This seemingly innocent fruit, cultivated by the Romans and Britons as early as 3000 B.C.E., has had a long association with Magic, Witchcraft, and goddess worship. Apples represent immortality and fertility. They also serve as the principal ingredient in love potions and Charms and act as healing agents for a variety of ailments. Apple TREES were sacred to the ancient Celts and Druids, and chopping one down brought the death penalty under old Irish law. The apple was so vital to daily life and the success of the community that the tasty fruit received as much magic as it helped to create.
The word apple derives from the Latin pomum, meaning fruit; its botanical classification is a pome, or a fruit with many tiny seeds in its core. The Roman goddess Pomona is the patroness of fruit trees. Early apples were more like modern crabapples—small, hard and sour—but Roman farmers discovered that grafting cuttings, called scions, of different cultivars onto hardy rootstock produced about seven dependable varieties that were delicious and thrived in a variety of climates. Apples were so ubiquitous that seeds and cuttings of exotic fruit plants brought to Europe by early explorers and travelers were called apples until a better name was agreed upon. Some of the foods that were originally “apples” include melons, avocados, cashews, cherimoyas, dates, eggplants, lemons, oranges, peaches, pineapples, pine nuts, pomegranates, potatoes, quinces, and tomatoes.
In Celtic lore, apples represented regeneration, eternal life, and fertility; apples also symbolized the sun, the source of all life. Apple trees grew in the Celtic underworld, where they provided food for the dead during the bleak winter before resurrection by the goddess Olwen in the spring—a story similar to the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. Possession of the Silver Bough, an apple branch that bore flowers, buds, and ripe fruit simultaneously, allowed the owner to enter the land of the gods. After the battles with Mordred, Morgana spirited King Arthur away to the Isle of Avalon, or “Apple Land,” ruled by the goddess Morgan le Fay. Arthur’s knight Lancelot fell asleep under an apple tree and was spirited away by fairy queens. And the king’s bride Guinevere unfortunately gave an apple to St. Patrick before he died and was condemned to burn as a witch. The mythical unicorn lived under apple trees. In ancient Ireland, an apple tree was one of only three objects that could be paid for with living things; the other two were the hazel bush and the sacred grove.
Throughout the medieval period—and even up to the present day—apple growers perform magical ceremonies to help ensure a bountiful harvest. At Christmastime in Somerset and the West Country of England, tradition called for villagers to go “apple-wassailing,” also called “apple-howling.” On Twelfth Night (Epiphany, or January 6) townspeople entered the village orchards and selected one tree to represent the rest. First they made as much noise as possible by firing guns into the air, blowing horns, and beating pots and pans to ward off evil spirits. Then they sang hymns to the tree and danced around it, toasted the tree three times, and threw cider (wassail) over the tree’s roots. The final stage involved asking the tree to bear abundantly and then making it an offering of a cider soaked piece of bread or hotcake in its branches. Burying 13 apple leaves after harvest also guaranteed a good crop next year, as did seeing the sunlight through apple tree branches on Christmas Day. In Germany, if a woman with many children sleeps under an apple tree, the tree will bear abundantly also.
Divination and Love Charms
Apples—all parts of the fruit, blossoms, and wood—form the main ingredient in love potions and spells that are used to divine one’s intended spouse or lover. They may be added to brews, incenses, and sachets; to pink wax for candles; or simply used in their natural form. Apple cider may be substituted for Blood in old spell recipes.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, apples were especially popular in love charms. Apples were prescribed to make someone fall in love, as in the following charms from medieval manuscripts. The basic formula called for inscribing the names of angels and spirits on apples and giving them to a person to eat.
Pick an apple from the tree and use a sharp knife. Write on the apple Aleo + Deleo + Delato and say, “I conjure thee, apple, by these names which are written on thee, that what woman/man/virgin [select the appropriate term] toucheth and taste thee, may love me and burn in my love as fire melteth in wax.” Give the apple to the object of your desire to eat.
Write on an apple Guel + Bsatirell + Gliaell +, and give it to her/him to eat. Write on an apple Raguell, Lucifer, Sathanus and say, “I conjure thee apple by these three names written on thee, that whosoever shall eat thee may burn in my love.”
Write on an apple your names and these three names, Cosmer + Synady + Heupide, and give it to eat to any man/woman that thou wouldst have and he/she shall do as thou wilt.
Cutt [sic] an apple in IV parts, and on every part write Sathiel + Sathiel + Obing + Siagestard and say, “I conjure thee apple by the Holy God, by the IV Evangelists and gospels, and by Samuel and by Mary, that thou shall not stand still until I have the love of the woman/man which shall eat of thee.”
Other successful prognostications involved selecting an apple with skin-colored both red and green on the third day into the waning moon. The diviner breathed on the green area and polished it with a red cloth while chanting, “Fire sweet and fire red, warm the heart and turn the head.” Then the red part of the skin was kissed and the apple given to the intended. Some young women cut up apples in front of a mirror in a dark room just before midnight, accompanied by a single candle. They then tossed one piece over their right shoulders and ate the rest while brushing their hair. At midnight, their lovers’ reflections would appear in the mirror.
Peels and seeds also served as diviners. Peeling an apple in an unbroken strip and then throwing it over the left shoulder revealed the initials of the beloved when the strip fell to the ground. Sticking an apple seed on one’s forehead and then reciting the alphabet could work also: The seed fell off at the initial of the beloved. In Austria, throwing the seeds into a fire while reciting, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me lay and die,” is an apple variant on “He loves me, he loves me not.”
Some of the maidens waited for the pagan feast of Samhain to learn their lovers’ identities. To learn whether love lay ahead, young people would cut an apple into nine pieces at midnight on Halloween while standing before a mirror. The spell required each piece to be speared with the knife (preferably one of silver) and held over the left shoulder, one piece at a time. Upon stabbing the ninth piece, the intended’s reflection appeared.
