Fruit in Mythology

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Fruit in Mythology

Theme Overview

Fruit appears in myths from around the world. Often it is a symbol of abundance, associated with goddesses of fertility, plenty, and the harvest. Sometimes, however, fruit represents earthly pleasures, overindulgence, and temptation. Specific kinds of fruit have acquired their own symbolic meanings in the myths and legends of different cultures.

Major Myths

Many of the most significant fruits in world mythology, such as the apple, have different meanings to different cultures. Sometimes the same fruit can represent different things in different myths within the same culture. This section examines each of the major fruits found in mythology and provides examples from the myths of various cultures.

Apple Apples are brimming with symbolic meanings and mythic associations. In China they represent peace, and apple blossoms are a symbol of women's beauty. In other traditions, they can signify wisdom, joy, fertility, and youthfulness.

Apples play an important part in several Greek myths. Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh), queen of the gods, owned some precious apple trees that she had received as a wedding present from Gaia (pronounced GAY-uh), the earth mother. Tended by the Hesperides (pronounced hee-SPER-uh-deez), the Daughters of Evening, and guarded by a fierce dragon, these trees grew in a garden somewhere far in the west. Their apples were golden, tasted like honey, and had magical powers. They could heal the sick or injured, they renewed themselves as they were eaten, and if thrown, they always hit their target and then returned to the thrower's hand.

For the eleventh of his twelve great labors, the hero Heracles (pronounced HAIR-uh-kleez), also known as Hercules, had to obtain some of these apples. After a long, difficult journey across North Africa, he enlisted the help of the giant Atlas (pronounced AT-luhs), who entered the garden, strangled the dragon, and obtained the fruit. Heracles took the apples to Greece, but Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh) returned them to the Hesperides.

A golden apple stolen from Hera's garden caused the Trojan War, one of the key events in Greek mythology . Eris (pronounced EER-iss), the goddess of discord or conflict, was angry not to be included among the gods asked to attend a wedding feast. Arriving uninvited, she threw one of the apples, labeled “For the Fairest” onto a table at the feast. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee) each assumed that the apple was meant for her. They asked Paris (pronounced PAIR-iss), a prince of Troy, to settle the matter, and he awarded the apple to Aphrodite. In revenge, Hera and Athena supported the Greeks in the war that led to the fall of Troy. People still use the phrase “apple of discord” to refer to something that provokes an argument.

In Norse mythology , apples are a symbol of eternal youth. Legend says that the goddess Idun (pronounced EE-thoon) guarded the magical golden apples that kept the gods young. But after the trickster god Loki (pronounced LOH-kee) allowed Idun to be carried off to the realm of the giants , the gods began to grow old and gray. They forced Loki to recapture Idun from the giants. Celtic mythology also mentions apples as the fruit of the gods and of immortality, or the ability to live forever. Today the apple is often associated with an episode of temptation described in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Adam and Eve , the first man and woman, lived in a garden paradise called Eden (pronounced EED-n). God forbade them to eat the fruit of one tree that grew in the garden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they gave in to temptation and tasted the fruit, God drove them out of the Garden of Eden for breaking his commandment. Many people picture the forbidden fruit as an apple because it has been portrayed that way for centuries in European artworks. However, the apple was unknown in the Near East when the Bible was written there. The biblical description of the tree in the Garden of Eden does not name a specific fruit, and in some traditions, the forbidden fruit has been imagined as a fig, a pear, or a pomegranate.

The Horn of Plenty

The cornucopia (pronounced korn-uh-KOH-pee-uh), a curved horn with fruits and flowers spilling from its open mouth, is a common symbol of abundance and the earth's bounty. The symbol's origin lies in Greek mythology. Legend says that Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the king of the gods, was raised by a foster mother named Amalthaea (pronounced am-uhl-THEE-uh), who was either a goat or a goddess who tended a goat. Either way, she fed the infant god goat's milk. One day one of the goat's horns broke off. Amalthaea filled the horn with fruits and flowers and gave it to Zeus, who graciously placed it in the sky, where it became a constellation.

Breadfruit The breadfruit—a round fruit that can be baked and eaten like bread—is an important staple food in Polynesia. Myths about the origin of the breadfruit are found on several Polynesian islands. One story told in Hawaii takes place during a famine. A man named Ulu (pronounced OO-loo), who died in the famine, was buried beside a spring. During the night, his family heard the rustle of flowers and leaves drifting to the ground. Next came a thumping sound of falling fruit. In the morning, the people found a breadfruit tree growing near the spring, and the fruit from the tree saved them from the famine.

Peach Peaches can symbolize immortality or fertility. One hero of Japanese folklore, Momotaro, is said to have been sent from heaven to Earth inside a giant peach found floating down a river by an old woman. In some versions of the myth, the old woman and her husband eat pieces of the peach and become younger. One Chinese legend tells of the goddess Xi Wang Mu (pronounced shee wang MOO), in whose garden the peaches of immortality were gathered by the gods every six thousand years. Peaches were commonly believed to extend life to those who ate them.

