Friday, 13 May 2011

The Silver Apples of the Moon, the Golden Apples of the Sun

Here is Hercules, on an Athenian vase.  Eros, standing on his shoulder, offers him one of the golden apples of immortality from the Garden of the Hesperides.  The female figures are the Hesperides themselves - the Daughters of Evening or Western Maidens, designations all apparently tied to their imagined location in the distant west. (Hesperis is the personification of the evening: Hesperus is Venus as evening star.)

But what is it about apples?  Why are they so evocative?  Why was the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – not named in the Bible – assumed to be an apple?  Not only did golden apples of immortality grow in the Garden of the Hesperides, but the goddess Idun was the keeper of golden apples which preserved the youth of the Norse gods. Why was the Apple of Discord – with its inscription To the Fairest - an apple at all, and why were three golden apples so irresistible to Atalanta that she paused to pick them up and lost her race?

The apple as the fruit of immortality, or perhaps equally of death, appears as a symbol in Celtic mythology too.  Heralds from the Land of Youth would bear a silver apple branch, with silver blossom and golden fruit, whose tinkling music lulled the hearers to sleep – perhaps to everlasting sleep…  And Arthur, after his final battle, went to the island of Avalon, the island of apples, to be healed of his mortal wound.  And of course there’s the apple Snow-White’s stepmother gave her, of which one poisoned bite sent her into a death-like sleep.   

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love... Apples are tokens of love and promises of eternity.  In Yeats' ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, the lovelorn Aengus seeks forever for the beautiful girl from the hazel wood.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

But such an eternity is probably also the land beyond death. 

Where do apples even come from, why are they so ubiquitous?  Why are there, even today, so many varieties available even in supermarkets, usually the home of homogeneity? I went into our local Sainsburies the other day and counted eleven different named varieties of apple all on sale at once:  Empire, Royal Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Russets, Granny Smiths, Pink Ladies, Jazz, Braeburns and Bramleys.  (In comparison, there were four named varieties of pears, and everything else was generic – bananas, strawberries, oranges, etc.)

But if you look here, you'll find names and pictures of many more, older varieties with names like poems.  Adam's Pearmain.  Foxwhelps. D'Arcy Spice. Marriage-Maker. St Ailred.  Sops-in-Wine.  And Ribston's Pippin, of which Hilaire Belloc wrote:

I said to Heart: "How goes it?"
Heart replied, 
"Right as a Ribston Pippin!"
But it lied.

Apples are related to roses, I’m delighted to tell you.  According to a rather lovely book called ‘Apples: the story of the fruit of temptation’, by Frank Browning (Penguin 1998):

‘In the beginning there were roses.  Small flowers of five white petals opened on low, thorny stems, scattered across the earth in the pastures of the dinosaurs, about eighty million years ago. …These bitter-fruited bushes, among the first flowering plants on earth, emerged as the vast Rosaceae family and from them came most of the fruits human beings eat today: apples, pears, plums, quinces, even peaches, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

‘The apple [paleobotanists believe]… was the unlikely child of an extra-conjugal affair between a primitive plum from the rose family and a wayward flower with white and yellow blossoms of the Spirea family, called meadowsweet.’ 

Isn’t that wonderful? Apples as we know them today developed in Europe and Asia.  The Pharoahs grew them.  The Greeks and Romans grew them. And they keep. You can store apples overwinter, eat them months after you’ve picked them: fresh fruit in hard cold weather when there’s nothing growing outside.  So perhaps you would think of them as life-giving, immortal fruit.  They smell fragrant.  They feel good too: hard-fleshed, smooth, a cool weight in the hand.

The medieval lyric Adam lay y-bounden provocatively celebrates the Fall of Man when Adam ate the forbidden fruit:

And all was for an appil
An appil that he toke
As clerkes finden
Written in her boke

…by ending with the mischievously happy thought that, if Adam had not eaten the apple, Our Lady would never have become the Heavenly Queen:

Blessed be the time
That appil take was!
Therefore we maun singen:
Deo gratias.

Here is a poem by John Drinkwater (surely the most poetically-named poet ever) which consciously or unconsciously captures some of those mystical coincidences of apples, eternity, sleep, moonlight, magic and death. 


At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green.  There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams
And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
On moon-washed apples of wonder.

Picture credits: 
Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides:  Red-Figured hydra made in Athens circa 370-360 BCE.
The Golden Apple Tree and the Nine Peahens:  Arthur Rackham
Adam and Eve:  Lucas Cranach


  1. After reading your post I have an irresistible urge to eat pie...and a little ice cream.

  2. I take that as a great compliment!

  3. Lovely! You know the Bible does not specify an apple in the Garden of Eden, I'm sure?

  4. Indeed! - which makes it all the more intriguing!

  5. There are apples grown in the hills behind us but I doubt there would be eleven different varieties available at the one time. Yesterday there were just three types in the greengrocer, Granny Smith, Royal Gala and Pink Lady. The names are just marvellous!

  6. "An apple, an egg and a nut
    You may eat after a slut"

    John Ray, 1670

    Apples were supposed to boost potency for the next encounter

  7. Lovely post. My husband and I live in the Canadian prairies, but we both were raised in the fruit growing regions of Ontario. I was raised during the golden age of the Hamilton-Wentworth Conservation lands, where apples trees grew up all over the place, like dandelions in other places. Every Fall we grabbed bushel barrels and took our fill, competing with other families in order to do so. No one ever told us we couldn't. I'm sure it's a different story these days. I have memories of running half naked through the semi-wild apple orchards, eating and picking to my heart's content. My husband has spent too much money sending away to his hometown for "good" apples, the kind he just cant' find anymore. It didn't work out very well. By the time they arrived, they were dried out. We are beginning to sound like old people, deservedly so, but those memories are still fresh. Too bad apples on store shelves are not.

    Your posts are pure poetry, Katherine. Thanks for another great one.

  8. I love this post! And so good to see the Drinkwater poem again. I haven't encountered it since the 6th form at school. Lovely. I am very fond of apples and must mention my current favourites which are called try them!

  9. I've always been fascinated by Yeats' 'The Song of Wandering Angus' since I first came across it in Robert James Waller's book, 'The Bridges of Madison County'. After doing a little bit of research, I discovered that Yeats believed that the silver and golden apples were the female/male 'energies' of the moon and the sun. When these two energies combine, they give birth to all the beautiful poetry and wonderful legends and myths of the world. He explains this in one of the prefaces to 'Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland', arranged and put into English by Lady Gregory. Reading it reminded me of your excellent post, 'The Boy in the Golden Cape' and the myths held by the Klamath natives of North America and the necessity of the passions and emotions they put in to their story. Yeats says of the ancient Irish story tellers, 'They have no asceticism, but they are more visionary than any ascetic, and their invisible life is but the life about them made more perfect and more lasting, and the invisible people are their own images in the water...'

    I enjoy all of your posts. Thank you for the education :-)

  10. Thankyou all for the lovely, creative comments! As always,learning things is a two-way street!