The Meaning of Apples

by Emrys Westacott

What is it about the apple? Common, easily grown, and cheap to buy, yet when you think about it the apple is a major character in the history of our culture. Apple-191004_150It pops up continually to play significant roles in religion, mythology, science, and the arts, and remains metaphorically active in everyday language.

The first example that comes to mind, of course, is the apple that Adam and Eve partook of in the garden of Eden, thereby precipitating the Fall thanks to which we now have to toil among thorns and thistles, earning our bread in the sweat of our brow instead of lounging around in paradise. Scholars and pedants will immediately point out that the bible doesn't say that what Eve plucked from the tree of knowledge was actually an apple: it just describes it rather vaguely as the tree's fruit. Since there was only ever one tree of knowledge, it quite likely produced a unique fruit that is no longer available, not even at Whole Foods. But that's beside the point. In the popular mind Eve bit into an apple, thought it tasted good (so we know it wasn't some mealy Golden Delicious) and offered it to Adam; he took a bite, and the rest is a lot more mythology eventually feeding into history. Size1Here the dual character of the apple is revealed for the first time. As coming from the tree of knowledge it's presumably good, knowledge itself being a fine thing. But since eating it is sinful, the initial sweetness turns bitter, and what at first gives delight leads to shame, exile, labour and death.

It was also an apple that set in motion the events leading to the Trojan War, tragic and glorious in equal measure according to our primary source. The wedding of Peleus and Thetis had an impressive guest list that included all the Olympian gods but not Eris (a.k.a. Discordia) goddess of Chaos and Strife. She wasn't invited for obvious reasons, but she came anyway and true to form tossed into the midst of the revelers a golden apple inscribed, “To the fairest.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed it; Zeus appointed Paris, a prince of Troy, to decide who should have it; Aphrodite offered the best bribe—the beautiful Helen of Sparta—so she got the apple, Paris got Helen, and Troy got razed to the ground after a ten-year war. In this case, too, the apple's outward appeal–it is brilliant, beautiful, and desired by three goddesses–hides a dark core that breeds rivalry, envy, seduction, betrayal, war, and destruction.

ClipsnowwitchThe apple that the wicked queen offers to Snow White has the same dual nature: the attractive masking the destructive. On the outside it is beautiful, “white with red cheeks,” and anyone who sees it desires it; but the red parts are poisoned, and the instant Snow White takes a bite she dies.

As we move into the modern, demythologized world, however, bereft of gods, dwarves, and wicked queens who disguise themselves as peddlers, apples seem to become less sinister. Isaac Newton's apple, like the one in Genesis, is, I suppose, associated with a fall (both the motion and the season). But in this case, unless one insists that the it fell on his head–a popular idea for which there is unfortunately no evidence–the apple is entirely a force for good. It poses a question and helps a great mind fathom some of nature's deepest secrets. Incidentally, while debunkers of good stories may be skeptical about the falling apple anecdote, a manuscript held by the Royal Society of London (now available online[1]) bears it out (although not the bit about it landing on Newton's head). William Stukeley, a younger contemporary of Newton's who conversed with the great man regularly, set down his “Memoirs of Sir Issac Newton's life” in 1752. In it he describes an occasion when:

After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea under the shade of some apple tree; only he & myself. Amid other discourses, he told me, he was in just the same situation, as when formerly the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, he thought to himself; occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earth's centre? Assuredly the reason is that the Earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. And the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the Earth must be in the Earth's centre, not in any side of the Earth. Therefore does this apple fall perpendicularly or towards the centre? If matter thus draws matter; it must be proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the Earth, as well as the Earth draws the apple.

Newton's apple is one of the best known symbols of inspiration. Perhaps that's why in more recent times the apple has been associated with creativity and unconventionality. Apple Records, founded by The Beatles in 1969, and using a cut-in-half granny smith as its logo, was intended to provide both its creators and other musicians with greater artistic freedom and opportunity than the big established record companies allowed. 115065_apple-newton-logo Apple Computers, although now a technology behemoth, has always presented itself as an engine of innovation, a cool alternative to the conformist mainstream. There have been various accounts of why Steve Jobs chose the name Apple for his company—it was a tribute to The Beatles say some; it would put them ahead of Atari in the phone book­– say others–-but according to authoritative sources like Steve Wozniac, Apple's co-founder, and Walter Issacson, Jobs' biographer, the idea came to Jobs after he'd been working in apple orchards in Oregon and while he was following a fruitarian diet. The name struck him as “fun, spirited, and not intimidating.”

Apple's first logo, appropriately enough, was of Issac Newton sitting beneath an apple tree, but this gave way to the well-known image of a rainbow-coloured apple with a bite taken out of it. Someone alert to the darker significance of apples in our culture soon spread the rumour that the bitten apple was a subtle tribute to Alan Turing, the computer scientist who was believed to have committed suicide by eating a cyanide-impregnated apple after being convicted of engaging in homosexual activity and subjected to chemical castration. But according to Rob Janoff, who deigned the logo, the bite was there for a more prosaic reason: to ensure that no-one would mistake the fruit for a cherry.

Today the apple's positive associations seem to dominate. These include health (an apple a day keeps the doctor away–unless you're Snow White), gratitude (an apple being the traditional gift for one's teacher), and, if one extends the concept to include apple pie (and why not?), a general sense of things being as they should be: “as easy as apple pie,” or “in apple pie order,” apple pie being commonly coupled with motherhood as one of those things that almost by definition are wholesome and unobjectionable.

According to a 1995 article by the Society for New York City History, these wholesome connotations are in part the result of a deliberate campaign to “rehabilitate the apple as a popular comestible, free of unsavory associations.”[2] One specific unsavory association supposedly was the reason why New York City became known as the Big Apple. In the nineteenth century, an exiled French aristocrat, Mlle Evelyn Claudine de Saint-Évremond, ran a celebrated salon-cum-brothel in New York. Her name was abbreviated and anglicized to “Eve,” and men who visited her brothel would describe what they did as “having a taste of Eve's apples.” According to the same article, the sexual connotation of “apple” was common knowledge at the time. In 1870 a privately published guide to New York's brothels stated that “in freshness, sweetness, beauty, and firmness to the touch, New York's apples are superior to any in the New World or indeed the Old.” “The rest,” says the article, “is etymological history.”

Sadly, the debunkers have thrown out this story as well. More recent sober research seems to point to New York deriving its sobriquet from the number of racecourses around the city. “Apples” were the prizes to be won at the horse races. Since New York had many courses, a trip to the city was a trip to the Big Apple. But I prefer to think that the city is called the Big Apple because it's where all these meanings and associations, the appealing and the appalling, come together: sin, knowledge, sex, strife, beauty, seduction, desire, insight, evil, inspiration, creativity, and fun.