Why are apples seen as the “default” fruit in Western culture? The answer involves Greek myths, Latin spelling mistakes, and English semantic narrowing.
The English word apple comes from the Old English æppel, which meant not only “apple” but “any kind of fruit” or “fruit in general.” It’s an old, old word stemming from Proto-Indo-European *ab(e)l-, meaning “apple.” In Middle English and Early Modern English, eppel or appel was mostly used as a generic term for all types of fruit, excluding berries but including nuts. Dates were fingeræppla (“finger apples”), cucumbers were eorþæppla (“earth apples,”), and bananas were appels of paradis (more on that later!).
The simple answer to our question then, is that it is a matter of semantic narrowing. Apple went from being a general term for fruit to denoting the fruit we know today as an apple. Languages descended from Greek and Latin went through a similar process for the word for fruit as well. The Greek word melon originally meant “apple,” but it was combined with other roots to form words like mēlopepon “gourd-apple.” Melon was used in Greek as a generic term for any type of unknown fruit. The Latin word, pomme, makes reference to Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees. Pomme has likewise been used to refer to any fruit in general or specifically to apples (the phrase pomme de terre in French literally means “earth apple” and is the term for “potato”). The semantic value of the apple lies in the fact that it is an archetype for fruit, a pattern or prototype for all other fruits.
The apple holds great meaning in many cultural traditions throughout the world. Fruit in general is often seen as a symbol of fertility due to both its form and function. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols records that the various meanings attached to the apple are—at their core—all interconnected. The apple is seen as a key to knowledge and wisdom of some kind, whether that be knowledge of mortal life and humanity, knowledge about oneself, or intimately knowing another. Let’s take a look at some of the ways the world views the apple.
Apples in Olympus
Greek, Chinese, and Norse tradition all contain various references to and stories about apples wherein they are symbols of fertility, beauty, and eternal youth. Apples can also be a negative symbol of temptation or vanity.
In Greek mythology, Eris, the goddess of chaos and discord, threw an apple into the wedding party of Thetis and Peleus out of anger that she had not been invited. (The “apple” in the story was actually a now-extinct fruit grown in the Balkans that was similar to a pomegranate.) She inscribed into the apple kallisti (To the Prettiest One). The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple of discord, and Zeus appointed Paris of Troy to select which of the three the apple should belong to. Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility, persuaded Paris to give her the apple by promising him that she would make Helen—her half-sister and the most beautiful woman in the world—fall in love with him. The resulting relationship between Helen and Paris precipitated the Trojan War. Thus, an “apple of discord” is the kernel of a small argument that leads to a much bigger dispute!
Based on this story, the apple became a sacred relic of Aphrodite (or Venus, in Roman tradition). Throwing an apple at someone was the ancient Greek version of a marriage proposal or declaration of love, and to catch the apple was to accept. Today, newlyweds share an apple on their wedding night to ensure a “fruitful” union.
Apples in the Garden
The fig tree, native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, held similar symbolic meanings as the apple, as evidenced in ancient religious texts. The fig was one of the earliest domesticated fruits in the world, along with the olive and grape—all of which have their origins in the Fertile Crescent, one of several cradles of human civilization.
The Garden of Eden, the location of the creation narrative in Abrahamic religions, contained an abundant variety of trees and plants. Adam and Eve, the first human beings, are commanded by God to eat freely from the garden except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Tree of Knowledge is not identified with a particular type of fruit. Eve is tempted by a serpent to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and she and Adam both choose to do so. Their eyes are opened as they receive knowledge, and they cover themselves with fig leaves when they realize they are naked. In Hebrew tradition, the Tree of Knowledge itself is considered to be a fig tree, though this is not stated in the text.
In Islamic tradition, the Tree of Immortality, as it is known, is often portrayed as a fig or olive tree.
Buddhist tradition sees the fig as a symbol of enlightenment. The Buddha reached enlightenment under a Bodhi tree, a species of fig tree. This symbolism from another area of the world corroborates the metaphor used in the Garden of Eden account—the fruit of knowledge is enlightenment.
In addition to representing knowledge, the fig is strongly associated with fertility and abundant life in many cultures. It is a symbol of male and female joining together—its plump shape is a metaphor for female fertility, and the sap of the tree represents male fertility.
