The Apple Tree

As the wild apple trees round here are currently between blossom and full fruit, with the smallest green promises of late Summer fruits to come, I thought it’d be a good time to talk trees. Leastways one tree specifically, and in a very particular way. I’d like to talk apples, those nice fruits that go crunch and happen to match the wonders of blackberries, crumble and custard quite nicely come Autumn. As awesome as that is, I’d like to talk about the tree part in a bit more detail:

apple tree heart

apple tree heart

As the apple trees are well on their way to producing the Autumn harvest of apples which will shortly grace our tables, I thought a little apple tree lore was in order.  One of the druidic triads of Ireland states ‘three unbreathing things paid for only with breathing things, an apple tree, a hazel bush, a sacred grove.’  The apple was one of the most sacred trees of the ancient Europeans, in ogham it is quert, one of the seven chieftain trees.  Under Celtic law, to fell one was punishable by death.

The spring equinox was sacred to Iduna, or Idun, the Nordic goddess who guarded the apples which kept the gods youthful.  She kept these in a casket and gave them to the gods daily, no matter how many were eaten, the casket remained full.  Once she was detained and captured, before being released again.  There are a few versions of this story, one is that Thiassi, kidnapped her; without the daily apple, the gods felt the bite of old age.  She was rescued by Loki, heralding the return of spring after winter.  The apple blossom in the spring confirms the return of the season, associated with vital energy, fertility, love and marriage.  In Welsh myth, the goddess associated with apples is Olwen, in Greek Aphrodite, in Latin Venus.

Aphrodite and an apple feature in one of the most famous tales of love and passion.  At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis all the Olympians gods attended, save for Eris who had not been invited.  While Hera, Aphrodite and Athene were talking, Eris rolled a golden apple at their feet which bore the inscription ‘to the fairest’.  The three goddesses each claimed it.  To settle the argument, Zeus commanded Paris, prince of Troy to make the decision.  Hera offered him wealth and power, Athene offered fame and wisdom, but Aphrodite won by offering him the most beautiful woman alive, Helen.  She was already married to King Menelaus of Sparta, when Paris visited she ran away with him and sparked the Trojan War.

The Norse also connected the apple with love and fertility.  The King Rerir longed for a son, and prayed to Frigga, who sent her messenger with an apple.  The King recognised the message and shared the apple with his wife, resulting in the birth of the hero Volsung.

Interestingly, the apple tree is the central tree of heaven in Iroquois mythology and, in a Wyondot myth, an apple tree shades the lodge of the Mighty Ruler.

The connection with love, marriage and fertility was preserved in folk-lore and folk magic.  The women of Kirghizstan rolled under an apple tree to conceive.  In some parts of Europe an apple tree was planted at the birth of a male child, if the tree grew well, so would the boy.  In England apples were often used in love divination.  To discover whom she would marry a girl would peel an apple and throw the unbroken peel over her shoulder.  If it formed a letter it was the first initial of her future husband.  Serbian folk tales bring up the beautifully surreal Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples .  In Austria it was believed that a girl could learn her future by cutting open an apple and counting the seeds.  If there were an even number then she would marry shortly.  If she had been unfortunate enough to cut a seed she would have a difficult life and would end up a widow.  If a girl had several suitors and was unable to choose between them, she might remove the pips from an apple and throw them into a fire, reciting the name of a lover for each one.  If one of the seeds popped she would choose to marry that man.   The strongest connection between apples and fertility comes from Germany.  Here lore says that if a woman with several children eats the first apple from a young tree, then it too will have more fruitful seasons.

The apple harvest begins at the start of August, which the Celts referred to as Lughnasa, the time of strength and fruitfulness.  A drink of lambs-wool or Lammas -wool (perhaps from the Gaelic La Mas Nbhal, or ‘feast of the apple gatherers’) was prepared, a hot spiced drink of cider and ale with toast or pieces of apple floating in it.  At the beginning of November, the Romans celebrated the festival of Pomona, goddess of fruit.  The customs at this time of year include bobbing for apples at Halloween.  In Wales, Halloween apples were roasted in the chimney corner suspended on twine, and were added to ale and brandy in the wassail bowl with raisins, spices and sugar.  Another custom was the suspended horizontal stick with a lit candle on one end and an apple on the other.  You had to catch the apple in your mouth without using your hands.  Cider has strong links with magic, and is often known as ‘Witches Brew’ in it’s strongest forms(especially homebrew!).  Wassail itself was used to salute apple trees and encourage them to have a heavy crop the following year.  The hot cider and toasted apples have a little poured over the tree roots, before the remainder is shared out amongst the celebrants.

According to Robert Graves, the name of the sun-god Apollo may be derived from abol, meaning apple.  In Baltic lore the sun goddess rode across the sky in her copper wheeled chariot during the day.  At dusk she drove to her apple orchard in the west.  The setting sun was a red apple that fell from the orchard.  In Greek myth the Hesperides were three maidens who lived on an island in the west where the golden apples of immortality grew.

Eating an apple from an Otherworld tree confers youth, immortality or rebirth.  Gaining the fruit is often a dangerous task and the hero has to travel through the underworld or journey to an island in the west to obtain one.   The tree is usually guarded, by a snake or dragon.  This can be seen in one of the tales of Herakles, in which the serpent Ladon was slain so that Herakles could steal three apples from the tree of Hesperides.  Usually the treasure cannot be won through logic and action, but only with the help of a woman or goddess who assists the quest.

So, a fruit and tree which goes through the Spring, Summer and Autumn, connected with love, fertility, goddesses aiding heros and the fruitful blush of eternal youth.  A sacred harvest in which everything down to the pips has power, meaning and intent wrapped up in a tight green, pink or red skin.  So, just think before you tuck into a nice crunchy Granny Smiths or Golden Delicious; the fairy queen warned Thomas the Rhymer about eating the apples from her garden as she said that to partake would mean no return to the land of the living.  Still, they’re way too nice in late summer crumbles, pies and tarts to avoid 🙂

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2 thoughts on “The Apple Tree

  1. Lovely, and lovely illustration . Who is responsible? .Could I use it on some craft pieces I am making to sell at an apple fair please? (just small). Frannie

  2. Hail Frannie,
    Thank you 🙂 For my part, you’re welcome to use it, originally it came from somewhere on the wide wonders on the internet. Sadly this piece was so long ago that I have no idea where I originally got the illustration from. Perhaps Goog… Your Favourite Search Engine, has a search based on images that might assist you?
    – Amalasuntha

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