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The Legendary Apple

Updated on January 20, 2014

The Legendary Apple and its Symbolism

From childhood fairy tales such as Snow White to the discovery of gravity, the apple has influenced the world as we know it. Even centuries before an apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, the fruit has held a symbolic meaning through myth and legends. Although the symbolism of the apple has evolved throughout time, the apple has sustained its place in many cultures as a symbol for knowledge, prosperity, love, jealously and temptation.

Myth-ical Apples

Throughout Greek mythology, the apple has been a symbol for both love and discord. After Hera accepted Zeus’ proposal, she was bestowed with the gift of a gleaming fruit tree bearing golden apples. Although depicting contrasting symbolic meanings, the sacred golden apples have had a significant role in throughout the legends of Greek myths.

In the legend of Atalanta, this beautiful, athletic woman did not wish to marry, although following Zeus’ careful persuasion she finally agreed to wed any man who could defeat her in a footrace. Any suitor who failed would then die in his attempt. Captivated with Atalanta’s beauty and spirit, Hippomenes accepted the challenge and prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, for help. She gave him three golden apples, and instructed Hippomenes to drop an apple at various points in the race. Each time Atalanta stopped to retrieve the gleaming fruit, he gained speed. After all three apples were dropped; he won his conquest and his bride.

In this myth, the golden fruit represented a treasure; a sacred gift from Aphrodite to Hippomenes so he could acquire the love he desired. Even though Atalanta knew any man who challenged her bore a fate a death, she found a greater obsession in winning. The apples were the tools used to combat her eccessive pride, and allow the powers of love prevail as the true victor.

With the Judgment of Paris the beginning is similar to the popular tale of Sleeping Beauty. Eris, the God of Discord, was angry for not receiving an invite to Hera and Zeus’ wedding, and spitefully placed an apple in the center of the table inscribed “to the fairest.” Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena each believed the apple was intended for them. Unable to settle the dispute, Zeus elected Paris as the arbitrator. Each of the goddesses tempted Paris with a special gift in exchange for his selection. Athena promised success in battle and wisdom. Hera granted power, and Aphrodite promised an unblemished appearance and true love. Paris chose Aphrodite, and departed to claim Helen, the current Queen of Sparta as his new bride. After Paris disregarded the King of Sparta requests to return Helen, Sparta waged war against Troy.

In contrast the “apple of love” that was given to Hippomenes, the apple in this fable was intended to arouse discord, and was interpreted as reason behind the Trojan War. The golden fruit was depicted as the fuel for the jealously among the goddesses. Paris’ selection of love and flawless beauty is a metaphor for how society prioritizes appearance in modern culture.

In contrast to the aggressive Greek culture, the more passive Norse mythology gave the golden apples a more positive symbolic role. The apples were believed to have been cultivated by the Goddess, Iðunn and were a portal for the gods to achieve a youthful appearance and immortality until the days of Ragnorak, the Norse account of the apocalypse.

The culture believed in a strong association between apples and one’s resurrection. Upon a loved one’s death, bodies were buried with baskets of apples. The accompaniment of the fruit was intended to ensure a safe journey to the other side, and provide hope for the spirit’s rebirth.

One of the most well known uses of the apple in myth is apparent in the Christian account of the Old Testament. In this myth, God prohibited Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Under coercion of the devil disguised as a serpent, Eve tasted the forbidden fruit despite God’s warning.

Throughout Christianity, the apple was perceived as the forbidden fruit, and eating of it allowed humans to experience and understand grief, sorrow, hunger, and pain. The apple was a symbol for man disregarding his faith in God, and his surrender to curiosity and temptation.

Pre-Modern Apples

Now let us move forward in apple history to the pre-modern era. Bobbing for apples has been a traditional Halloween game for centuries. However, the creation of this game stems from centuries old belief and the power of the apple. When the Romans invaded and conquered Britain centuries ago, they brought with them the apple. To the Romans, the apple was a symbol of their goddess of fruit trees, Pomona. In their culture this goddess was known for her stunning beauty and fertility. And although the Romans demanded the Celts follow their own adopted beliefs, these conquerors accepted and combined many beliefs and celebrations already in place within Celtic values. One of these blended traditions was the Samhain celebration, which would eventually become All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween as it is called today.

In Pagan beliefs (Celtic religion) the pentagram was viewed as a sign of fertility and the Roman goddess Pomona was also a symbol of this. When the Roman’s apple was sliced in half the seeds inside formed a pentagram, therefore they believed that the apple could determine marriage matches during the holy Samhain celebration. They derived many ways in which to use the apple; floating one in a tub of water or hanging one from a string. Traditionally the girls were to pick, polish and then make their personal marks on an apple before floating them in water. Then the boy whom retrieved an apple with his bite from the tub would marry the girl whom marked that apple originally. The other game of hanging an apple from the ceiling on a string, or “Snap Apple” would all the boys to leap and try to bite into the apple. The first boy to take a bite would be the first to marry, sort of like today’s ritual of throwing the bouquet!

The story of Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs was made infamous by the Grimm Brothers in the 1700s. Many versions, however, of this fairy tale had been told throughout Europe for many centuries prior. The abundance of symbolism within this celebrated children’s story is amazing, and the apple plays a prominent role within it. The apple has been promoted as having an erotic nature throughout history and the symbolism behind that belief can be seen within this story. The poisonous apple Snow White was given by her evil stepmother can represent her budding sexuality as a young woman, and her stepmother’s jealous nature. The Queen, who is jealous of Snow White’s obvious beauty plans to kill her by making her eat the red skin of the apple, representing jealousy while the evil stepmother eats the juicy whiteness inside … a representation of youth and beauty. Inevitably the skin, or Queen’s jealousy, over powers the young princess and throws her into a deep slumber.

