The Apple in Culture and Symbolism

Northern Europe

In Norse mythology, the goddess Iðunn is portrayed in the Prose Edda (written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson) as providing apples to the gods that give them eternal youthfulness.


Idun and the Apples            James Doyle Penrose

English scholar H. R. Ellis Davidson links apples to religious practices in Germanic paganism, from which Norse paganism developed. She points out that buckets of apples were found in the Oseberg ship burial site in Norway, and that fruit and nuts (Iðunn having been described as being transformed into a nut in Skáldskaparmál) have been found in the early graves of the Germanic peoples in England and elsewhere on the continent of Europe, which may have had a symbolic meaning, and that nuts are still a recognized symbol of fertility in southwest England.

Davidson notes a connection between apples and the Vanir, a tribe of gods associated with fertility in Norse mythology, citing an instance of eleven “golden apples” being given to woo the beautiful Gerðr by Skírnir, who was acting as messenger for the major Vanir god Freyr in stanzas 19 and 20 of Skírnismál. Davidson also notes a further connection between fertility and apples in Norse mythology in chapter 2 of the Völsunga saga when the major goddess Frigg sends King Rerir an apple after he prays to Odin for a child, Frigg’s messenger (in the guise of a crow) drops the apple in his lap as he sits atop a mound. Rerir’s wife’s consumption of the apple results in a six-year pregnancy and the Caesarean section birth of their son—the hero Völsung.

Further, Davidson points out the “strange” phrase “Apples of Hel” used in an 11th-century poem by the skald Thorbiorn Brúnarson. She states this may imply that the apple was thought of by Brúnarson as the food of the dead.

Further, Davidson notes that the potentially Germanic goddess Nehalennia is sometimes depicted with apples and that parallels exist in early Irish stories.



Davidson asserts that while cultivation of the apple in Northern Europe extends back to at least the time of the Roman Empire and came to Europe from the Near East, the native varieties of apple trees growing in Northern Europe are small and bitter. Davidson concludes that in the figure of Iðunn “we must have a dim reflection of an old symbol: that of the guardian goddess of the life-giving fruit of the other world.”

The goddess guards the tree bearing the golden apples of immortality whence they are stolen by Loki. The gods then begin to age, but they recover the apples just before they are overcome by senility and death.

Snow White” is a German fairy tale known across much of Europe and is today one of the most famous fairy tales worldwide. The Brothers Grimm published it in 1812 in the first edition of their collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. It was titled in German: Sneewittchen (in modern orthography Schneewittchen) and numbered as Tale 53. The Grimms completed their final revision of the story in 1854.

snow white

The fairy tale features such elements as the magic mirror, the poisoned apple, the glass coffin, and the characters of the evil queen and the seven dwarfs, who were first given individual names in the Broadway play Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1912) and then given different names in Walt Disney’s 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

At the beginning of the story, a queen sits sewing at an open window during a winter snowfall when she pricks her finger with her needle, causing three drops of red blood to drip onto the freshly fallen white snow on the black windowsill. Admiring the beauty of the resulting color combination, she says to herself, “Oh how I wish that I had a daughter that had skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony.” Soon after that, the Queen gives birth to a baby girl who is as white as snow, has lips red as blood and has hair as black as ebony. They name her ‘Snow White,’ but sadly, the Queen dies after giving birth to her.

As she grows up the child spends much of her time the forest befriending the birds and beasts who live there.

in woods

The King takes a new wife, who is beautiful but also unutterably wicked and vain. The new queen possesses a magic mirror which she asks every morning, “Magic mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?” The mirror always replies, “My queen, you are the fairest in the land.” The Queen is always pleased with that because the magic mirror never lies. But as Snow White grows up, she becomes more beautiful each day and even more beautiful than the Queen, and when the Queen asks her mirror, it responds, “My queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White is a thousand times more beautiful than you.”