In Christian tradition, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is often portrayed as an apple, though it is variously seen as a fig, pear, or pomegranate—all richly evocative of the ideas of fertility, the cycle of life, and desire due to their resemblance to human sexual anatomy. One fruit contains many seeds, each with the potential to produce a tree, which will then produce more fruit, and the cycle continues forever. The dual meanings of temptation and fertility are thus strongly associated with fruit in general, and the apple and fig in particular. Some Christians hold that one of the results of Adam and Eve’s choice to eat the fruit is the physical condition needed for procreation, as well as the knowledge needed to navigate mortality.
So how did the fig get turned into an apple?
The idea that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was an apple comes from a mix-up of the Latin words mălum, meaning “evil,” and mālum, meaning “apple.” The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was turned into the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Apples!
Later literature that drew from the Bible, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) continued cast the fruit as an apple, which only reinforced this mistranslation—but also reinforced the existing link between apples and knowledge. Renaissance art often featured the apple as the “forbidden fruit” in the Garden of Eden story.
Another matter to consider is that in contrast to figs, “apples were historically among the most difficult fruit trees to cultivate and among the last major ones to be domesticated in Eurasia, because their propagation requires the difficult technique of grafting” (Diamond, 1997, p. 150). Perhaps the cultural and dietary significance of apples was greater for Latin speakers at the time they were interpreting the Bible, while figs were more prominent for Hebrew speakers of an earlier era—though this is no more than conjecture.
The apple is referenced elsewhere in the Old Testament as well—readers are instructed to keep God and God’s commandments as “the apple of thine eye” (Proverbs 7:2, see also Deuteronomy 32:10, Psalms 17:8). The “apple” of one’s eye refers to the pupil, which resides in the very center of one’s eye and is fixed upon the thing one desires. In Hebrew, the word used for “apple” in these verses literally means “dark part of the eye.” The word “apple” was substituted in English translations of the Bible, using an idiom that first appeared in Old English around the ninth century. The phrasing in the English translation indicates that, to an English speaker, an apple represents the thing most desired or cherished above all others.
In the Song of Solomon, the apple is likewise a metaphor for beauty and desire: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (Song of Solomon 2:3). The word “apple” here is variously translated as “orange” or “citron”—the idea being that fruit of any kind is a symbol of desire and sweetness, among other meanings.
If an apple represents a thing that is most desirable, it makes sense for English speakers to cast the tree in the Garden of Eden as an apple tree, which Eve saw was “to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6, emphasis added).
The Adam’s apple, a laryngeal protuberance formed by cartilage, is present in all humans, but is much more pronounced in men.
You may have heard the folk etymology behind the Adam’s apple as something like this: After Eve ate the fruit (“apple”) of the Tree of Knowledge, she convinced Adam to taste it, and a chunk of it got stuck in his throat as a reminder of his transgression. He then passed this on to all of his posterity in the form of a protuberance in the throat. It was later given the name “Adam’s apple” as a reminder of the Garden of Eden account.
Though it seems like plausible thinking behind the name in a society that held the Bible in high regard, this was not really the inspiration behind it. The English term as applied to human anatomy has been in use since 1625. The French pomme d’Adam and the German Adamsapfel both refer to the same thing. From the medieval period until the 1700s, a term meaning “Adam’s apple” was also used in various languages to describe literal fruits—pomelos, citrons, and plantains, for example, were all called “Adam’s apple” at one point. A Mediterranean variety of lime with indentations resembling the mark of a person’s teeth was a particularly vivid reminder of Adam biting into the fruit in the Garden of Eden.
Medieval Latin texts use the term pomum Adami as a name for several different fruits, including the pomegranate. This name implied that these were among the “fruits of paradise” enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Around the same time, medieval Arab medical scholars were cataloging the anatomy of the throat, deciding on a word meaning “pomegranate” as the name for the laryngeal protuberance. We don’t know the exact reason why they chose this metaphor, but the pomegranate, too, is highly symbolic in Islamic religious tradition and beyond. European writers adopted the Latin translation, pommun granatum, for the laryngeal protuberance, then applied the synonym already in existence: pomum Adami.
And there you have it—the apple features prominently in mythology and religious thought, while etymologically capturing the essence of fruit itself. It is a symbol of temptation and knowledge, desire and abundant life.
The various meanings of the apple show up elsewhere in everyday life and popular culture. Snow White in her naivety was tempted to eat a poison apple that put her under a curse that only a prince could break (which strongly parallels Christian themes, if you think about it). Johnny Appleseed went down in American folk history as the sower of both apple seeds and religious ideals, spreading fruit and wisdom in service of nature and his fellow humans everywhere he went. Your laptop and phone most likely have an Apple logo on them. A student presents an apple to the teacher as a gift of knowledge.
How do you like them apples?
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