Another version of the apple’s symbolism in this story has been concocted over the centuries. One that states the apple holds a symbol of greed, temptation and sin; much like the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden from the Bible. The serpent from the Garden of Eden is represented by the evil Queen, while Eve is depicted as the innocent and naïve Snow White. Taking a look at the dialogue from Walt Disney’s portrayal of the Snow White story, one can imagine the conversation the same as if from this old Bible story:

Queen: And since you’ve been so good to poor old Granny, I’ll share a secret with you. This is no ordinary apple. It’s a magic wishing apple.

Snow White: A wishing apple?

Queen: Yes. One bite, and all your dreams will come true.

As one can see, just as the serpent used his art of persuasion over Eve, the evil stepmother was able to use the art of temptation and sin to persuade Snow White into eating the apple, although she knows it is wrong.

Good O'l Appleseed

Now one of the greatest folklore’s in the United States history is that of Johnny Appleseed. Although his story is of more truth than myth and superstition, his belief in the value of apples is one deep rooted in our history. Born John Chapman in LeominsterMassachusetts back in the 1700s, it is well known that he was a young man who caved and loved nature. He took to becoming a missionary and traveling the country by foot, spreading the word of not just Christianity but also his beloved apples. He carried thousands of seeds in saddlebags and traveling from village to village, planting orchards as he trekked so that the settlers would have food other than just meat and fish.

Within the stories of his journeys, one truth remains prevalent, that he loved nature and held the apple as a symbol of growth and beauty within which he loved. He was a vegetarian to the core, and hoped that by spreading the wealth of his apple trees, others would take care to preserve nature’s animals and be able to harvest and live off of the fruit in which he nurtured so brilliantly. Thus the apple became a symbol of not only his love for his surroundings, but also of generosity to the families he planted orchards for, as their prosperity grew as their orchard flourished.

The Modernized Apple

In the modern era the apple is still appreciated and evolving. For example, the most famous pie today in America is the apple pie. New York City is also called, The Big Apple, the place many immigrants pay homage too, where they first arrived in Ellis Island. The term which was derived from various places; the “Big Apple” phrase has been linked to Depression-Era sidewalk apple vendors, Harlem night clubs, and popular 1930s dance known as the “Big Apple.” And even in the 1970’s when the city itself decided to change New York’s image from what had become better-known for its blackouts, strikes, crime and riots. New York picked an image of a more wholesome symbol of renewal, a plump red apple.

Apple, Inc is one of the world’s leaders in personal and professional computers. Their name has been said to have come from the company’s founder (Steve Jobs), who was working a few months a year in a commune apple orchard, when deciding what to call his new company.

The name Apple Computers might have been an effortless decision to which little thought was given; it was the first Apple logo that has deeper meaning onto it own. The first logo was to show a drawing of Isaac Newton having an apple hit him, however Steve Jobs thought it was to complex and so had the design re-imagined, thus the first Apple logo was born, a simple cartoon apple with a bite taken out if it, striped in rainbow colors out of order, the bite taken out represented was to symbolize the biblical apple from the tree of knowledge. It also served another purpose, where “bite” can be switch out for “byte” a word used to describe a segment of information in computer terms. When Jean Louis Gassée (executive at Apple Computer from 1981 to 1990) was asked about his thoughts to the Apple logo he answered:

"One of the deep mysteries to me is our logo, the symbol of lust and knowledge, bitten into, all crossed with the colors of the rainbow in the wrong order. You couldn't dream of a more appropriate logo: lust, knowledge, hope, and anarchy."

(The Apple Museum, 1998 - 2008)

By reviewing one can see the symbolic changes of the apple over time. In the Ancient Greek mythologies and legends, the apple symbolizes both love and discord. This can be seen between the stories of Hera, Atalanta, and the Trojan War as well as within the Garden of Eden. While in pre-modern mythology, the apple seemed to take a less active approach towards evil tendencies, and more towards love and compassion. Bobbing for apples (a traditional Halloween game) originated from the Romans and Celts blending their many beliefs and celebrations together when discovered that both faiths could relate to the apple’s religious meaning. The Queen in Snow White used the apple as evil, this fruit symbolizing her jealousy and rage towards the young princess. However, further in history you have yet compassion and love for not only nature but the hope of providing prosperity to his fellow countrymen by spreading apple seeds nationwide.

Finally, in the modern era the apple is still appreciated and evolving. The most famous city … of excitement and fortune … New York is called the “Big Apple”, a symbolic name to give hope to immigrants entering the country. Furthermore, the apple is the logo to the world’s most successful computer company.

As one can see the apple has slowly made its way through time and cultures, as centuries passed its symbolic meaning progressed towards prosperity and hope and away from negative tales of greed and jealousy. And in the same manner that Johnny Appleseed firmly planted his seeds across the open countryside; the symbolism of the apple has deep roots in history and withstood time, and continues to evolve into the post modern era.

(Thanks to those who helped in providing information regarding some of these topics:, the Theoi Project, Spectator News, Charlotte Kuchinsky, Michelle Rahn and the NYC Historical Education Committee)

Johnny Appleseed Song


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