evil queen

Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen

This gives the queen a great shock. She becomes yellow and green with envy and from that hour on, her heart turns against Snow White, and she hates her more and more each day. Envy and pride, like ill weeds, grow in her heart taller every day, until she has no peace day or night. Eventually, the Queen orders a huntsman to take Snow White into the deepest woods to be killed. As proof that Snow White is dead, the Queen demands that he return with her lungs and liver. The huntsman takes Snow White into the forest. After raising his knife, he finds himself unable to kill her as she sobs heavily and begs him: “Oh, dear huntsman, don’t kill me! Leave me with my life; I will run into the forest and never come back!” The huntsman leaves her behind alive, convinced that the girl would be eaten by some wild animal. He instead brings the Queen the lungs and liver of a young boar, which is prepared by the cook and eaten by the Queen.

snow white in the forest

After wandering unharmed through the forest for days, Snow White discovers a tiny cottage belonging to a group of seven dwarfs. Since no one is at home, she eats some of the tiny meals, drinks some of their wine and then tests all the beds. Finally the last bed is comfortable enough for her and she falls asleep.

woken up

Jessie Willcox Smith

When the seven dwarfs return home, they immediately become aware that someone sneaked in secretly, because everything in their home is in disorder. During their loud discussion about who sneaked in, they discover the sleeping Snow White. The girl wakes up and explains to them what happened and the dwarfs take pity on her, saying: “If you will keep house for us, and cook, make beds, wash, sew, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly, then you can stay with us, and you shall have everything that you want.” They warn her to be careful when alone at home and to let no one in when they are away delving in the mountains.


Meanwhile, the Queen asks her mirror once again: “Magic mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?” The mirror replies: “My queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White beyond the mountains at the seven dwarfs is a thousand times more beautiful than you.” The Queen is horrified to learn that the huntsman has betrayed her and that Snow White is still alive. She keeps thinking about how to get rid of Snow White, then she disguises herself as an old peddler.

queen visits snow white

The Queen then walks to the cottage of the dwarfs and offers her colorful, silky laced bodices and convinces the girl to take the most beautiful bodice as a present. Then the Queen laces it so tightly that Snow White faints, causing the Queen to leave her for dead.


An illustration from Mjallhvít (Snow White) from an 1852 icelandic translation of the Grimm fairytale

But the dwarfs return just in time, and Snow White revives when the dwarfs loosen the laces.

The next morning the Queen consults her mirror anew and the mirror reveals Snow White’s survival. Now infuriated, the Queen dresses as a comb seller and convinces Snow White to take a beautiful comb as a present. She brushes Snow White’s hair with a poisoned comb, and the girl faints again, but she is again revived by the dwarfs. And the next morning the mirror tells the Queen that Snow White is still “a thousand times more beautiful.” Now the Queen nearly has a heart attack in shock and rage.

poison apple

As a third and last attempt to rid herself of Snow White, she secretly consults the darkest magic and makes a poisoned apple, and in the disguise of a farmer’s wife, she offers it to Snow White.


The girl is at first hesitant to accept it, so the Queen cuts the apple in half, eating the white (harmless) half and giving the red (poisoned) half to Snow White. The girl eagerly takes a bite and falls into a state of suspended animation, causing the Queen to triumph.


This time the dwarfs are unable to revive the girl because they cannot find the source of Snow White’s poor health, and assuming that she is dead, they place her in a glass coffin.



Time passes and a prince traveling through the land sees Snow White. He strides to her coffin and, enchanted by her beauty, instantly falls in love with her.  The dwarfs succumb to his entreaties to let him have the coffin, and as his servants carry the coffin away, they stumble on some roots.

glass coffin

The tremor caused by the stumbling causes the piece of poisoned apple to dislodge from Snow White’s throat, awakening her.  The Prince then declares his love for her, and soon a wedding is planned.


The couple invite every queen and king to come to the wedding party, including Snow White’s stepmother.  Meanwhile the Queen, still believing that Snow White is dead, again asks her magical mirror who is the fairest in the land. The mirror says: “You, my queen, are fair so true. But the young Queen is a thousand times fairer than you.”


P J Lynch

Appalled, in disbelief, and with her heart full of fear and doubts, the Queen is at first hesitant to accept the invitation, but she eventually decides to go. Not knowing that this new queen was indeed her stepdaughter, she arrives at the wedding, and her heart fills with the deepest of dread when she realizes the truth.