Halloween party games like bobbing for apples have their roots in Samhain celebrations. Each unmarried woman in the community cut an identifying mark into an apple and dropped it into a tub of water, where it floated. The local swains then went “apple-bobbing” (or “appledooking” in Scotland); whichever apple they successfully sank their teeth into revealed the mark of their prospective bride. Snap Apple—in which the apples were hung from strings suspended from the ceiling—held that the first one to bite an apple would be the next to marry.
Apples appear as an ingredient in the recipes for many herbal treatments. The fruit reputedly clears the liver, tones the gums, and cures constipation (a property still true—witness the old adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”). Baked apples may be applied as a poultice for sore throats and respiratory inflammation, while cooked apples in general work as a laxative. Eating peeled, raw apples stops diarrhea. A modern variant on the fruit’s antidiarrheal properties is the B.R.A.T. diet given to children with sick stomachs: the A stands for applesauce. The other elements are banana, rice, and toast.
In the second century c.e., drinking two-year-old cider reportedly cured everything. Three to four cups of cider a day corrects the intestinal flora, reduces acidity and gas, and helps the kidneys. An application of equal parts vinegar and water can restore hair growth and improve scalp and skin (if one is blonde, make sure to use white vinegar). At least two teaspoons of vinegar in a glass of water with honey improves digestion.
Cutting an apple into three pieces and rubbing the pieces on a sick person, then burying the pieces, draws the illness out and deposits it into the soil instead. This procedure supposedly works especially well to remove warts, particularly if one recites the incantation “Out warts, into apple” during the rubbing process.
Gods, Goddesses, and Witchcraft
Deities from many traditions beside the Celts hold the apple sacred. In Norse mythology, Idun (Idhunn or Iduna), the goddess of youth, guarded an apple orchard for the gods. The apples kept the gods from aging. When Thiassi stole Idun’s apples and hid them, the gods grew old; they regained their youth when Idun found the stolen fruit. The fertility god Froh won the beautiful giantess Gerda by offering her 11 golden apples. Apples also symbolized the Norse goddesses Freya and Hel, queen of the Underworld.
In ancient Sumeria, the god Eriki offered the goddess Uttu an apple as a marriage proposal. Apple trees occupied the center of heaven in Iroquois tradition. And in Greek and Roman mythology, apples were associated with the goddesses Gaea, Artemis/Diana, Hera/Juno, Athena, and especially Aphrodite/Venus. Apples still on the bough were a major part of the feast of Diana, celebrated each August 13. Gaea, goddess of the Earth, guarded Greece’s golden apples, much like Idun did for the Norse gods. The Greeks, like the Celts, considered apples to be the food of the immortals. As proof, they noted that an apple cut crosswise revealed a five-pointed star (later Demonologists suspected the star was a pentacle). The followers of the mathematician Pythagoras did not eat apples because they saw the star as a Pythagorean pentagram.
Perhaps the most famous golden apple was the one given to Aphrodite by Paris. The goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera tested Paris by making him decide which of them was superior. As recounted by Homer in the epic poem The Iliad, Paris chose Aphrodite for her beauty and allure. In return, she gave him the gorgeous Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta, and precipitated the Trojan War.
In Western, Judeo-Christian tradition, apples became synonymous with the temptation of Adam by Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In the second century c.e., Aquila of Pontus first identified the fruit of the Tree of Life (knowledge and immortality) as an apple, leading the church to equate apples with sin. In fact, while most people ate apples, many feared that such a pure fruit harbored devils and Demons. To avoid ingesting such evil spirits, eaters would vigorously rub the skin of the apple before taking a bite—a practice that has survived as polishing the fruit. Such scrubbing often proved worthless, however, as witches were reputedly fond of using the seemingly innocent apple as a means of bewitching or even poisoning their victims. The evil witch queen in the story of Snow White enticed the princess to take her sleeping poison by giving her an apple.
In 1657, neighbors of Richard Jones, a 12-year-old boy in the village of Shepton Mallet, county Somerset, England, became convinced that Jane Brooks, a young girl, had bewitched Richard by giving him an enchanted apple. The young man suffered fits, and the villagers testified that they had seen him fly over his garden wall. Brooks was condemned as a witch and was hanged on March 26, 1658.
Henri Boguet, a renowned Demonologist and presiding judge in witchcraft trials in 17th-century France, believed without question that apples, already tainted by their association with Eve, raised no alarm and therefore were perfect for the transmission of evil. In Boguet’s book, Discours des Sorciers (1602), he related an incident that took place in Annecy, Savoy, in 1585 in which the townspeople reportedly heard strange and confusing noises emanating from an apple. Convinced that the apple was full of devils and that they were averting a Demonic possession, the citizens marched the apple to the river and dropped it into the water to drown.
Further Reading :
- Cavendish, Richard, and Brian Innes, eds. Man, Myth and Magic, revised ed. North Bellmore, N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1995.
- Guiley, Rosemary. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. 2d ed. New York: Facts On File Inc., 1999.
- “Herb Uses.” Available online. URL: www.jksalescompany. com/dw/herbsandoil2.html. Downloaded August 16, 2004.
- “The Magi’s Magic Garden: Apple.” Available online. URL: www.angelfire.com/de/poetryperso/Flower/Apple.html. Downloaded August 16, 2004.
- “Pyre of the Phoenix.” Available online. URL: www. pyreofphoenix.com/herb/herbsa.shtm#apple. Downloaded August 16, 2004.
- Thompson, C. J. S. The Mysteries and Secrets of Magic. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993.
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