Ancient History of the Forbidden Fruit

Apples have a prominent place in world mythology, often associated with paradise, magic,  knowledge and sensual experience. Legendary magician Merlin were said to carry a silver bough from an apple tree which allowed him to cross into the other worlds and to return to the land of the living. It’s no accident, then, that the apple tree is closely associated with knowledge, truth and enlightenment. The association between apples and knowledge continues In the Christian tradition as Eve offers Adam an apple – a forbidden fruit which grew on the tree of knowledge. Images after images were painted of this scene and the “forbidden fruit” became immortalized in arts as an apple.

This makes us forget that Eve actually offered Adam “a fruit”, and this fruit was not believed to be “an apple” until much later. Indeed, one of the problems identifying apples in mythology is that as late as the 17th century, the word “apple” was used as a generic term for all foreign fruits apart from berries. When tomatoes were introduced into Europe, they were called “love apples”. in Old English, cucumbers are called eorppla, which literally translated as “earth apples”. Therefore, the word “apple” can actually refer to many other fruits in the ancient world. Yet, this particular fruit was chosen as the “forbidden fruit” and became the basis from which many other fruits were named. What is it about the apple that caused this fruit to become such a sacred symbol in the mythologies of the world?

Full body female in long dress carrying wicker basket of apples standing in lush greenery

The golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides were a wedding gift to Hera from Gaia and were protected by the great serpent, Ladon. The Apples were tended by the nymphs Hesperides, daughters of the titan Atlas. The Garden itself was completely ruled by the Olympian gods and goddesses, therefore completely inaccessible to mortals. To complete his twelve labor, Hercules was sent to the garden to retrieve three of these golden apples for King Eurystheus.

To find the exact location of the Garden of Hesperides, Hercules had to pry the information from Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea, encountered and freed Prometheus, killed Ladon, and implored Atlas to pick the apples for him. Eager to sit aside his burden of holding up the heavens, Atlas convinced Hercules to take up the heavens in his place before deciding to take the apples to Eurystheus himself and leave Hercules there. Hercules tricked him by claiming he needed to make a pad for his shoulders to hold the heavens up more comfortably, asking Atlas to take them up again for a moment. When Atlas held the heavens again, Hercules snatched the apples from him and left. After this long adventure to get the apples, Athena rather anticlimactically took the Apples from Eurystheus and returned them to the Garden.

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Hercules stealing the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides., between 201 and 250 AD

The golden apples in this legend grant immortality. The long and difficult trials of Hercules to obtain the golden apples only for them to be easily taken away by Athena in the end are representative of the futility of the human attempts to attain immortality. Notice the contrast between the difficulty of obtaining them and the ease of the goddess of taking them back. This signifies that immortality – represented by the golden apples – rightfully belonged to the gods and not to mortals.

The golden apples are also associated with greed. Atalanta was a girl-hunter who became famous throughout Greece not only for her skills as a hunter, but also for her speed as she could run faster than any man. As Atalanta promised to wed the first man who could outrun her, Hippomenes, who fell in love with her, prayed to Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite gave him three golden apples and, during the race, he tossed one of the apples in front of Atalanta each time she would pass him. Each time Atalanta would stop to pick up the divine fruit. However, the golden apples became extremely heavy and slowed her down. As Atalanta refused to set the apples down, Hippomenes easily defeated her by a single stride.

The Judgement of Paris by Lucas Cranach (I) in the Seattle Art Museum

The Apple of Discord was a golden apple that started the Trojan War. The chain of events that led to the Trojan War started at a royal wedding. Peleus, king of the Myrmedons was marrying the sea nymph Thetis. All the gods attended the wedding, except for Eris, the goddess of discord, who was not invited. In her anger at being excluded, Eris decided to disrupt the wedding banquet. She threw a golden apple marked “to the fairest” among the guests. The goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite bickered about who was the “fairest” goddess who deserved the apple before asking Zeus to decide the matter. As Zeus did not want to get himself involved, he sent the three goddesses to the prince Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. Paris had been raised as a simple shepherd and was spending most of his time playing the lyre and grazing his cattle in the nearby mountain range of Ida. The three goddesses tried to bribe Paris to rig the contest. Athena promised to turn him into an invincible soldier, Hera promised to make him a great king and Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris awarded the Apple of Discord to Aphrodite who gifted him Helen of Sparta. The unfortunate consequence of this gift was the 10-year long Trojan War. The golden apple in this legend became the ultimate symbol of lust and vanity. 

The thread associating these three famous myths, of course, are the golden apples and what they represent. The golden apples in the ancient Greek traditions are all associated with negative human tendencies. The vanity exhibited by Hera, Athena and Aphrodite over the Golden Apple of Discord, the pointless task of Hercules to obtain the Golden Apples from the Garden of Hesperides, the inability of Atalanta to resist chasing down the golden apples in her path and putting them down once she had them were all negative human tendencies we can still recognize today. A lust for the impossible or transitory state such as immortality and beauty is also a common element of the fruit’s symbolism. The fact that the apples are golden gives them an apparent material value because gold is a precious metal, tying them to greed. The golden apples are desirable fruits, but ones that should not be sought after – very much like the “forbidden fruits” growing on the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. 