As a punishment for her attempted murders, a pair of glowing-hot iron shoes are brought forth with tongs and placed before the Queen. She is forced to step into the burning shoes and to dance until she drops dead.

Greek Mythology

Apples appear in many religious traditions, often as a mystical or forbidden fruit. One of the problems identifying apples in religion, mythology and folktales is that the word “apple” was used as a generic term for all (foreign) fruit, other than berries, including nuts, as late as the 17th century. For instance, in Greek mythology, the Greek hero Heracles, as a part of his Twelve Labours, was required to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides and pick the golden apples off the Tree of Life growing at its center.


The Garden of the Hesperides    Burne Jones

The Greek goddess of discord, Eris, became disgruntled after she was excluded from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In retaliation, she tossed a golden apple inscribed Καλλίστη (Kalliste, sometimes transliterated Kallisti, ‘For the most beautiful one’), into the wedding party. Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris of Troy was appointed to select the recipient. After being bribed by both Hera and Athena, Aphrodite tempted him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. He awarded the apple to Aphrodite, thus indirectly causing the Trojan War and so in Greek myth, apples are associated with temptation, transgression, and the acquisition of success and power.

Judgment of Paris

The Judgment of Paris

But the apple was was also considered to be sacred to Aphrodite, and to throw an apple at someone was to symbolically declare one’s love; and similarly, to catch it was to symbolically show one’s acceptance of that love.

An epigram claiming authorship by Plato states:

I throw the apple at you, and if you are willing to love me, take it and share your girlhood with me; but if your thoughts are what I pray they are not, even then take it, and consider how short-lived is beauty.’
—Plato, Epigram VII

Atalanta, also of Greek mythology, raced all her suitors in an attempt to avoid marriage. She outran all but Hippomenes (also known as Melanion, a name possibly derived from melon the Greek word for both “apple” and fruit in general), who defeated her by cunning, not speed. Hippomenes knew that he could not win in a fair race, so he used three golden apples (gifts of Aphrodite, the goddess of love) to distract Atalanta. It took all three apples and all of his speed, but Hippomenes was finally successful, winning the race and Atalanta’s hand.


Guido Reni, c. 1622–25

Apples were part of the Orphic cult and also symbolized the goddess Venus (to whom they were sacred), who, according to Robert Graves, ‘was worshipped as the evening star, Hesper, on one half of the apple, and as Lucifer, son of morning, on the other.

woman with apple

Venus Verticordia   Dante Gabriel Rosetti

The golden Apples of the Hesperides were a wedding gift to Zeus and Hera from Gaia, the primordial earth goddess. The precious fruit was guarded by a snake or a dragon. Herakles’ eleventh labour was to steal the apples, and although he was successful, he followed Athena’s instructions and returned them.

apple and snake


Though the forbidden fruit of Eden in the Book of Genesis is not identified, popular Christian tradition has held that it was an apple that Eve coaxed Adam to share with her. The origin of the popular identification with a fruit unknown in the Middle East in biblical times is found in confusion between the Latin words mālum (an apple) and mălum (an evil), each of which is normally written malum. The tree of the forbidden fruit is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in Genesis 2:17, and the Latin for “good and evil” is bonum et malum. Renaissance painters may also have been influenced by the story of the golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides. As a result, in the story of Adam and Eve, the apple became a symbol for knowledge, immortality, temptation, the fall of man into sin, and sin itself. The larynx in the human throat has been called Adam’s apple because of a notion that it was caused by the forbidden fruit remaining in the throat of Adam.

adam-and-eve Adam and Eve   Mabuse

Jews and Christians also consider that apples symbolize temptation, as well as forbidden wisdom. They are central to the story of Adam and Eve’s temptation by the Serpent and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Since the apple is a pagan emblem of immortality, and the serpent a symbol of ancient wisdom, and both were associated with goddesses, this story— which blames woman for the Fall after she was tempted by the serpent with an apple (also a symbol of love)— may have been an attempt to demonize powerful symbols of the old religions which the Jews were struggling to replace. (The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which Adam and Eve ate the fruit, is sometimes considered to have been a fig tree— but both trees are symbols of knowledge).

