Women and apples. The two of have been inexplicably linked in mythology and art for centuries. But why? Is there a genuine link between women and apples, and if so, what is the foundation for it, and how did we come to discover it? A recent study suggests that the consumption of apples may increase a woman’s sexual pleasure. Is there any validity to such a claim and is there any historical evidence to back it up? Let’s ponder these things…
Throughout the religions of the world, mythological figures and goddesses have often been associated with apples and thus apples have become a symbol of femininity.
In Greek myth, the Garden of the Hesperides was a sacred place, where the Hesperides, the nymph daughters of Hesperus, dwelt. They tended to the garden as was their sacred duty. As often as is the case, especially in Greek mythology where triads of females are prolific (the Fates, the Graces, the Moirai), the Hesperides are usually depicted as being three nymphs, beautiful and yet unattainable. Some variations on the myth depict four or seven Hesperides. The Garden of the Hesperides was an orchard belonging to the goddess Hera. There in the garden was a tree, which grew from the branches that Gaia, the Earth, gave to Hera as a wedding gift. That tree bore magical golden apples.
There are numerous legends and myths in which the golden apples play a part, but most notably, they are seen as the cause for the Trojan War. Eris, the goddess of chaos and discord, once wandered into the garden and took a single golden apple from its branch, inscribing on it that it was intended “for the most beautiful”. She then rolled this apple into a wedding ceremony, a wedding to which she had not been invited, where it was found and three vain goddesses claimed that the apple was intended for them. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite squabbled over who was more beautiful and therefore most deserving of the golden apple. The three goddesses sought the wisdom of Zeus, king of the gods, but he was reluctant to judge which of them was the most beautiful. And who could blame him? Hera was his sister and wife, Athena his daughter and goddess of wisdom, and Aphrodite the goddess of love herself. So, he left the unfortunate task to the mortal Prince Paris of Troy, whom had been deemed a fair judge by the gods after conceding that when Ares, god of war, took the form of a bull that he was far more glorious as a bull than any bulls that Paris had in his possession. After bathing and beautifying themselves, the three goddesses presented themselves to Paris, and each attempted to bribe him with their powers. Hera offered to make him a mighty king over Europe and Asia. Athena offered to make him wise beyond measure and courage in battle. Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful of mortal brides. Consequentially, Paris awarded the golden apple to Aphrodite, and so Paris bestowed the apple to Helen, the most beautiful of mortal women, but she was already married to the Greek warrior-king Menelaus. Paris and Helen return to Troy and are married and Menelaus besieges Troy for the next ten years.
Hercules (also spelled Herakles), who was son of Zeus and a legendary hero, had to perform Twelve Labors of atonement and one labor was to pick the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. In another myth, Atalanta, a beautiful and fiercely independent huntress and athlete, sought to outrace her unwanted suitors, offering her hand in marriage to whomever could outrun her. She was outsmarted by Hippomenes who threw three golden apples, a gift from Aphrodite, into Atalanta’s path which she stopped to admire.
In Norse mythology, the gods themselves were not immortal inherently, but rather they were given their powers of immortality by eating magical golden apples. These apples were guarded over by Idunn, the goddess of eternal youth, who was on one account lured out of the gods’ home of Asgard by Loki, the trickster god of mischief. Also, another goddess, Freyja, the goddess of fertility, sexuality, gold, beauty, life, and death. In Sweden, at Christmastime, Freyja was believed to shake the apples from the trees, which would bring in a good harvest the following year. Because of this, and because of certain similarities between Freyja and Idunn, Richard Wagner combined the two goddesses in his epic opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, creating the amalgam character of Freia.
In Arthurian legend, the Isle of Avalon is the final resting place of King Arthur and the mystical land where his magic sword Excalibur was forged, and it was also called Insula Pomorum, or the “island of apples“, by historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. Avalon was believed to be the home of a group of mystical priestesses, the sorceress Morgan le Fay and her sisters, chiefly among them.
Apples also play an important function as symbols in other pagan religions. With it’s five-petaled blossoms which resemble a pentagram, as does the center of an apple that has been cleaved in halves, apples are seen as both a symbol of the divine feminine and a potent magical. Because of their nutritious value and the occult value endowed to them by pagans, the apple has also been associated in folklore with witches and witchcraft. This is perhaps best exemplified in the Evil Queen who deceives the virginal and virtuous Snow White with a poisoned apple. Interestingly, apple wood has been used in the making of magic wands, which themselves have their origin in fertility rites, the wand being a phallic symbol and the magic, whether real or imagined, that emanates from them serving the symbolic function of seminal fluid. There is a reason that the phallic magic wand was often shown in the arts with a feminine pentagram atop it.
There’s a long tradition of bobbing for apples in the Autumn of each year dates back to ancient times. When the Romans, in their conquest of Britain, brought the apple tree, a symbol of the Roman goddess Pomona, to Ireland, the Celts embraced the tree and the fruit and assimilated it into their own religion. Because the seeds of an apple which has been halved forms a pentagram, which was a symbol used in magic and fertility rites, and because the apple tree was the symbol of a goddess, the Celts considered the apple to be an icon of fertility. Apples were then used in various fertility rituals and bobbing for apples was thought to be a way to predict who might be married. Young women who place the apples they successfully bobbed under their pillows while they slept were alleged to dream of their future spouse. When the Roman feast of Pomona and the Celtic festival of Samhain were combined with All Hallows Eve, the resultant holiday was Halloween, and bobbing for apples has become a popular children’s game ever since.
