The apple has been the fruit family scapegoat ever since Eve plucked it from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and was thrown out of Paradise. As with many scapegoats, the apple is more than the sum of its misdemeanours. The fact is this: Eve likely never set eyes on an apple, within Paradise or without.
In Middle English, apple was used to denote fruit, including nuts, excepting berries. Pomme de terre is French for potato–literally, earth apple. Pomum is Latin for apple and fruit. Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit. Apple has long been a generic word for fruit and also a word for a specific fruit whose significance to British, Celtic, and European peoples cannot be overstated.
The wild apple is native to Europe and Western Asia and the crab apple is indigenous to Britain. The Greeks and Romans planted apple orchards. Apples maintained the immortality of the Norse gods and goddesses. Apple bark and the soil of apple orchards have been used to promote fertility. Apples have ensured health and healing, perhaps for 5000 years, or more.
(“To eat an apple before going to bed will make the doctor beg his bread.”)
Did Snow White accept the fateful third gift because it was offered in the shape of this essential fruit? Was the apple the evil Queen’s poisoned medium of choice because of its popularity? The fact is, in the earliest versions of the Snow White tale there was no poisoned apple. The Grimm brothers placed that apple in the Queen’s gnarled hand. The question is: Why?
Early variants of “Snow White” include the tale of the child Lisa who is put to sleep by an enchanted comb (“The Young Slave,” Giambattista Basile, 1634); Maria, who is undone by an enchanted ring (“Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers,” Italy); and Ermellina who falls asleep twice, after tasting poisoned sweetmeats and then after being fitted with a too tight garment (“The Crystal Casket,” Italy).
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their first edition of fairy tales, Kinder-und Hausmarchen, in 1812. From the start they worked to smooth the rough edges of the tales, appropriating them for the gentle reader of the day whose Christian values were paramount. Later Grimm editions of the tales, including even later translations by others, continued to make them more palatable. The Grimms introduced the poisoned apple to “Snow White.” Their earliest version has the Queen offer the ebony-haired girl the poisoned half of an apple, while she eats the healthy half in order to reassure the hesitant Snow White. Interestingly, by cutting the apple in half the Queen reveals the five-pointed star at the seed centre (a pentagram), the same characteristic of the fruit that made it significant to Druidic and other pagan ceremonies, making it anathema to Christian religious officials of the Middle Ages and later. The Grimms were Christian men and tried not to offend. The bad apple was a symbol to which their readers could relate.
With hindsight, perhaps a red apple is the best vector for Snow White’s descent into death-like sleep. We envision her consuming the Queen’s toxic essence, which parallels early versions of the tale that have the Queen eating what she believes to be the innocent girl’s heart in an attempt to consume Snow White’s purity, youth, and beauty. The red apple is the blood soaked heart. On another note, the red skin of the apple reflects the hue of Snow White’s blood-red lips and, after all, appearance is everything, even if things are not always as they appear.