If there were a king of the garden, an everything to everybody sort of fruit, that would be the apple. From time immemorial, it has been a symbol of good and evil, of magic, of love, more important in religion, superstition, folklore, history and medicine than any other fruit.
To the Pythagoreans and to many others after them, the apple was symbolic of the occult. Split open horizontally, the apple depicts a perfect five point star, the pentagram, the key to the knowledge of good and evil. (In Latin the word for apple, malum, is a homonym for the word for evil.) Apples were eaten in Brittany before the prophesies were made, and the magician Merlin sat under an apple tree to teach.
In Greece, apples have been cultivated since at least the seventh century b.c. They were de rigueur at Athenian wedding feasts. Tossing a woman an apple was akin to a proposal of marriage, catching, an acceptance. Despite their nuptial significance, however, they were rare and expensive, so much so that Solon decreed the bridal couple could eat only one apple between them, before going to bed. Greek mythology is rife with references to apples. The Golden Apples of the Garden of Hesperides were said to confer immortality. They were given to Hera as a wedding present when she married Zeus. The nymph Atalanta lost her virginity thanks again to the golden apples of Hesperides which Hippomenes dropped in her path during a foot race, which she lost because she paused to pick them up. The whole Trojan War began on the linchpin of an apple, after Paris unwittingly presented to Aphrodite the apple of discord.
Apples have also been credited with procuring longevity, a power which interested Alexander the Great and which lay at the root of our own folk saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Legend has it that Alexander, on an expedition which also sought the water of Life, found apples capable of prolonging the lives of the priests who fed on them and nothing else to as much as 400 years.
No one knows for sure where the apple tree originated. Older references point to southeastern Europe or southwestern Asia, but apples have been found in prehistoric Swiss lake settlements and the imprint of an apple seed appears on a fossil dating to a Neolithic site in England. Today, the most commonly held theory is that the apple tree is decidedly northern, needing as it does a dormant period of at least two months (winter) to restore its strength after one year’s crop in order to produce the next.
Regardless of where it first appeared, though, the apple has been cultivated since the dawn of history in all sorts of climes. Carbonized apples have been found in Anatolia dated at 6500 B.C.. In the 13th century B.C. Ramses II had apple trees planted in the Nile delta. Today, the apple is the most widely cultivated fruit, the most popular in terms of consumption, and perhaps the one with the most varieties. There are roughly 7,000 different kinds of apples grown all over the world.