Obviously, one does not need to look exclusively to pagan mythological archetypes or obscure magic rituals to find a very distinct connection between women and apples, for the symbol of the apple has its place in Judeo-Christian conventions as well. One need look no further than the creation myth itself and the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the creation myth, God creates man and woman, Adam and Eve, gives to them the Garden of Eden as their idyllic paradise home. They are to watch over it is as their dominion and they shall watch over all the flora and fauna that exists there. However, God warns that they are strictly forbidden to eat of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but temptation takes the form of a serpent who convinces Eve to taste of the forbidden fruit and to share this with her husband, Adam, and because of this they are endowed with the knowledge of sin, and thus are banished from paradise and all their progeny, meaning all of humankind, shall inherit this Original Sin. When they eat of the forbidden fruit, they also become aware of their nakedness, something that had seemed natural before but which was then perceived as shameful. Many see the consumption of the forbidden fruit as a metaphor for sexual awakening.
While the Bible does not explicitly identify what the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was, it has commonly been depicted as an apple since around the Medieval era when artists borrowed the image of the apple in the garden from the Greek Garden of the Hesperides. Of course, it is from the Biblical creation myth that the apple becomes synonymous with images of serpents, concepts about curiosity and the acquisition of knowledge, themes of seduction and sexuality, and it has forever cemented the association of Adam and Eve themselves, and of the fall of man with the apple. It is also from this myth that we derive the term Adam’s apple, which was said to be the result of the forbidden fruit getting caught in Adam’s throat. The protrusion of the Adam’s apple is also a sign of sexual maturity in a man, so there is again a strong link between the apple and sexual maturity. The apple appears elsewhere in the Bible, prominently in The Song of Songs, where an apple tree is used as a symbol of beauty and desire in the lover’s speech, or in Deuteronomy where the phrase “the apple of my eye” came into being, using the apple as a symbol for that which is valued or prized above all else.
The Roman goddess, Venus, the Roman counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite, has long been depicted in art with apples, mainly due to the myths tying her to golden apples. In the Biblical iconography apples have been used to represent temptation, sin, and seduction. Conversely, they have also been used to represent true love and fidelity. New brides and grooms were given apples as a gesture of good will, as a blessing that their marriage would be one of fidelity and that it would be fruitful, literally and figuratively speaking.
In the art world, the apple has come to symbolize many things. Apples have traditionally been seen as feminine. They have been used to represent youth, the sustenance of nature, the well-being of the environment, and various other things.
It has been thoroughly documented that ancient civilizations had used various plants, herbs, fruits, and fungi as primitive medicines. Certain plants were used as contraceptives and others as fertility enhancement. Many foods and drinks (chocolate, strawberries, mangoes, oysters, red wine, for example) have been thought to be aphrodisiacs. Anyone with food allergies is at least somewhat aware of how the chemical components of what they eat effect their own biochemistry and can cause reactions. Certain foods are known to have certain properties that cause physical changes in our bodies. For men, citrus fruits and foods containing high levels of Vitamin C have been shown to increase sperm health, and for women, proteins derived from vegetable sources have been shown to improve fertility. In the 17th Century, Nicholas Culpepper claimed that asparagus was an aphrodisiac for men, and as it turns out, he was right. Asparagus contains essential fiber, potassium, vitamins A and C, thiamin, and folic acid. Folic acid boosts histamine which is needed in order for both men and women to achieve orgasm. Another food which has been sited as an aphrodisiac is avocado. Avocados are also high in folic acid and potassium, and the way they hang from trees in pairs gives them a rather sexual appearance, so much so that they were called “testicle trees” by the ancient Aztecs.
A recent study at Santa Chiara Regional Hospital in Trento, Italy, and which was published in Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics has found an apparent link between apple consumption and a woman’s sexual responsiveness and pleasure. There were 731 female participants in the study, ranging from age eighteen to age forty-three, and with no history of sexual dysfunction. None of the women included in the study were taking any prescription drugs. The women were divided into two groups: one in which the participants consumed one to two apples daily and the other in which the participants did not consume any apples on a daily basis. The results are fascinating to say the least. The women who ate one to two apples every day reported increased arousal, vaginal lubrication, the frequency and intensity of orgasms, and overall sexual functioning. The reason behind this, according to the researchers, is that apples contain phloridzin, which can decrease blood glucose levels and increase metabolism, but it’s also a phytoestrogen and phytoestrogens can improve blood flow the vagina. Phloridzin is similar to female sex hormone estradiol. The pectin in apples also help to lower cholesterol, which is important to heart function, and again improves blood flow. Apples also contain polyphenols and antioxidants and have been shown to lower blood-fat levels in postmenopausal women.
Now, there is a difference between causation and correlation, and it’s possible that with such a small number of participants in the study, that these findings may not be completely accurate or that there are other factors not being accounted for. But it is possible that this is very real scientific merit to this study and that apples can improve sexual responsiveness and function in women. And if so, does this account for the long association between apples and women, and in particular, between apples and female sexuality and fertility?