Apples: Universal Symbol of Life & Death

Updated: Nov 20

When I first started seeing “apples” on recommended lists of autumnal offerings I thought, and I quote, “BORING”.


Apples are ubiquitous. We take them, we leave them. We don’t think about them, they’re apples. They’re just there. Sure, we like them. But we don’t pay them any mind… THEY’RE JUST APPLES.

How can they be associated with the Autumn Equinox and Samhain?

With the death of the year?

They’re so sweet and unassuming.

Sure they’re harvested at this time, but that’s not enough of a qualification to be considered “the food of the dead”.


I’m gonna need to see some credentials.


Turns out, apples have a long history in folklore of being associated with immortality, death, and love.


The first stories that come to mind to many are, of course, the poison apple the Evil Queen offers to Snow White; and, obviously, the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden that resulted in the banishment from the garden of eternal life and perpetual damnation of women thereafter. More on that later…


Maybe apples aren’t so boring. Or, perhaps apples simply bore the brunt of this responsibility due to the fact that as late as the 17th century, the word "apple" was used as a generic term for all (foreign) fruit other than berries. Even potatoes, or pomme de terre in french, translate to “apple of the earth”. Or, perhaps still, due to the fact that “mălum”, a native Latin noun which means “evil”, and “mālum”, another Latin noun borrowed from the Greek word for apple, are so easily mistaken for one another.


This is one explanation for how the unnamed Forbidden Fruit became portrayed as an apple...


IMMORTALITY

...Yet another explanation is the influence that apples from Greek and Norse mythology had on biblical translations. No matter how you slice them, apples have been used throughout history to represent immortality.


Gods across Greek, Roman, and Christian belief systems are said to have to bestowed apples that granted immortality upon Earth as a gift, warning mortals that they must not be eaten; dangling the allure of eternal life in front of them only to promptly take it away in order to display the futility of attempting to attain god-like status. The Golden Apples, Forbidden fruit, and immortality, belonged to the heavens; and the god(s) easily took these gifts back.


In Celtic mythology, possession of the Silver Bough, an apple branch that bore flowers, buds, and ripe fruit simultaneously, allowed the possessor to enter the land of the gods.

In Norse mythology, Iðunn, keeper of apples and granter of eternal youthfulness, is abducted from Asgard and her absence causes the gods to grow old and grey. Similarly, when Thiassi stole Iðunn's apples and hid them, the gods grew old; they only regained their youth when Iðunn found the stolen fruit.


DEATH

There lies an example of the eternal balance offered by nature. We cannot discuss eternal life without discussing death. Life, eternal or temporary, is a gift and we must treat it as such. As often as apples appeared as symbols for immortality in ancient lore, they also appeared in tales of death.


Not only do apples have life-sustaining flesh, but that flesh protects seeds that contain toxic arsenic.


Perhaps that is why Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur, was condemned to be burned as a witch after she gave an apple to St. Patrick just before he died.


In Celtic traditions, apple trees grew in the underworld where they provided food for the dead during the bleak winter before resurrection by the goddess Olwen in the spring—a story similar to the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone.


Apples also symbolized the Norse goddesses Freya and Hel, queen of the Underworld.

In many pagan traditions, Samhain altars are often piled high with apples, as they also considered apples the food of the dead.


Apples are also buried on Samhain, the day marking the death of the year and the time at which the veil between the living and dead is thinnest. This offering is made to nourish and sustain the souls that have crossed over, until they are reborn along with the returning light of the new year in Spring.


Celts associated apples with rebirth and buried apples in graves as food for the dead. This practice dates back over 7,000 years in Europe and West Asia, where petrified remains of sliced apples have been found in tombs from 5,000BC.


More recently, colonial culture led to apples being depicted as a symbol of the land where white men lived. Sioux author Zitkala-Sa portrays how colonizers promised that if she came with them, she would find apple trees with fruit growing so close to the ground that little girls like her could reach right up and pick it.


This red apple became a symbol of the world that white men and women lived in, and the resulting death of indigenous people and culture.


As far as I can tell (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong) we don't see apples often in North or South American indigenous mythology since apples were brought during colonization, long after the majority of indigenous mythology had been established.


LOVE, FERTILITY, & ABUNDANCE

In Greek and Roman mythology, apples were associated with the goddesses Gaea, Artemis/Diana, Hera/Juno, Athena, and especially Aphrodite/Venus. Aphrodite and Venus, the Greek and Roman goddess(es) of love, beauty, pleasure, passion, and procreation, is/are associated with apples. Apples’ robust, juicy, ripe flesh makes them the quintessential fruit to represent fertility and the female womb, as they are essentially big ol' ovaries that envelop and protect the tree’s seeds: the future of that tree’s life force. “Fruit of my loins” can be taken quite literally here!


Apple trees are not typically stingy with their production, either. A single semi-dwarf apple tree can produce up to 500 apples per year, for 15 to 20 years! Certainly, berries and other small fruits may produce as many, if not more. But when you compare the size, apples provide a much more bountiful and life-sustaining harvest. This is what brought the apple to be a symbol of abundance.


Apples prefer growing in a cooler, more moist climate than is generally available in regions like China, so they used to be imported from Korea and Japan. This made them an exotic luxury that was considered a symbol of peace and beauty.


In some cultures, it was customary on one’s wedding night for the bride to eat an apple, ensuring sexual desire, fertility, and abundance within the marriage (as though two people weren't involved in those aspects of a relationship, and that responsibility lay solely on her shoulders)


DIVINATION

There is a belief that one way to discover the first letter of your true love's name is to peel an apple with a knife, keeping it as long as possible and in one piece. When the piece breaks off, toss it to the floor and observe what letter it most closely resembles. You can also say each letter of the alphabet as you are peeling and if/when it breaks off, the letter you were on is the first letter of your love's name. Sticking an apple seed on your forehead and reciting the alphabet was used the same way. The seed should fall off at the initial of your beloved.


Cut an apple in two and count the number of seeds... If they are even, you will soon be married. If one of the seeds is cut it may be a stormy relationship. If two are cut, widowhood is foretold. But if an uneven number of seeds are found, you will remain unmarried in the near future.


In Austria, throwing apple seeds into a fire while reciting, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me lay and die,” is an apple variant of “He loves me, he loves me not.”

Hold an apple in your hands until it is warm, then give it to your intended. If they eat it, your love will be returned.


FOLKLORE

“To banish illness, cut an apple into three pieces. Rub each piece onto the affected part of the body, then bury the pieces during the waning moon.”

“Before eating any apple, rub it to remove any demons or evil spirits hiding inside.”

“Unicorns live beneath apple trees and you might see one if you quietly go to an apple orchard on a misty morning.”


I’ve struggled to find history and lore regarding apples in Japanese, South American, Polynesian, Indigenous, African, Indian, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern traditions, just to name a few (basically everywhere else in the world aside from Europe).


Admittedly, this is yet another Eurocentric summary of apple symbolism. I am a practicing Pagan with undergrad-level education in Greek mythology, so my realm of personal expertise is not all-encompassing (I'm an herbalist, not a historian or anthropologist). As much as I would like to elaborate on other cultures, I simply lack the education, experience, and, well, culture to do so.


I’ve included what little information I did find, but it’s important that these stories are carried on as well, not only for Google’s algorithm, but for the preservation of these ancient cultures that are just as important as European ones.


If you have stories from your culture to add, please share them in the comments!


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