has that apple trees wither around adulterers.
In China, while apples do not feature prominently among symbolic fruits (up to the mid-twentieth century the varieties grown there were of handsome appearance but poor flavor and so, not really popular) due to the assonance of the apple’s name ping
(1) Hera was the wife of Zeus, queen and mother of the gods, goddess of lawful weddings, was assimilated to the Roman Juno.
(2)Mentioned in : J.Chevalier, A.Gheerbrant Dizionario dei simboli, BUR 1988
Blossoming apple tree from : Agraria.org
Statue of Atalanta (Musče du Louvre, Paris) photo by the author.
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