Golden Apple of Discord by Jacob Jordaens.jpg
Golden Apple of Discord by Jacob Jordaens

The goddess Idun in Norse mythology is an unusual goddess. She is described as a powerful young woman with magical powers. As she was the daughter of a dwarf blacksmith, Idun was allowed by the dwarfs to occasionally visit the earth. Idun, was said to be a goddess of immortal youth, love and  fertility, as well as the personification of spring. The Norns kept watch over the golden apples which hung on the branches of the tree of life, experience, and knowledge. They allowed no one but Idun to pick the fruits because she had no birth and was never to taste death.

Unlike their Greek counterparts, the Norse gods and goddesses were not immortal. They had to regularly eat the golden apples to ward off disabilities, old age and diseases. Idun would visit the Valhalla’s portal, accompanied by her husband, Bragi, the god of poetry and eloquence, and promised them a daily taste of her apples which she kept her casket. No matter how many apples she drew out from the casket to give to the gods, the same number always remained in the casket.

Dreamy woman in historical costume with apple near window

Like the Norse, the ancient Celts also considered the apple tree as a treasure, believing that the fruit could carry those who eat it to other worlds. The apple, therefore, plays a major part in many Celtic myths and legends. Connla the fiery hair, son of Conn, the king Connaught, was seduced by a fairy maiden who gave him an apple which, once eaten, would replenish itself, becoming whole again. Connla ate nothing else apart from this apple for a month, after which time the fairy maiden reappeared before him. Eating only the magic apple for a whole month had given Connla a powerful longing for the fairy. So he joined her on her crystal boat to the otherworld – a magical island where the trees bore a never ending supply of apples which give him everlasting youth but forbidding him from ever returning to the land of man. A similar myth occurs in Druid folklore where the character Bran is enticed to the otherworld by a magical maiden brandishing a musical apple branch. In the Arthurian legend, Avalon, the land of the fairies and the dead ruled by Morgan Le Fay, means “Isle of Apples”. Avalon is derived from the Welsh word for apple, afal. Merlin was also said to work in a grove of apple trees, the fruit of which, when eaten, gave him the power of prophecy. The ancient Celts then associate the apple with death and rebirth. They bury apples in graves as food for the dead – a practice that is shown to date back over 7,000 years to Europe and West Asia where petrified remains of sliced apple have been found in tombs from 5,000 BCE.

The Christian tradition, then, combines all the ancient mythological symbols of an apple. The tree of forbidden knowledge is associated with knowledge, immortality and temptation, as well as the fall of man through greed and vanity. However, the forbidden fruit is not actually named, and proponents of the theory that the Garden of Eden was located in what is now known as the Middle East suggest that the fruit was actually a pomegranate, as it is a native fruit from Iran to the Himalayas and was cultivated over the whole Mediterranean region. This would also make sense from a mythological standpoint as, in ancient Greece through the myth of Persephone, the pomegranate is associated with knowledge of the underworld – a knowledge that is forbidden to mortals.

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Saint Anne, the Christ Child and the Virgin by Ambrosius Ambrosius Bentsoen c. 1525

Considering that the “forbidden fruits” could be anything, this leads to this question: Of all the fruits they could have chosen, why did the ancient choose apples? If they were looking for round fruits to symbolize “wholeness”, for example, why was an orange not chosen? Or a promegranate? Or the “earth apples”, cucumber?

The image of the forbidden fruit that we know today may have come from a misunderstanding of the word mălum, a Latin noun which means “evil”, and mālum, another Latin noun borrowed from Greek μῆλον, which means “apple”. Genesis 2:17 describes the tree of knowledge as de ligno autem scientiae boni et mali (“but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil”) the word mali is the genitive of mălum. However, alchemy may be able to give us a more satisfactory answer to this question. Within an apple contained the five-pointed Star and the seeded vulva – both symbolize the two aspects which are required for creation in the material realm. When an apple is sliced horizontally, the seed structure at the center of it forms a symmetrical five-pointed star. The number five represents the spiritual and unseen aspect of life and creation. It includes the four elements of fire, water, earth and air, as well as the fifth element which is referred to as “aether” by alchemists. This fifth element is also widely known in other cultures. The ancient Chinese refers to it as ki or chi, the Indian mystics know it as prana, and the ancient Egyptians know it as ka. A more modern example of the five-pointed star can also be found in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. The arms, legs and head of the naked man are outstretched in the shape of a five-pointed star contained within a circle.

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The Virgin and Child Under an Apple Tree, by Lucas Cranach I, c. 1530

When an apple is sliced vertically, the core portion of the fruit is the shape of the vulva in which the seeds are contained. Symbolically, this is a representation of the union of the feminine and masculine from which the creation and life began. It therefore represents the act of creation in the physical realm as well as the complimentary aspects of duality which create life when joined together in the physical and the mental realm.

Within the circular confines of the apple, there are symbolism of the two aspects necessary for creation in the realm of matter. The five-pointed star, which represents the spiritual essence, and the seeded vulva which represents the material aspect of life.

Crop woman washing green apples in wooden basin in garden

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