The Isle of Apples

Apple blossom with bee. Photo by Simon Eugster.

Sweet apple-tree of delicate bloom
That grows in concealment in the woods,…
While my reason had not strayed, I rested by its side
With a fair gleeful maiden of perfect slender form.
Black Book of Caermarthen XVII

These words, attributed to Merlin, are part of a spell invoking the aid of the apple tree in defense against a Saxon invasion. The “gleeful maid” refers to the womanly aspect of Nimue (NEE-way), who appears in Welsh romances as Merlin’s apprentice and sometime nemesis. Nimue is the white goddess of the Otherworld who brings sweetness and sometimes death. The apple tree is not so much her symbol as her manifestation. The Celts of the British Isles envisioned the afterlife as an island covered with apple trees in perpetual bloom.

The flowers of the apple tree have a heady, pervasive fragrance that attracts legions of bees. The ripe fruit, which also has a strong pleasant odor, is fermented with honey to make traditional mead, the intoxicating gift of this lovely goddess. Trees which attract bees are usually associated with an important goddess, while goddesses associated with sweet-smelling flowers are often death goddesses. (The decaying corpse has a sweet odor.) Goddesses (and gods) associated with death are often revered by the shaman, because divination and magic require moving into incorporeal space. Intoxicating substances are sometimes used as tools for shamanic visioning, and this visioning is compared to a state of intoxication even when substances are not used. Small wonder that Nimue permeates the legends of the great magician Merlin!

The apple tree, which is a member of the rose family, originated in central Asia but was cultivated widely in the early agricultural societies. The tree must be grafted to produce a reliable fruit; most apples grown from seed are sour or bitter. It is not known when the first apple was cultivated in Wales. Many assume the apple tree came with the Roman occupation, but this does not appear to be supported. A white flowering crabapple is native to the British Isles, so the legends may have originally grown around this tree. How long apple (or crabapple) trees have been worshiped in the region also cannot be known. The romances were penned by Christians in the seventh through the eleventh centuries, and the Celts absorbed a great deal from pre-Celtic cultures in their settlement areas. The hawthorn might also have been a precursor or stand-in for the apple. In one story Nimue imprisons Merlin in a tower of hawthorn bushes. The hawthorn is closely related to the wild crabapple: both are members of the rose family, both have white flowers, both bear small fruit, and both have thorns.

The apple remains an important ingredient of modern witchcraft, especially prominent in Halloween rituals. The fruit is cut through its equator and placed on the altar flesh side up, so the five-pointed star in the center can be seen. This is the source of the sacred pentagram.


Sources

Matthew, Caitlin and John. Ladies of the Lake. London: Thorsons, 1992.

Meyer, Kuno, trans. Voyage of Bran. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1895.

Scudder, Vida Dunn. Le Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory and Its Sources. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921.

Skene, William F., trans. The Four Ancient Books of Wales. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1868.

University of Illinois Extension. Apple Facts.

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