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Apple (symbolism)

Apples appear in many religious traditions, often as a mystical or forbidden fruit. One of the problems identifying apples in religion, mythology and folktales is that the word "apple" was used as a generic term for all (foreign) fruit, other than berries but including nuts, as late as the 17th C. CE.[citation needed] This term may even have extended to plant galls, as they were thought to be of plant origin (see oak apple). For instance, when tomatoes were introduced into Europe they were called "love apples". In one Old English work cucumbers are called eorþæppla (lit. "earth-apples'), just like in some languages (such as French and Dutch) potatoes are still called "earth-apples". In some languages oranges are called "golden apples" or "Chinese apples". Datura is still called 'thorn-apple".

  Ethnobotanical and ethnomycological scholars such as R. Gordon Wasson , Carl Ruck and Clark Heinrich write that the mythological apple is a symbolic substitution for the entheogenic Amanita muscaria (or fly agaric) mushroom, and its association with knowledge an allusion to the revelatory states described by some shamans and users of psychedelic mushrooms.[1] [2] [3]

At times artists would co-opt the apple, as well as other religious symbology, whether for ironic effect or as a stock element of symbolic vocabulary. Thus, secular art as well made use of the apple as symbol of love and sexuality. It is often an attribute associated with Venus who is shown holding it.


Apples in the Bible

  Though the forbidden fruit in the book of Genesis is not identified, popular Christian tradition has held that it was an apple that Eve coaxed Adam to share with her. This may have been the result of Renaissance painters adding elements of Greek mythology into biblical scenes. In this case the unnamed fruit of Eden became an apple under the influence of story of the golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides. As a result, in the story of Adam and Eve the apple became a symbol for knowledge, immortality, temptation, the fall of man into sin, and sin itself. In Latin, the words for 'apple' and for 'evil' are similar in the singular (malus — apple, malum — evil) and identical in the plural (mala). This may also have influenced the apple becoming interpreted as the biblical 'forbidden fruit', although the word malus for apple comes from the Hittite mahla meaning "grapevine, branch" and has nothing to do with malum. The larynx in the human throat has been called Adam's apple because of a notion that it was caused by the forbidden fruit sticking in the throat of Adam. The apple as symbol of sexual seduction has been used to imply sexuality between men, possibly in an ironic vein. (See illustration above)

The notion of the apple as a symbol of sin is reflected in artistic renderings of the fall from Eden. When held in Adam's hand, the apple symbolises sin. However, when Christ is portrayed holding an apple, he represents the Second Adam who brings life. This also reflects the evolution of the symbol in Christianity. In the Old Testament the apple was significant of the fall of man; in the New Testament it is an emblem of the redemption from that fall, and as such is also represented in pictures of the Madonna and Infant Jesus.

In some versions (such as Young's Literal Translation) of the Bible the Hebrew word for mandrakes dudaim (Genesis 30:14) is translated as "love apples" (not to be confused with the New World tomatoes).

There are several instances in the Old Testament where the apple is used in a more favourable light. The phrase 'the apple of your eye' comes from verses in Deuteronomy 32:10, Psalm 17:8 Proverbs 7:2, and Zechariah 2:8 implying an object or person greatly valued. In Proverbs 25:11, the verse states, "a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver". In the love songs of the Song of Solomon, the apple is used in a sensual context. In these latter instances the apple is used as a symbol for beauty. The apple appears again in Joel 1:12 in a verse with a sense of profound loss when the apple tree withers.

Apples in mythology

  The Greek hero Heracles, as a part of his Twelve Labours, was required to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides and pick the golden apples off the Tree of Life growing at its center.

The Greek goddess of discord, Eris, became disgruntled after she was excluded from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In retaliation, she tossed a golden apple inscribed Kallisti ('For the most beautiful one'), into the wedding party. Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris of Troy was appointed to select the recipient. After being bribed by both Hera and Athena, Aphrodite tempted him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. He awarded the apple to Aphrodite, thus indirectly causing the Trojan War.

Atalanta, also of Greek mythology, raced all her suitors in an attempt to avoid marriage. She outran all but Hippomenes (a.k.a. Melanion, a name possibly derived from melon the Greek word for both "apple" and fruit in general), who defeated her by cunning, not speed. Hippomenes knew that he could not win in a fair race, so he used three golden apples (gifts of Aphrodite, the Goddess of love) to distract Atalanta. It took all three apples and all of his speed, but Hippomenes was finally successful, winning the race and Atalanta's hand.

