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Summer comes to a close with the autumn equinox. Falling on or around 22 September, the days and nights are of equal length, before the balance tips towards steadily increasing hours of darkness.
Known as Mabon in the Wheel of the Year calendar, this would traditionally be a time for collecting in the last fruits of summer, foraging for the autumnal abundances of berries and nuts, and celebrating with a harvest festival or feast. One symbol or association of Mabon is the apple. This humble fruit is as abundant in its folklore as it is in its yield: let’s explore more, below.
[First of all, thank you to my brother for capturing these lovely photographs of the apple tree in our family garden. It is a very old tree, and I have fond memories of late summer, picking and harvesting the fruit, when I was young.]
The autumn equinox is traditionally a time of abundance, thanksgiving, and preparation for the winter months ahead. Early peoples would have used this time to forage and store what they could, plant seeds for the next spring, and adjust towards the darker days. It was about finding a balance: building up what was needed through the winter, but also parring down and clearing out what would no longer serve. It was both a celebration of what summer had brought and what was achieved, and a time for mourning the loss of the light and warmth. While we no longer have the same beliefs or concerns as these early peoples, this feeling can still be sensed by those who suffer from the ‘autumn blues’, or seasonal adjustment disorder.
The apple is associated with Mabon for a number of reasons. Most practically, it is a tree which bears abundant fruit at this time of year – apples can be dried, preserved, or fermented, meaning they can be stored and used throughout the winter. They also hold the same colours as autumn or Mabon: green, red, orange, gold, and brown. Folk belief has connoted the fruit to notions of life, health, vitality, and renewal; some folk remedies even utilise the cooling, soothing, restorative properties of apples to cure ailments from warts to stomach pains. A focus on continued health and renewal was particularly important to early peoples, as they looked through the harshness of winter to the renewal of spring. An apple was therefore symbolic of this time of year.
As the autumn equinox was a time which held both positives and negatives, so does the folklore surrounding apples. The apple has long been taken to be the ‘forbidden fruit’, which Adam and Eve eat in Eden: however, the Bible never specifies exactly what the fruit is, and many alternatives from figs to pomegranates have been put forth. The traditional portrayal of it as an apple may stem from Latin, where ‘apple’ (mālum) and ‘evil’ (mălum) are linguistically very similar.
While the biblical tale tells of mankind’s fall to temptation and sin, the eating of the forbidden fruit also demonstrated Eve’s exercising of choice, and attainment of knowledge. Many other folk tales touch upon this association with knowledge: in the Arthurian tales, the apple tree grove where Merlin works bestows upon the magician powers of prophesy; the Buddah is said to have gained enlightenment in an apple orchard; more commonly known, Isaac Newton realised gravity’s effects when sitting under an apple tree. Folk belief states that projects undertaken beneath an apple tree with prove as fruitful as the tree itself.
The prophetic associations with the apple can also be harmful. ‘An apple never falls from the tree’ alludes to a person’s true nature becoming known, often in a negative way; someone with a bad personality can be termed a ‘bad apple’. Perhaps the most recognisable idiom which alludes to apples is ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. While this speaks of an apple’s health benefits, it also cautions that without this sustenance, a person can become very ill. This was a very real concern for early peoples, and as such, features frequently in their folklore.
A good example of this comes from Scandinavian folklore. In Norse mythology, the goddess of spring Iðunn tended to an orchard which yielded golden apples. Because of their ability to grant vitality and immortality, these apples were reserved for the gods of Asgard. The mischievous Loki lured Iðunn away, and without her care, the apples rot and the gods grow weak and old. Loki returns Iðunn, who restores the gods to health. While earth’s apples do not grant such extraordinary powers, their importance as a valuable winter sustenance meant that a bad harvest could wreak terrible harm to early civilisations.
To ensure a good harvest, many communities practised (and some still practise) the custom of wassailing. Deriving from the Anglo-Saxon þu hæl (‘be in health’), this tradition involved the drinking of spiced ale or cider, the singing of salutations, and the giving of a toast (originally with a small piece of dry bread, given to the highest authority in the room). In rural communities, the ale or cider was poured, and the toast hung, upon apple trees, and the orchards were filled with song and dance. This was traditionally done at New Years; however, this also came with a darker side, as apples still found hanging on the tree during or after winter foretold of a death.
Apples could foretell of death, but also of life and love. Their sweet taste and pretty blossoms, along with their associations of abundance and health, make them a good symbol for love. Throwing apple pips in the fire could determine your crush’s feelings towards you: if it popped, they loved you, and if it did nothing, they did not. Peeling an apple in one single strip, then throwing this over your shoulder, would reveal in the shape it took the initial of your future lover. Cutting an apple in half, revealing the five seed pods sometimes called Aphrodite’s Star, and sharing it with your lover was believed to promote a long and fruitful union.
This five-pointed star at the centre of an apple has also been interpreted as a pentagram, making it a popular fruit with modern day pagans and wiccans. Today, we don’t have to worry about bad harvests, or relying on apples for sustenance during the winter; apples can be used for many things, from baking, to decoration. Slices of apples can be cooked and dried to create hanging ornaments, or the cross-section of an apple can be used for printing, revealing that hidden star within.
Do you have any recipes or activities for this time of year, using apples? I’d love to hear about them!
I found lots of brilliant articles during my hunt for apple folklore! Here are some I found really interesting:
- Plant Lore and Legend, by Ruth Binney
- ‘Mabon’, by Goddess and Green Man – brilliant for an overview of Mabon customs and symbols, including a great Somerset Apple Cake recipe!
- ‘Apple History, Folklore, Myth and Magic’, by The Practical Herbalist – a medley of different facts about apple lore
- ‘Apple – healing, youthfulness, rebirth’, by Ireland Calling – interesting Celtic folktales around apples, and the history of apples in the British Isles
- ‘Sacred Tree Profile: Apple’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings’, by The Druid’s Garden – a really thorough look into the beliefs surrounding apples
- ‘Apple – Quert’, by Ogham Divination – a really lovely insight into the druidic alphabet ogham, and the meanings of apples
- ‘Scandinavian Tree Lore: Apple Trees and The Goddess Idunn’, by Folklore Fun – more about Iðunn and Norse belief
- ‘Apple Mythology: Folklore and Seasonal Traditions’, by Iris Brooks – another medley of interesting apple facts
- ‘Trees – myths and folklore’, by School Gardening – only a little about apples, but quick facts about other tree lore, too
For more Folkdays content, see my blog.