From the time of the Hesperides in Ancient Greece up until the era of Snow White’s stepmother, the apple has been one of the most important fruits figuring in myths, legends and fairy tales. It is always pictured in a positive light. Could this be due to the apple having a healthy image because of its being rich in vitamins? And could that image lie behind the myth of it giving eternal youth? Whatever the case, Hercules was not the only one looking for the magic apples. Read on:
Once upon a time there was a king who ruled over a modest sized country. It didn’t concern him in the slightest that his kingdom was far smaller than that of many other monarchs. He loved his people and his people loved him. He was approachable, listened to everyone’s complaints and comments and had a lot of very good ideas. He had taken many initiatives that had ensured that “my people”, as he referred to his subjects, lived a life of plenty.
The king was a wise man too. For instance, he thought the practice of the firstborn son automatically becoming the crown prince to be a nonsensical tradition. He wanted the child – be it son or daughter – best suited to the work to become his successor.
Not far off the coast of the kingdom was a mysterious island. Nobody had ever set foot on it. From stories told by his father and great grandfather the king knew that there had been numerous attempts to approach the islanders, but all the missions had failed. This had been due to the sudden emergence of a tornado; scorching clouds of smoke; a sudden change in the ocean currents. Every time inn curious ways they were thwarted by natural violence. This had led to the circulation of the strangest stories about the unapproachable islanders. The most common story was that a very wise and very highly developed race of people lived on the island that appeared to remain young in body and spirit by eating the fruits of a special apple tree. According to some folk, if you ate the apples from that tree, you would enjoy lifelong youth.
One day the king called his three adult children together to speak to them: “Dear children, I am old and in a few years from now will die. One of you will become the new sovereign over this country. All three of you are equally dear to me and well-equipped to being my successor. But only one of you can take my place. You know the stories about the extraordinary island which have already been circulating for generations. But in recent years I have heard more often and from increasingly different sources that our people want an apple tree with fruit promising them lifelong youth. You know what people are like: even if they are so affluent, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I want you all to set off and see if you can find out if the story is true. And if it is so, then make sure that we also have a similar apple tree. The one of you who succeeds in this mission will become the new sovereign.
The oldest prince, an excellent sailor, set out in a slender boat. As soon as he got close to the island, a wild storm blew up and blasted the prince back to the mainland. The second brother learned from his brother’s lesson and set out in a ship passing the island with a wide berth, expecting that the storm would then blow him to the island. But the wind dropped completely and his boat floated about on a perfectly calm, flat sea, never getting any closer to the island. In the end he had to be saved by the king’s fleet.
The youngest of the three, princess Mala, waited until it was winter and the water between the two lands had frozen over, put on her skates and set off for the island. When she had nearly got there, such a heavy storm broke that there was no way she could fight her way through it. The wind blew her back to her homeland. But she was not the only thing to be blown away: a number of shrivelled up apples rolled from the island across the ice. The princess picked them up and took them with her. Back home again she pretended that her attempt had also failed. She did not know for sure if the apples she had found came from that one special tree. Without telling a soul, she buried the pips from the shrivelled up apples in fertile earth and looked after them carefully. She lived in suspense while she watched how the seeds germinated, grew up to be young trees, blossomed for the first time and then shortly after bore fruit. But even then she could not be completely sure that she had succeeded.
When the apples were ripe she took her old father out with her for a walk to the orchard in the palace grounds. She showed him the result of her mission, picked an apple and offered it to her father. “Go on,”she said excitedly, “take a bite so we know if it’s an ordinary apple or one that gives us lifelong youth.”
“Perish the thought,” sighed the old king, “lifelong youth at my age?” He picked up his walking stick and started making his way back to the palace. “But lifelong youth or not, it’s clear to me that your mission at least has resulted in something.” A few months later the king abdicated and Queen Malus was crowned. The queen reigned for many long years. She never spoke a word about the story of the apple tree.
The original wild apple, the malus sylvestris, originates in Central Asia. The small apples are as big as cherries and taste very bitter. More than 4,000 years ago apples were already being grown. The Greeks improved the breed by adding grafts. Nowadays there are approximately 7,000 different kinds of apples.
Apple trees do not grow to be very old; very old specimens might get to be 100 years old. The wood of the tree is very hard and is used for fine, strong instruments such as the pins and machinery in mills, amongst other things.
The apple is commonly seen not only as the symbol of eternal youth and health, but also of fertility. An apple possesses many antioxidants which are supposed to make you younger or – to be more accurate – to prevent aging.
In Greek mythology seven nymphs from Hesperia guarded the tree with the golden apples. Whoever ate one of these golden apples would be immortal. One of Hercules’ twelve impossible labours was to steal a golden apple.
© Els Baars, Natuurverhalen.nl