Fruit appears in myths from around the world. Often it is a symbol of abundance, associated with goddesses of fruitfulness, plenty, and the harvest. Sometimes, however, fruit represents earthly pleasures, gluttony, and temptation. Specific kinds of fruit have acquired their own symbolic meanings in the myths and legends of different 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, queen of the gods, owned some precious apple trees that she had received as a wedding present from Gaia, the earth mother. Tended by the Hesperides, 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, 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 12 great labors, the hero Hercules* had to obtain some of these apples. After a long, difficult journey across North Africa, he enlisted the help of the giant Atlas, who entered the garden, strangled the dragon, and obtained the fruit. Hercules took the apples to Greece, but Athena* returned them to the Hesperides.
A golden apple stolen from Hera's garden caused the Trojan Warf, one of the key events in Greek mythology. Eris, the goddess of discord, 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* each assumed that the apple was meant for her. They asked Paris, 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 guarded the magical golden apples
gluttony excessive eating or drinking
that kept the gods young. But after the trickster god Loki 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.
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. 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.
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, who died in the famine, was buried beside a spring.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
immortality ability to live forever
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
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.
Cherry. Cherries can symbolize fertility, merrymaking, and festivity. In Japan, where cherry blossoms are the national flower, cherries represent beauty, courtesy, and modesty. The ancient Chinese regarded the fruit as a symbol of immortality. One Chinese legend tells of the goddess Xi Wang Mu, in whose garden the cherries of immortality ripen every thousand years. Because cherry wood was thought to keep evil spirits away, the Chinese placed cherry branches over their doors on New Year's Day and carved cherry wood statues to stand guard in front of their homes.
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. When the moon goddess Hina fell in love with the eel, her brother, Maui, 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 (Bacchus to the Romans), god of wine and drunkenness, and with Priapus, a satyr who symbolized sexual desire.
The fig tree has a sacred meaning for Buddhists. According to Buddhist legend, the founder of the religion, Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha, achieved enlightenment one day in 528 B . C . 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 (Juno to the Romans), Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans), and Pomona, 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
The cornucopia, 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, the king of the gods, was raised by a foster mother named Amalthaea, 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.
satyr woodland deity that was part man and part goat or horse
enlightenment in Buddhism, a spiritual state marked by the absence of desire and suffering
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 decked themselves in pomegranate-twig wreaths.
Pomegranate seeds appear in the Greek myth of the goddess Demeter, protector of grain, crops, and the earth's bounty, and her daughter Persephone. One day Persephone was picking flowers when Hades, the king of the underworld, 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 is plunged into barrenness, 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.
underworld land of the dead