Apples and Apple Trees in Western European Myths, Legends, and Folklore
In British myth and legend, apples are most identified with the Island of Avalon, whose name is derived from the Welsh word for apple: afal (pronounced aval). In some cases Avalon is believed to be in the North Atlantic beyond the setting sun, in others it is associated with the town of Glastonbury, Somerset, UK. It is the place where the mortally wounded Arthur is taken to be healed by Morgan le Fee and her sisters. Avalon is a place where there is ever sunlight and warm breezes, the land is lush with vegetation, and the inhabitants never age nor know pain or injury.
Some British folklore about apples from the Mystical
World Wide Web:
- If the sun could be seen shining through the branches of an apple tree on Christmas day, then the owner, if a farmer, would have a healthy crop the next summer. To insure that this would happen, he would have to put a piece of toast in the fork of the tree or in the largest apple tree in his orchard.
- If a crab apple tree grew near to and overhung a well while blossoming out of season, then there would be more births and marriages than deaths in a community.
In Ireland the apple identifies the people of the Sid. When one such comes to invite a human to the Land of Youth, he might carry a branch of an apple tree with him, often described as silver with white blossoms and/or with golden apples. These would make a tinkling sound that put one to sleep or banish pain. Likewise, a silver branch bearing three golden apples is brought to King Cormac and an apple branch from Emain Ablach (the plain? of apples) is brought to Bran MacFebal. In yet another legend, an Otherworldly woman brings a apple to summon Connla on which he lives for a month without other food. Other Irish legends involving apples are the “Voyage of Maelduin” and the story of “Finn and the Man in the Tree.”
The tale of the Sons of Tuirenn combine both Irish and Graeco-Roman elements. The Sons of Tuirenn killed Lugh’s father, Cian. Lugh demanded that they do eight “impossible” tasks as blood-price for his father’s life. The first of these was to bring back three apples from the Garden of the Hesperides (see below) in the east of the world. They would know these apples from the following characteristics: they were the size of a one-month-old child, the color of of burnished gold, and they tasted of honey; eating them healed all wounds and diseases and the apples would not be diminished by being eaten; and if thrown, they would rebound to the thrower’s hands. The Sons of Tuirenn managed to accomplish all eight tasks, but were mortally wounded while doing the last one. Lugh refused to allow them to use the healing powers of another object they captured in the second task, a magical pig skin, so they died shortly thereafter.
In the legend of Thomas the Rhymer (13th century),Thomas Learmont, laird of the castle of Ercildoune, is accosted by a hag who takes him on a journey. He is shown three paths, one of leads to the land of the Fay. While ravenously hungry, he passes by luscious fruits of all kinds, but he is warned not to eat of any of them, for he would then be trapped there forever. He is also told that his hunger would soon be relieved with an apple. When they reach a certain spot, the hag climbs down off the horse and offers Thomas an apple from a small yet perfect tree. She tells him that after eating it he will be graced with the gift of Truth. At that time the hag turns into a beautiful woman and together they go to a castle where they feast for three days. At the end of that time, the woman tells him that he must return to his own world where seven years have passed. When he returns home, he finds that he is given the gifts of prophesy, poetry, and an enchanted harp. He becomes a wise ruler of his territories and is, in time, called back to Fairyland where he remained.
Iduna, wife of the Norse God of poetry, Bragi, kept a box of apples. If any of the Gods felt the approach of old age, they only had to taste of one of these apples to remain young. She was abducted by a giant (aided by Loki) and, in time, the other Gods realized that they were aging rapidly. Loki was sent to rescue her so that she might restore youth to the Gods.
The apple as a symbol of fertility appears in the Volsunga Saga. Here an apple was dropped by a goddess into the lap of a king who prayed for a son. The son who was then born had a great apple tree in the center of his hall symbolizing the continuance of the family.
Pomona was the Roman Goddess of fruit trees, especially of apple trees, and was also know as the “Apple Mother” who gave the “apples of eternal life.” Roman banquets ended with apples and an invocation of Pomona’s blessing.
Pomona had a special priest appointed to her service. Her sacred grove was called the “Pomonal” and was located on the road from Rome to Ostia.
The Hesperides were three virgin sisters who, along with a dragon, guarded the tree of golden apples Gaea had given to Hera as a wedding gift in their garden. These were reputed to bring beauty and health. It was the eleventh of the twelve labors of Heracles that he bring back the golden apples to the world.
In another myth, Atalanta was a powerful warrior who would only marry the man who could outrun her. Desperate to win, Hippomenes prayed to Aphrodite for aid, and she gave him golden apples from her garden which he was to throw into Atalanta’s path. The apples did distract Atalanta and he won the race, but he forgot to give due honor to Aphrodite afterwards and as punishment, both he and Atalanta were changed into lions.
All web sites were active as of 1 July 2003. Subjects of the synopses are listed after the source.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology. New York: Avenel, 1978. Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Atalanta, Pomona, Iduna.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1964, reprint: 1981. Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Atalanta, Avalon.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1968, reprint: 1976. Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Atalanta, Avalon.
Rowen Fairgrove’s Celtica site — site no longer contains the pages from which this information was drawn. Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Atalanta, Avalon, Irish legends.
The Gathering of the Clans. Thomas the Rhymer.
Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1988. Iduna, Volsunga Saga, Cormac, Bran MacFebal, Connla and other Irish apples/apple branches.
Encyclopedia of the Celts. Avalon, British, Irish.
Squire, Charles. Celtic Myth and Legend Poetry and Romance. New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1979 reprint of 1901 edition. Sons of Tuirenn.
Mythography Web site. Pomona.
Yeats, W. B. Irish Fairy & Folk Tales. New York: Barnes and Nobles Books, 1993 reprint. Irish legends.