Apples have been easily accessible and widely consumed since Antiquity. In fact, several European languages, including Greek, Latin, English and French, used the word ‘apple’ to refer to all fruit. In the West, apples are seen as highly thirst-quenching and nourishing. They not only represent health, but are also a guarantee of eternal youth and immortality. Over the centuries, they have repeatedly fuelled pagan myths, the biblical narrative, fairy tales and popular legends, and have become part of the collective imagination as a powerful and ambivalent symbol, associated with seduction and femininity.
In Greek mythology, both gods and mortals coveted the golden apples the mother goddess Gaia gave as a wedding present to Hera and Zeus. They were kept in a garden guarded by the Hesperides, daughters of the goddess of the night, and by Ladon, a hundred-headed dragon that never slept. These apples promised immortality and anyone who ate them would never again experience hunger, thirst, suffering or illness. According to one version of the myth, Eris, the goddess of discord, was furious at not having been invited to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, so she took one of the apples and threw it among the guests. The apple was inscribed with the words ‘To the fairest’ and caused mayhem among the crowd.
This event led to the Judgement of Paris, to end the quarrel by choosing the most beautiful goddess. Paris gave the golden apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, who, in return, promised to give him the beautiful Helen of Troy, thereby triggering the Trojan War. In another Greek myth, Eurystheus commands Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology) to fulfil twelve labours, one of which was to steal these same golden apples by braving Ladon (the dragon). In Celtic mythology, portrayals of Lugh, one of the prominent gods, usually show him holding three apples, signs of immortality, power and prosperity. In Snorri’s Edda, a 13th-century collection of Norse myths in prose form, the goddess Iðunn is the keeper of the apples of immortality, food of the gods. The giant Þjazi, forcibly takes her far away from Asgard, and this abduction causes the premature ageing of the gods.
In Christian tradition, due to a shift in meaning in the Vulgate (the Late Latin translation of the Bible), the apple tree represents the tree of knowledge and temptation, the Fall of Man, when Adam and Eve bite into the forbidden fruit. In the popular oral tradition of Western fairy tales, Snow White naively bites into a poisoned apple, but her death, albeit temporary, is followed by a resurrection.