Coconut People in tropical regions consume the milk and meat of the coconut and use the oil and empty shells for various purposes. According to a legend from Tahiti, the first coconut came from the head of an eel named Tuna (pronounced TOO-nuh). When the moon goddess Hina (pronounced HEE-nuh) fell in love with the eel, her brother, Maui (pronounced MAH-wee), killed it and told her to plant the head in the ground. However, Hina left the head beside a stream and forgot about it. When she remembered Maui's instructions and returned to search for the head, she found that it had grown into a coconut tree.

Fig Native to the Mediterranean region, the fig tree appears in some images of the Garden of Eden. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with leaves that are usually said to be from the fig tree, and Islamic tradition mentions two forbidden trees in Eden—a fig tree and an olive tree. In Greek and Roman mythology , figs are sometimes associated with Dionysus (pronounced dye-uh-NYE-suhs), god of wine and drunkenness, and with Priapus (pronounced pry-AY-puhs), a satyr (half-man, half-goat) who symbolized sexual desire.

The fig tree has a sacred meaning for Buddhists. According to Buddhist legend, the founder of the religion, Siddhartha Gautama (pronounced see-DAHR-tuh GAW-tuh-muh), or the Buddha, achieved enlightenment one day in 528 bce while sitting under a bo tree, a kind of fig tree. The bo or bodhi tree remains a symbol of enlightenment.

Pear In Greek and Roman mythology, pears are sacred to three goddesses: Hera, Aphrodite, and Pomona (pronounced puh-MOH-nuh), an Italian goddess of gardens and harvests.

The ancient Chinese believed that the pear was a symbol of immortality. (Pear trees live for a long time.) In Chinese the word li means both “pear” and “separation,” and for this reason, tradition says that to avoid a separation, friends and lovers should not divide pears between themselves.

Plum The blossom of the plum tree, even more than the fruit, has meaning in East Asia. Appearing early in the spring before the trees have leaves, the blossoms are a symbol of a young woman's early beauty. The cover on a bridal bed is sometimes called a plum blossom blanket. The blossom has another meaning as well. Its five petals represent the five traditional Chinese gods of happiness.

Pomegranate For thousands of years, the pomegranate, a juicy red fruit with many seeds, has been a source of food and herbal medicines in the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean. Its many seeds made it a symbol of fertility, for out of one fruit could come many more. To the Romans, the pomegranate signified marriage, and brides wore pomegranate-twig wreaths.

Pomegranate seeds appear in the Greek myth of the goddess Demeter (pronounced di-MEE-ter), protector of grain, crops, and the earth's bounty, and her daughter Persephone (pronounced per-SEF-uh-nee). One day Persephone was picking flowers when Hades (HAY-deez), the king of the underworld , or land of the dead, seized her and carried her to his dark realm to be his bride. Grief-stricken, Demeter refused to let crops grow. All of humankind would have starved if Zeus had not ordered Hades to release Persephone. Hades let her go, but first he convinced her to eat some pomegranate seeds. Having once eaten the food of the underworld, Persephone could never be free of the place. She was fated to spend part of each year there. For those months, the world becomes barren, but when Persephone returns to her mother, the earth again produces flowers, fruit, and grain.

Strawberry Strawberries have special meaning to the Seneca of the northeastern United States. Because strawberries are the first fruit of the year to ripen, they are associated with spring and rebirth. The Seneca also say that strawberries grow along the path to the heavens and that they can bring good health.

Mythological Fruit in Context

Although there are many different kinds of fruit found throughout the world, a large number of myths are centered on a handful of different fruits. This may be due to the fact that growing regions for these fruits overlapped the larger ancient societies that are known for documenting their beliefs, such as the Greeks. Fruits such as bananas and oranges may be just as significant to other, smaller groups whose myths have yet to receive the same level of study. This favoring of certain fruits may also represent the cultural and dietary significance of some fruits over other fruits.

Mythological Fruit in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Many fruits have retained their mythical significance and symbolism into modern times through art and tradition. The apple is probably the most significant fruit in mythological art and literature, but this can be at least partially explained by how the word “apple” was used in previous centuries. The word was applied as a general term for many kinds of fruit, and was often used to mean simply “fruit.”

The apple plays a significant role in the fairy tale of Snow White, especially the 1937 Disney animated adaptation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which an evil queen disguised as an old woman tempts Snow White with a beautiful red apple that turns out to be poisoned. Apples still signify knowledge, and are a traditional gift for teachers on the first day of the school year. New York City is nicknamed “The Big Apple.” How it got its nickname is a matter of debate, but the general idea is that the apple symbolizes opportunity and plenty.

Other fruits have also made their mark on modern culture. In Asia, the word “peach” is frequently used as slang for a young woman or a bride, reflecting the fruit's association with youth and life. Pomegranates are often broken on the ground at Greek weddings to bring good luck to the couple.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Select a fruit not already mentioned above. (Oranges, bananas, and cherries are some possible suggestions, but you can choose any fruit you want.) In what regions of the world does your chosen fruit grow? What cultures are located in those regions? Can you find any myths about your fruit in any of those cultures? Provide a brief summary of at least one myth for your fruit.

SEE ALSO Adam and Eve; Atalanta; Demeter; Flowers in Mythology; Persephone