In Christian art, when Christ or the Virgin hold an apple, they are overcoming evil, redeeming mankind from the first sin symbolized by the apple.


But the Old Testament also compares wise words to golden apples, and apples are an ingredient of charoseth, eaten at Passover, representing the clay from which the Israelites slaves made bricks in Egypt.

Christmas and Apple Wassailing

Wassailing has been associated with the Christmas season since the 1400s. A huge silver or pewter bowl is filled with wassail, an ale-based drink of seasoned apple cider, spices, and honey. The bowl is passed around at gatherings for everyone to drink, and each person is greeted “Wassail!” This custom is performed during Christmas and New Year as a way of passing good wishes among family and friends.

Another tradition called apple wassailing is conducted on the Eve of Twelveth Night in order to drive away worms or maggots, which people from the period believed were evil spirits thriving in trees. It is seen as a means to “awaken” the tree in preparation for the next apple harvest.


The ritual begins by lighting a large bonfire and surrounding it with twelve small hearths. Songs are sung while cider is poured on the roots of the tree. Participants also have to make loud noises by clanging pots and pans or firing shotguns in the air.

Celtic Mythology

In Celtic legends apples appear as the fruit of the Otherworld. More specifically, they are associated with the mythical Avalon, the ‘Island of Apples’.


Burne Jones       The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon

The otherworldly apple tree was also said to have been the source of the Silver Bough.  As the fruit of the Silver Bough it has magic and chthonic powers and is associated with fertility and marriage.

magic apple tree

The Magic Apple Tree   Samuel Palmer

Samhain, considered an apple festival, is associated with the death of the old year.

samhain fruit

In Irish tradition, the apple is a fruit that guarantees immortality: cut in half, crossways, it reveals a five-pointed star, the pentagram, a symbol of the ‘five stations from birth to death and rebirth



Apple: ping-guo : The best apples used to come from Korea and Japan; the Chinese apple was not so tasty. Even today apples are relatively dear, and therefore an acceptable gift, escpecially since the apple (ping) can stand as a symbol for ‘peace’ (ping). On the other hand, one should not give apples to an invalid, since the Chinese word for ‘illness’— bing— is very similar in sound to the word for apple.

apple blosssom

Apple Blossom

Apple blossom, however, symbolises female beauty. In North China, the wild apple blossoms in spring, and is therefore a symbol for this season of the year. The wild apple (hai-tang) may also symbolise the hall of a house (tang): a picture showing wild apple blossom and magnolias (yu-lan) in such a room can be interpreted as meaning ‘May (yu) your house be rich and honoured!’ The celebrated beauty Yang Gui-fei, the concubine of one of the Tang emperors, was known as ‘Paradise-apple Girl’ (hai-tang nü).

— Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols
Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1986, p. 21

 Mystical Traditions

Being almost spherical in shape, the apple signifies totality. It is symbolic of earthly desires, or of indulgence in such desires. The warning not to eat the forbidden apple came, therefore, from the mouth of the supreme being, as a warning against the exaltation of materialistic desire.

redhead with apple

Bocca Baciata    Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The intellect, the thirst for knowledge— as Nietszche realized— is only an intermediate zone between earthly desire and pure spirituality.

The apple was said to be the forbidden fruit of the Golden Age because as round it represents totality and unity, as opposed to the multiplicity of the pomegranate


In alchemy, when the alchemist is represented eating an apple at the end of the Great Work, he enjoys the fruit of immortality.

Jung interpreted the apple eaten by Adam and Eve as a symbol of life.  In dreams, a red and green apple is the expression of a harmonious organic life. A maggoty apple reveals an apparently healthy relationship which has been eaten away on the inside.


The most widely revered of all esoteric symbols, the pentacle has received many alternate names: pentalpha, pentagram, Solomon’s seal, Star of Bethlehem, Three Kings’ star, wizard’s star, Star of Logres, devil’s sign, witch’s cross, goblin’s foot, or the Druid’s Foot. From this assortment of names it can be seen that the pentacle is associated with magic, paganism, deviltry, & Christian mysticism.


