The Apple and the Snake
Another famous Greek legend that features apples is a part of the labours of Hercules. The eleventh task given to this famous hero was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, a tricky task given that these maidens were the daughters of Atlas. The tree on which these fabled apples grew was given to Hera by Mother Earth as a wedding gift on her marriage to Zeus. The nine Hesperides protected the tree and sang to it daily, songs comparing the sunrise and sunset to an apple hanging in the sky. The Hesperus or Venus star, sacred to Aphrodite, rose above the tree every night. Unfortunately the Hesperides were a little too fond of the apples and got into bad habits, stealing the fruit from the tree, so Hera set the serpent Ladon to coil about the tree’s roots to protect the tree from further theft. Hercules approached Atlas, who was carrying the world on his shoulders at the time, and persuaded him to get the apples from the garden as the Hesperides would not hurt their own father. Atlas agreed, on the condition that Hercules hold the world while Atlas carried out the task, however when Atlas returned with the fruit, he refused to take the world back from Hercules. Fortunately for wily Hercules, he managed to talk Atlas into holding the planet for a few minutes while he stretched his arms out in preparation for the long haul ahead, and when Atlas took the planet back, Hercules quickly snatched up the golden apples of youth and ran off.
Spirals and Charms
These days, there are a fairly large array of spells, charms, bits of folklore and customs associated with the apples. Many of the various charms used by young girls at Samhain to divine their future partners used apples, from the charm where you try and peel the skin off the apple in one continuous strip to ensure love in the following year, to apple bobbing, and the custom to twist the stem off the top of the apple whilst reciting the alphabet, one letter with each twist, and then stab the end of the stem into the apple’s peel, again while reciting the alphabet. When the stem breaks and comes away from the apple, the letter on which it does so is the first letter of your future partner’s name, and the letter on which the stem pierces the skin is the first letter of your future partner’s surname. There is also a well known custom of wassailing the apple trees and feeding the oldest tree in the orchard with cider as a charm to ensure a good yield the following year – this tradition has its roots in Anglo Saxon custom, with Waes-hael being Saxon for ‘good health’. A piece of folklore from Yorkshire dictates that the last apple on each apple tree must be left on the bough for the faery folk. Another piece of old lore mentions that if flowers appear on the tree after the fruit has matured, it is an omen of death – though whose death of course is the interesting question given that nature running its usual course usually results in a fair amount of death in the neighbourhood. It’s a fairly commonly held belief that orchards mark a threshold between this world and the Otherworld, where the boundaries are thinner and more easily crossed. Unicorns are said to live beneath apple trees as well. Several different cultures have had apple Goddesses – the Romans had Pomona, the Welsh apple Goddess was known as Olwen or Arwen, and the English apple Goddess was known as Gwen.
These days, the apple is most commonly used in charms for love and divination. The fragrant wood makes lovely wands, and is also particularly good for hearth fires, producing a delightful and distinctively fragrant smoke when it burns. The apple itself can be used medicinally as well as to provide a good level of trace minerals and vitamins, and cider vinegar has quite the reputation as a cure all and general preventative. The apple, long beloved all over the world, does not show any signs of losing popularity, and quite rightly so, given the myth and mystique surrounding this commonly available, nutritious and beautiful fruit.