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.

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