The fruit of the apple tree plays a major part in many myths and legends.
In the Irish Story of Connla of the fiery hair, Connla, son of Conn, the king Connaught is said to be named after, was seduced by a fairy maiden who gave him an apple which, once eaten, would replenish itself, becoming whole again. Connla ate nothing but this apple for a whole month, after which time the fairy maiden reappeared.
Eating the magical apple had given Connla a powerful longing for the fairy and he joined her on her crystal boat to the other world, a magical island where the trees bore a never ending supply of the fruit giving him everlasting youth but forbidding him from ever returning to the land of man.
A similar myth occurs in Druid folklore where the character Bran is enticed to the Otherworld by a magical maiden brandishing a musical apple branch, and in the Arthurian legend, Avallon, the land of the fairies and the dead ruled by Morgan Le Fay, means Isle of Apples.
Merlin was also said to work in a grove of apple trees, the fruit of which, when eaten, gave him the power of prophecy.
The Celts buried apples with the dead
The Celts believed the apple to be associated with rebirth and were said to bury apples in graves as food for the dead, a practice that is shown to date back over 7,000 years to Europe and West Asia where petrified remains of sliced apple have been found in tombs from 5,000BC.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the apple tree is associated with knowledge, immortality, temptation and the fall of man.
The apple tree is believed to be the tree of forbidden knowledge, the tree from which Eve ate the forbidden fruit – although the forbidden fruit is not actually named in the Bible and would more likely have been a fig or pomegranate.
In Latin, the word for an apple is mālum and the word for evil is mălum. This could have contributed to the common western belief that the apple was the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden.
In Greek mythology the apple tree was at the centre of the garden of the Hesperides, a tree belonging to Hera, bearing magical golden fruit which gave the gift of immortality to those who ate it.
Similarly, in Norse mythology, the apple tree was the tree of immortality and the goddess Idunn, keeper of apples, fed the apples to all the gods and goddesses, keeping them young forever.
Only crab apples are native to Ireland
There are so many myths, legends, stories and traditions associated with the apple but the only apple native to Ireland and the British Isles is the crab apple.
The common apple we know now was most likely introduced to this area of the world by the Romans. So, Celtic lore when it speaks of ‘apple’ would in all likelihood mean crab apple.
Crab apples were known as wild apples in Ireland and were listed as one of the seven ‘Nobles of the Wood’, believed to be an important food source since the first humans set foot in the country.
Traditionally, crab apples were made into wine, cider and juice, but were also used to flavour mead.
They are still used in this way today and grow in abundance on the roadside and in gardens and woodland.
Both crab apples and the common apple are believed to have many health benefits. They are a good source of vitamins and minerals and they are believed to strengthen the metabolism, balance digestion, lower cholesterol, stimulate blood production and cleanse the system.
So, an apple a day could indeed keep the doctor away.