Friday, February 5

Apples in Mythology: The Golden Apple Part I

The apple has made its way into the traditions, stories and myths of many different cultures around the world.  The apple is more heavily referenced as a cultural symbol in the northern reaches of of our hemisphere where the historical migration of the fruit itself makes its way across lands and through time much like the silk road.  Widely believed to have originated in the heart of Eurasia in great forests of apple trees, the fruit made its westerly migration across much of Europe eventually into the new world finding a home in Greek and Norse mythology as well as the Garden of Eden to name a few.  Fairytale and folklore from many different countries are full of mention of the apple.   In this first look of many into apple mythology, I delve into some of the prominent Greek myths in which the apple takes the form of one particularly precious fruit: the Golden Apple.  

My brief investigation into the Golden Apple has led me to believe it holds great power and significance in Greek lore.  Possessing the ability to captivate gods and mortals alike, it was even believed to have the capability to grant immortality.  Sought after by Heracles in one of is great labors, it is also believed to have played a significant role in the instigation of the Trojan War.  Interestingly Greek stories involving the golden apple often also tell a story of deceit and trickery.  Not being well enough versed in Greek mythology, I am not sure if this is a common theme throughout, or whether it is something that may relate more closely to this particular fruit.  If anyone has any insight I would welcome comments.  In addition elaborations or variations on the following stories are always welcome.  Note:  The Greek hero known as Heracles was romanised into the more commonly known Hercules.   


 One of the prominent Greek myths evolving the golden apple is the Eleventh Labor of Heracles.  After his first ten labors it was decided that Heracles was to perform two additional ones.  For the Eleventh Labor he was to steal apples from the Garden of Hesperides.  The orchard belonged to Hera, the Goddess of women and the sister and wife of Zeus.  In her orchard was a tree (possibly more than one) given to her by Gaia as a wedding gift when she accepted the hand of Zeus.  On this tree grew highly prized golden apples able to grant immortality to those who consumed them.  Hera charged nymphs known as the Hesperides with the task of guarding the apples and the garden.   
The first task of the Eleventh Labor was to discover the location of the garden, not an easy task in and of itself.  Although it involved the capture of a shape shifting sea god, Heracles was able to accomplish this with little trouble.  Having learned the location from Proteus, his next and more complicated task was to actually retrieve the golden apples.  According to one variation of the myth, Heracles did not steal the apples himself, but rather tricked Atlas into taking them for him, on the condition that he would hold up the heavens in his absence.  Heracles believed Atlas would have better luck recovering the apples since he was the father of the Hesperides; a good assumption.  Upon his successful return however, Atlas pronounced that he no longer wanted to hold up the heavens, and instead would rather deliver the apples himself.  For someone who had been holding up the heavens for so long this proposition most likely seemed like a welcome alternative.  Agreeing to this condition, Heracles asked Atlas to hold the heavens temporarily while he made his cloak more comfortable, however this proved to be but a bit of trickery and Heracles returned with the apples himself leaving Atlas with the burden of the heavens once again.


Atlanta was the daughter of Iasius and Arcadia.  A skilled hunter and a very fast runner, Atlanta was a free soul and wished not to be burdened down by something as mundane as marriage.  Pressured by her father, who like every good Greek father wished his daughter to find a husband, Atlanta struck a deal.  She would marry any suitor who could win in a foot race against her.  Having great faith in her ability to outrun anyone who might attempt this challenge, Atlanta felt this to be a sound compromise with her father.  Succeeding in besting many a suitor, Atlanta felt satisfied with her arrangement until the appearance of Hippomenes who, knowing he could not beat her fairly, turned to trickery.  Having first prayed to the goddess Aphrodite, Hippomenes had been granted three golden apples and told by the goddess to use them during the race to distract Atlanta, thus slowing her down.  Although Hippomenes had to run with all his might and speed, the plan went off without a hitch.  As Atlanta would slow down to retrieve each of the apples he dropped, Hippomenes would run farther ahead.  Although he gained Atlanta's hand in marriage, Hippomenes made one fatal mistake.  Having forgotten to thank Aphrodite for her generous gift,  Hippomenes and his bride were both turned into Lions.


Upon the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, Zues threw a banquette to celebrate the union.  One not invited to the celebration however was Eris, the goddess of discord.  In retaliation to this wrong doing she devised a scheme to do what she did best: create discord.  Crashing the party alone did not seem like a good enough revenge.  Arriving unannounced at the wedding, she delivered a golden apple, upon which was inscribed the words "for the fairest one."  This immediately, as planned, caused disharmony as three of those present; Athena, Aphrodite and Hera, all claimed to be entitled to the fruit.  Chances are any or all of them could have rightly gone home with the apple, however Zeus unwilling to put himself in the hot seat, passed off the task of deciding to a mortal by the name of Paris.
Charged with this daunting task, Paris found himself on the slopes of Mount Ida facing the three contenders.  As seems to be the way in many Greek myths, persuasion and bribery ensued, each of the three contestants offering Paris such rewards as kingship and wisdom.  However one offer grabbed the attention of Paris more than all the rest.  In exchange for awarding her the ego-boosting Golden Apple Aphrodite granted Paris the love of the most beautiful woman.  Without question this title belonged to Helen of Sparta.  Although his decision did bestow upon him the love of Helen, it also put him in a place of malevolence as far as the Greeks were concerned.  Their attempt to retrieve Helen from Paris became the basis for the Trojan War.

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