Greece is fortunate in having many orchard fruits; pears, plums, apricots and cherries. But no orchard fruit is as significant in Ancient Greek mythology as the humble apple. Apples have been a symbol of good and evil, of magic and of love, but most importantly, apples are the cornerstone to religion, superstition, folklore, history and medicine more than any other fruit.
Apples appear in many religious traditions, often as a mystical or forbidden fruit. For a fruit that is dubbed to ‘keep the doctor away’, apples in religious folklore are seen as the forbidden fruit. In the Book of Genesis in the Bible, popular Christian tradition has held that it was an apple that Eve coaxed Adam to share with her. The fruit from the garden of Eden – the apple – became a symbol for knowledge, immortality, temptation, the fall of man into sin, and sin itself. This is why we call the larynx in the human throat the Adam’s apple. It was said the apple became lodged in the throat of Adam.
The story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit of the garden of Eden is similar to the take of Greek hero Heracles, in Greek mythology. As a part of his Twelve Labours, Heracles was required to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides and pick the golden apples off the Tree of Life growing at its centre. The Garden of the Hesperides is the Garden of Eden’s Ancient Greek counterpart and is known as the ‘original Greek paradise’. Called the Garden of the Hesperides, it was associated with Zeus and Hera and with a serpent-entwined apple tree.
The Hesperides, the spirit-beings associated with this tree, its apples, and its serpent, get their name from Hespere in Greek which means evening, signifying the west where the sun sets. Some mythologists have mistaken the Hesperides for guardians of the tree, but they certainly are not. Their body language, their easy actions and their very names serve the purpose of establishing what kind of a garden this is: a wonderful, carefree place.
If Adam and Eve, in the Greek religious system, have become Zeus and Hera, there should be literary evidence for their presence in this garden, and there is. Apollodorus wrote that the apples of the Hesperides “were presented by Gaia to Zeus after his marriage with Hera”. This matches the Genesis account: Eve became Adam’s wife right after she was taken out of Adam (Genesis 2:21-25), and the next recorded event is the taking of the fruit by the first couple. Connecting Zeus and Hera with the Hesperides automatically connects them with the serpent and the fruit tree with which they are always represented. The chorus in Euripides’ play Hippolytus speaks of “the apple-bearing shore of the Hesperides” where immortal fountains flow “by the place where Zeus lay, and holy Earth with her gifts of blessedness makes the gods prosperity wax great”.
If you throw an apple at someone, it means you love them. If they catch the apple, they love you back. Have you heard of this superstition/ folklore and ever wondered where it originates?
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 Καλλίστη (Kalliste, sometimes transliterated 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, indirectly causing the Trojan War.
In Ancient Greece, the apple was considered to be sacred to Aphrodite, and to throw an apple at someone was to symbolically declare one’s love; and similarly, to catch it was to symbolically show one’s acceptance of that love.
An epigram claiming authorship by Plato states:
I throw the apple at you, and if you are willing to love me, take it and share your girlhood with me; but if your thoughts are what I pray they are not, even then take it, and consider how short-lived is beauty.
There is another mention of apples in relation to marriage in Greek mythology. In an attempt to avoid marriage, the nymph Atalanta outran all her suitors; all but one, Hippomenes. Hippomenes knew that he could not win in a fair race, so he used three golden apples – gifts from 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 all because she stopped to collect the apples from the floor.
Apples have also been credited with procuring longevity, a power which interested Alexander the Great and which lay at the root of our own folk saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Legend has it that Alexander, on an expedition which also sought the water of life, found apples capable of prolonging the lives of the priests who fed on them and nothing else to as much as 400 years.
To the Pythagoreans and to many others after them, the apple was symbolic of the occult. Split open horizontally, the apple depicts a perfect five point star, the pentagram, the key to the knowledge of good and evil. In Latin the word for apple, malum, is a homonym for the word for evil.