In ancient times, the pentacle meant “life” or “health”. It was derived from the apple-core pentacle of the Earth Mother. To this day, Gypsies cut an apple tranversely to reveal the pentacle, which they call the Star of Knowledge. The pentacle was sacred to the Celtic death-goddess Morgan and was carried in her honor on a blood-red shield, according to the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. It is still the sign of the earth element in the Tarot suit of pentacles, which evolved into the modern suit of diamonds. With one point downward, the pentacle was supposed to represent the head of the Horned God.

alchemical rose


The red and white rose was adopted by alchemists as a symbol of the vas spirituale, the sacred womb from which the filius philosophorum would be born. This was an ancient female symbol of the virgin daughter (white) within the mother (red), formerly applied to such images as Kore/Demeter and Mary/Eve. The conglomerate rose was similar to the apple (the mother and the fruit), containing its five-lobed core (the daughter and the flower). Symbolism was drawn entirely from female creative powers. White and red were the sacred colors of the Virgin and Mother, respectively. In male-centered systems, however, the black of the destroying Crone was pointedly omitted.

tree of life

 7th-century depiction of the Tree of Life in Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

Many myths spea1k of the Tree of Life or World Tree that was somehow involved in the creation of the universe, the origin of humanity, and the divine gifts of nourishment and civilized skills. The Maya called it First Tree of the World, or Green Tree of Plenty, growing in their won territory on the Yucatan peninsula. Those who faithfully kept the rituals would go after death to the paradise shaded by the First Tree. It was represented in the form of a cross, and the savior-god was crucified on it as Our Lord of the Tree. His head wore a tree crown and his arms ended in branches.

maya cross

For the Indo-Europeans in general, the vision of paradise included the sacred tree with a spring at its root, like the obviously female rose-apple tree of Jambu Island, the Fairy Tree of Celtic tradition, or the Goddess’s life-giving apple trees in Avalon, Hesperides, or Eden.


It is possible that the whole Eden myth was falsely deduced from an icon showing the Goddess, personifying the Tree of Life, handing her apple to the first man while her serpent of wisdom twined in the branches.

love of the goddess

Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1988

Druid Folklore
The sacred Druid plant, an t-uil-oc (Mistletoe), is often found on Apple trees, making it an especially holy tree to the Druids, along with the Oak. In the Irish Druid tradition, the Silver Bough is cut from a magical Apple tree, where silver apple shaped bells played a mystical tune, which could lull people into a trance state. Druids could make contact with the Otherworld during a trance enhanced by this silver apple bough.

The Apple Tree is closely linked to Druids in their aspect as magicians and shamans. The tree is often used when the Druid undergoes a magical transformation or journeys in the Otherworld. In The Voyage of Bran, an Otherworldly woman appears with an apple branch laden with bells, entrancing Bran with wondrous tales of the Otherworld. So enraptured is he by this damsel with the magical apple branch, that he sets sail immediately for the enchanted shores, having epic adventures on his journey

In Druid lore, the essence of three sacred apples growing on the Tree of Knowledge came from three drops that fell from Cerridwen’s cauldron, which correspond with the Druid’s most holy symbol, the Three Rays of Light /|\.

The Druid Merlin was purported to work in a magical Apple Grove guarded by birds, revealed to him by his master, Gwendolleu.

merlin advising vortigern

Merlin Advising Vortigern from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

He was said to receive the gift of prophecy from the Faerie Queen, conferred through the consumption of one of her magic apples. Merlin was also said to take shelter under an apple tree during his bout of madness.

Thomas the Rhymer, of Ercledoune, in 13th Century Scotland, was warned not to eat the Otherworldly Apple offered by the Faerie Queen, or he would be unable to return to mortal life.

Bards (poets) and Ovates (shamans) carried apple branches (with bronze, silver, or gold bells), called the Craobh Ciuil (Branch of Reason), as symbols of their office

As with all trees whose fruits are the basis of alcoholic drinks, the apple tree has close associations with divine inspiration and poetry. La Mas Ushal was brewed at the end of October in preparation for the Druid’s ‘Day of the Apple’ on November 1st. This recipe has come down to us as the Wassail Bowl, made from baked or roasted crab apples, brown ale or cider, honey, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, and ginger.

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