Literature

The Curious Symbolism of Apples in Literature and Myth

Apples are a common fruit, and so it’s little surprise that apples have come to have powerful and distinctive symbolic properties in works of literature, religion, and myth over the centuries. But there are a number of misconceptions and wrong assumptions about apple-symbolism. How can we tell the bad apples from the rest? In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at the suggestive symbolism of apples in literature and myth.

As The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin dictionaries) observes, the disparate meanings attached to the apple are, in fact, ultimately all interconnected: they are all keys to knowledge of some kind, whether carnal knowledge, self-knowledge, or some other kind of wisdom. Let’s unpick some of this complex, related symbolism of the apple …

Apple-symbolism in classical myth

The ancient Greeks believed that Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and the theatre among other things, created the apple. He presented it to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In Athens, newlyweds were said to eat an apple before entering the bridal chamber, because the fruit was thought to bring about ‘fruitfulness’, i.e., fertility.

The most famous apples in classical myth are undoubtedly the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The Garden of the Hesperides was the goddess Hera’s orchard. When Hera and Zeus were married, branches bearing golden apples were said to be among the wedding gifts. Once again, apples are linked to fertility and sexuality – perhaps because the shape of the fruit suggests women’s breasts (as Hans Biedermann notes in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference)).

The Hesperides – nymphs of the evening (the name Hesperides is etymologically related to the word Vespers, for evensong) – tended and looked after the grove of golden apples. (Norse myth had its own variation on this: the goddess Iduna guarded apples which brought eternal youth to anyone who ate them.) In the myth of the Judgement of Paris, it was from the Garden of the Hesperides that Eris, the goddess of discord, plucked the Apple of Discord. This led to Paris being given permission to abduct Helen of Troy, the event which, in turn, led to the outbreak of the Trojan War.

One of our favourite lines of enquiry here at Interesting Literature is the field of study known as euhemerism, a branch of literary analysis which seeks to explain the origins of fanciful myths in more mundane or ordinary occurrences. And a theory arose that the Golden Apples of the Hesperides were not apples at all, but oranges, which were unknown to Europe and the Mediterranean until the Middle Ages. The powerful and divinely guarded ‘Golden Apples’ of Hera’s orchard may have been nothing more than oranges.

As part of his famous Twelve Labours, Heracles was tasked with stealing the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Heracles tricked Atlas into retrieving some of the golden apples for him, while he offered to help shoulder Atlas’ burden (shouldering the heavens). When Atlas came back, he declined to take back the heavens onto his own shoulders, but Heracles was having none of this. He tricked Atlas by initially agreeing to the request, but asking that Atlas take the heavens back onto his shoulders for just a moment while Heracles adjusted his cloak. Atlas, clearly not the brightest of Titans, agreed, whereupon Heracles strolled off with the apples Atlas had retrieved for him.

Apple-symbolism in Christianity

In Christianity, apples play an important part in the story of the Fall of Man. However, curiously, the apple is never mentioned in the Bible as being the forbidden fruit: Genesis 2:16-17 simply states:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

The idea that the forbidden fruit was an apple may have arisen, curiously enough, because of a misunderstanding of two similar words: the Latin mălum means ‘evil’ (as in malevolent, malign, and other related words), while the Latin mālum, from the Greek μῆλον, means ‘apple’.

Later literature certainly specifies an apple as the fruit of the tree of knowledge: by the time John Milton came to write his great epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), we get:

thence how I found
The new created world, which fame in Heaven
Long had foretold, a fabrick wonderful
Of absolute perfection! therein Man
Placed in a Paradise, by our exile
Made happy: Him by fraud I have seduced
From his Creator; and, the more to encrease
Your wonder, with an apple; he, thereat
Offended, worth your laughter! hath given up
Both his beloved Man, and all his world,
To Sin and Death a prey, and so to us,
Without our hazard, labour, or alarm …

Whether it came about because of a misreading of two closely related Latin nouns, or was a more deliberate choice, the naming of the forbidden fruit as an apple in the Garden of Eden story once again reinforces the link between apples and knowledge.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, apples are related to ‘knowledge’, albeit of different kinds. In the Song of Solomon, the apple is linked to a sensual desires and ideas of beauty: ‘As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.’

Apple-symbolism in literature

An early poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), ‘The Golden Apple’, treats the Hesperides myth:

The golden apple, the golden apple, the hallowed fruit,
Guard it well, guard it warily,
Singing airily,
Standing about the charm’d root.
Round about all is mute,
As the snowfield on the mountain-peaks,
As the sandfield at the mountain-foot.
Crocodiles in briny creeks
Sleep and stir not: all is mute.
If ye sing not, if ye make false measure,
We shall lose eternal pleasure,
Worth eternal want of rest …

Another notable poem about apples is Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-Picking’. Having picked apples all day, the speaker of this poem grows tired, and longs to sleep. But is he, in fact, slipping into what Hamlet calls ‘that sleep of death’? Meanwhile, in his poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, W. B. Yeats wrote of apples in terms which recall the Hesperides:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

7 Comments

  1. Md. Mokbul Hossain Mondol. Fb name Hossain Mokbul

    Golden apple in Greek myth as an apple of discord opens an issue of war and destruction; as a symbol of breast, that is, sex and fertility is a romantic scenario or image in literature ; on the other hand as a forbidden fruit eaten by first Eve then Adam provoked by Satan opens up the wisdom, esp, sense of good and evil of mankind. All these symbols bear a good message or moral for mankind too. Myths and fiction are not facts, but facts indirectly lie in them. Thanks the writer.

  2. And nothing about Ithun and the apples of youth?

  3. Wow, in one or two cultures I know from Asia, eating an apple is also a routine for wedding ceremonies. The two newly wed need to bite the apple at the same time. It is fun.

  4. Beautifully written and explained. Apples that appear in various colors of red and gold and green can represent equally various moods and symbols.

    • Thank you! And very good point about the colour – something to bear in mind when I turn to red symbolism and green symbolism (and gold, eventually) in future posts I have lined up…

  5. I’d never really thought of it, but, yes, Greek myths seem to be full of apples, and then there’s the William Tell story!