“And the woman said unto the serpent,
We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.
But of the fruit of the tree which is in
the midst of the garden, God hath said,
Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”
Thus begins one of the most notorious passages in Genesis, the section of the Bible devoted to man’s fall from divine grace, placing the blame squarely in the hands (and mouths) of woman. While Genesis has been combed over by biblical scholars for centuries, used to discuss everything from personal agency, to the innate sinfulness of humankind, my interest lies in a much more humble aspect of the fall; the species of the forbidden fruit which brought about our destruction.
Oddly enough, the bible never identifies the fruit by name, or describes it beyond saying that Eve, “Saw that the fruit was good to eat and pleasing to the eye.” So why has the humble European apple become such a major part of our imaginings of a story that was originally set somewhere in the region of the Middle East, a place where apples rarely grew?
To get a sense of how this simple fruit became so uniquely important to the early Christians, I looked to the teachings of the monks of Mount Athos, a self governed monastic state off the coast of Greece, whose status as a perfectly preserved slice of medieval Europe makes it the ideal place to find out how the apple came to grow in the garden of Eden. For the brothers of Mount Athos the sin of bodily temptation is of such weight and significance that no women have been allowed onto the mountain in over one hundred years. Neither are the monks able to cherish any memories of the female form; historically, the majority of the brothers of the various monasteries have been illegitimate children whose mothers left them at the base of the mountain to be adopted and raised by the church before they were old enough to have achieved sentience, forming sensual attachments to the sinful outside world. The monks’ preoccupation with the body is so strong that there is a universal injunction that every meal consumed on Mount Athos must be accompanied by readings from the scripture, to distract from the potentially sinful pleasures of gastronomy.
The brothers of Mount Athos have developed a number of theories about the apple’s sinful nature. They note the apple’s physical resemblance to a woman, the white of its flesh like a woman’s flesh, its skin red like her lips. When bisected horizontally, the apple reveals five seeds, the same number as the points in the satanic pentagram, and vertically, a vaguely vulva like crescent that they euphemistically call “The sign of Eve” although it is unclear how the they could imagine what a vulva might look like, given their staggering lack of personal experience.
Medieval saint Hildegard Von Bingen wrote of the apple, “In the fruit trees are hidden certain of God’s secrets, which only the blessed among men can perceive,” and the brothers of Mount Athos believe that the apple’s tempting physical appearance is a hidden message from God, revelatory of the fruit’s sinful providence, which led the early fathers of their order to discover its identity as the true fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
The (Grape)fruit of Knowledge
In fact, it is far more likely that the fruit of original sin was something indigenous to the region in which Eden itself was supposed to have existed, something better acclimatised to the region’s heat and dryness than the apple. For much of Christianity’s early history, the fruit was popularly rumoured to be a quince, pomegranate (like the pomegranate that so famously tempted Persephone to remain in the underworld), or even the humble grapefruit.
The real historical reasons behind the apple’s adoption into the text of Genesis were likely more politically than poetically justified. The malleability of the early Christian church is well documented, and is expressed in every tradition of major modern Christian holidays in tiny details like Easter’s pagan eggs, or Christmas’ druid tree. The apple’s journey from innocuous silk road delicacy, spread throughout Europe by travellers who picked fruit on their way through Kazakhstan’s famous apple forest, to symbolically laden forbidden fruit is yet another example of the Church’s historic adaptation of the cultural traditions of polytheistic people.
The first written document identifying the tree of knowledge as an apple was an epic poem, written by the Roman poet Avitus of Vienne, at some point after the year 470 A.D. The serpent is described as proffering the fruit by taking,
One Apple down from all of those upon the fatal tree
Enveloped in sweet odour, recommended it
For pleasing sigh, and offered it to Eve
As the Archbishop of Gaul during a period when the Catholic church was desperately in need of local converts, Avitus had a vested interest in altering the symbolic value of the apple, the holy fruit of the native population, who used apples, and their alcoholic cider, in the religious ceremonies that united their communities.
The Church found Avitus’ apple-centric re-imagining of the fall of man highly useful in the conversion of Northern European communities where apples, rather than Mediterranean grapes, were the source of the alcohol used in native ritual, but he wasn’t the first Catholic to try to ween the Gauls of their apple dependency. Early Christian settlers to the area had actually created a series of allegorical myths where the power of the apple had physically drained into Christ’s body, as he was crucified not the now-familiar cross, but on a wild apple tree. This story in itself was a retelling of local histories associating the apple with sorcery and Arthurian legend. And a poem entitled The Apple Tree, popularly attributed to Merlin by the local population, was circulating at the time Avitus wrote his ode to Edenic fruit.
The sweet apple tree laden with the sweetest fruit
Growing in the lonely isles of Cleyddon!
All shall seek thee but in vain
Until…the Britons be again victorious
King Arthur was said to lie sleeping on Avalon, the Isle of Apples, until the time of his people’s greatest need, when he would awaken and defend the realm. By authoring an alternative poem, Avitus was attempting to alter the apple’s position in his constituents’ imaginations, transforming it from a symbol of nationalism and pagan pride to a physical reminder of their own sinfulness, and their need for salvation only the Church could provide. As for the coniferous the trees of the forest, the Church induced the pagan Gauls to take them out of nature and into their living rooms each Christmas eve, festooned with the shiny red balls that, while overtly serving as symbols of Saint Nicholas, are eerily reminiscent of the pagan apple.
So the next time you take a bite out of a Pink Lady or Honeycrisp, or slice up a Fuji to make Tarte Tatin, remember that without men like Avitus, and the monks of mount Athos, it would be a symbolically null fruit like any other. And maybe say a little prayer of thanks to Merlin while you’re at it!