In Norse mythology, the goddess Iðunn was the appointed keeper of golden apples that kept the Æsir young (or immortal) forever. Iðunn was abducted by Þjazi the giant, who used Loki to lure Iðunn and her apples out of Ásgarðr. The Æsir began to age without Iðunn's apples, so they coerced Loki into rescuing her. After borrowing Freyja's falcon skin, Loki liberated Iðunn from Þjazi by transforming her into a nut for the flight back. Þjazi gave chase in the form of an eagle, where upon reaching Ásgarðr he was set aflame by a bonfire lit by the Æsir. With the return of Iðunn's apples, the Æsir regained their lost youth.

Celtic mythology includes a story about Conle who receives an apple which feeds him for a year but also gives him an irresistible desire for fairyland.[citation needed]

Legends, folklore, and traditions

  • Apples feature frequently in fairy tales. The most well known example is Snow White, in which a poisonous apple puts Snow White to sleep. In Le piacevoli notti (The Facetious Nights [4]) of Giovanni Francesco Straparola apples appear in four stories.
  • Since 1990, Apple Day has been held across the UK and beyond, on October 21. This is not an industry event, but a festival created by charity Common Ground to support localism: folksongs, biodiversity, buried orchards, children's games.
  • Swiss folklore holds that William Tell shot an apple from his son's head with his crossbow
  • Irish folklore claims that if an apple is peeled into one continuous ribbon and thrown behind a woman's shoulder, it will land in the shape of the future husband's initials.
  • Danish folklore says that apples wither around adulterers.[citation needed]
  • A popular folk art involves a process to turn apples into wrinkly representations of human heads, which would usually be placed on dolls.[4] In 1975, Vincent Price promoted a horror-themed kit that used a similar process to create faux shrunken heads, Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture, by Whiting Crafts, a division of Milton Bradley.
  • According to a popular legend, Isaac Newton, upon witnessing an apple fall from its tree, was inspired to conclude that a similar 'universal gravitation' attracted the moon toward the Earth as well. (This legend is discussed in more detail in the article on Isaac Newton).
  • In the European fairy tale Snow White, the princess is killed, or sunk into a kind of coma with the appearance of death, by choking on a poisoned apple given to her by her stepmother. Later, the princess is jostled into coughing up the piece, miraculously returning her to life.
  • In Arthurian legend, the mythical isle of Avalon's name is believed to mean 'isle of apples'.
  • In some places, bobbing for apples is a traditional Halloween activity.[5]
  • In the United States, Denmark and Sweden, an apple (polished) is a traditional gift for a teacher. This stemmed from the fact that teachers during the 16th to 18th centuries were poorly paid, so parents would compensate the teacher by providing food. As apples were a very common crop, teachers would often be given baskets of apples by students. As wages increased, the quantity of apples was toned down to a single fruit[citation needed].
  • The Apple Wassail is a traditional form of wassailing practiced in cider orchards of South West England during the winter. The ceremony is said to 'bless' the apple trees to produce a good crop in the forthcoming season.
  • New York City is often called "The Big Apple." The term "The Big Apple" was coined by touring jazz musicians of the 1930s who used the slang expression "apple" for any town or city. Therefore, to play New York City is to play the big time - The Big Apple.
  • "Comparing apples and oranges" means to examine the similarities of things that are completely different; in German the corresponding expression is "comparing apples with pears".
  • It is sometimes claimed that the use of the pentacle as a symbol in traditional romany faith comes from ceremonially cutting an apple across the hemisphere, revealing a pentagram of pips ringed with green.


  1. ^ Wasson, R. Gordon (1968). Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. ISBN 0-15-683800-1. 
  2. ^ Ruck, Carl; Blaise Daniel Staples, Clark Heinrich (2001). The Apples of Apollo, Pagan and Christian Mysteries of the Eucharist. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 64-70. ISBN 0-89089-924-X. 
  3. ^ Heinrich, Clark (2002). Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy. Rochester: Park Street Press, 64-70. ISBN 0-89281-997-9. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ History and customs of Halloween
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Apple_(symbolism)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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