A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: The Odyssey

Homer print by John Faber the Elder
Source: British Museum, 1902,1011.942

Homer’s Odyssey, written in the 8th or 9th century BCE, contains what is believed to be the first written mention of apples in the ancient world:

“Outside the gate of the outer court there is a large garden of about four acres with a wall all round it. It is full of beautiful trees- pears, pomegranates, and the most delicious apples.” 

Mycenean hero Odysseus sees the orchard when he seeks refuge in the court of King Alcinous. This was the first of what would become many ancient stories featuring apples.

One of the most well-known Greek myths concerns the golden apple labeled “To the fairest” that Eris, goddess of strife and discord, threw among the guests at the wedding celebration of Peleus and Thetis. True to her name, Eris’ apple caused a fight between Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. Each claimed the apple and its inscription for herself. They eventually agreed to make Paris, the son of the King of Troy, settle the matter. After much bribery among the goddesses, Paris chose Aphrodite because she had promised him the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. This promise ultimately led to the Trojan War.

This wasn’t the only time Aphrodite became involved with apples. The goddess of love, Aphrodite frequently appeared with apples and as a result, apples featured in many Greek myths involving love, courtship, and marriage. Perhaps the most famous is the story of Atalanta. Racing all of her suitors to avoid marriage, Atalanta manages to outrun all but Hippomenes, who defeated her not by speed, but by cunning. Aphrodite gave him three golden apples, which he threw at Atalanta, distracting her enough to win the race and her hand in marriage as the prize.

But interestingly enough, the Greek word melon was used for almost any kind of round fruit that grows on a tree. So the many legendary apples of Greek myth – from Homer to Atalanta – may have been other kinds of tree fruit or perhaps no particular fruit at all. It’s important to note, though, that Europeans interpreted these classical references to fruit as apples, just as they had the supposed apple in the Garden of Eden.

Apples meant something both symbolically and literally to people. As apple trees took root around the world, its fruit took root in art, poetry, music, mythology, legend, and prose. The apple inspired an explosion of literature and illustration all over the temperate world, a degree of adulation nearly impossible to imagine for any other fruit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s