Inside a red barn,
A white star…
-Part of a riddle, the solution to which is “an apple”
Do you remember that moment in Snow White & the Seven Dwarves when the evil Queen is using all manner of occult ephemera to poison a single apple which she will use to kill Snow White? What about all those baroque and medieval paintings of the Garden of Eden showing a dispassionate Eve holding a bitten apple in one hand? Or the Greek myth of the golden apple given to Prince Paris of Troy that he might award it to the fairest of the goddesses (thus sparking the Trojan War).
Apples appear throughout folklore and myth as symbols of magical power, sacred knowledge, and intoxicating sweetness. American lore has its own apple-toting legend in the form of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, who crossed the upper Midwest planting apple orchards as he went (Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Botany of Desire explores how Chapman—a mystical Christian practicing a philosophy called Swedenborgianism—actually planted orchards not for eating apples, but for making hard cider, thus linking him to the magical practice of brewing as well). Today I thought I’d look at some of the magical manifestations of this ubiquitous fruit. After all, it is as American as, well, apple pie.
I’d like to start with some of the apple lore and superstitions found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, primarily because I love one of the first tidbits I found:
- “A bad woman can’t make good applesauce” (65)
I have no idea about the veracity, implications, or thought processes behind this statement, but it was just too wonderful to pass up. So if you can’t make good applesauce, you should clearly consider it a moral failing of some kind. Randolph also lists a number of other bits of common apple lore:
- A goiter can be removed or reduced by rubbing it with half an apple, burying it in the cemetery, then eating the other half (148)
- Two apple seeds, named for a boy and a girl, dropped onto a hot shovel can predict love. If they move closer together, they will marry; if they part, the love will not last (184)
I’ve covered a bit of the love magic involving apples in another post and podcast episode, but this latter method is one I’d not seen before, and has a very ‘country’ feel to it. Listener and fellow folk-magic blogger Claire shared that instead of peeling the apple in one strip, she and her childhood playmates would twist the stem, saying a letter with each twist, until the thing came loose revealing the initial of one’s future beau.
Many of Randolph’s recorded superstitions can be found in other places as well, such as these wonderful examples from Kentucky folklore:
- Breaking an apple in two means luck in love (especially if you “name” the apple for someone special)
- An apple peel removed in a single strip then tossed over the shoulder will land in the shape of a lover’s initial
- Apple seeds can be counted like flower petals in the “loves me, loves me not” style
- Apple seeds are used to tell which direction a lover will come from by spitting them in the air, or can be used to divine how long it will take before one sees a sweetheart again by slapping a handful against one’s forehead—the number that stick are the days until the lover arrives.
- Naming apples on Halloween and then bobbing or playing ‘snap-apple’ for them predicts a future mate
- Finding twinned apples (or any fruit really) on a tree means a marriage soon
- Warts can be cured with apples, either by burying an apple and saying ‘As this apple decays, so let my wart go away,” or by scarring an apple tree’s bark—when the bark grows over, the wart will disappear
- Apples gathered in moonlight will not bruise or rot
- “If you can break an apple with your hands, you will always be your own boss”
(from Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel & Lucy Thomas)
Vance Randolph also references the wart-removal charm which involves cutting notches in an apple tree, although in this case it’s a stranger’s apple tree and done in secret, as ‘stolen’ things have tremendous magical curing power (130).
Henry Middleton Hyatt also has several pieces of folklore about apples, some of which contradict the Kentucky beliefs above:
- Apples which fall in moonlight get ‘soft-rot,’ while apples falling during a dark moon get ‘dry-rot’
- If you want your next calf to be a female, bury the placenta from the most recent calf birth under an apple tree
- Girls eat the first apple of June and count the seeds to see how many children they will have
- Eating ‘twinned’ apples is said to cause twin births
- Rubbing a piece of apple over a newborn’s tongue ensures that they will have a beautiful singing voice
- Apple peels, especially those in June, can be rubbed on the face to improve complexion
- Eating an apple on an empty stomach on Easter ensures good health
- Menstrual flow can be regulated by boiling the inner bark (or cambium) of an apple tree
- If you always burn your apple peelings you will never have cancer
Hyatt also reiterates the wart cures involving rubbing sliced apples over the wart and burying them, usually under the eaves of a house (Folklore of Adams County, 146).
In New England, apples also have a love association, as well as some rather more foreboding connotations. The excellent blog New England Folklore provides a wonderful rhyme for counting apple seeds here. The blog author, Peter M., also shares a bit of the darker lore of apples, including the strange coincidence of deaths with apples in New England lore. And what could be creepier than an apple tree eating a person?
Finally, looking towards the deep South and the folk magic of hoodoo, I found that the apple can be used for a variety of purposes. Cat Yronwode suggests using the apple as an agent in sweetening spells, especially those for love. She points out that it can be used as a receptacle for sweetening agents like honey or sugar and it provides sweetness itself in the spell (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, 32-3). Denise Alvarado mentions that the Voodoo lwa known as Papa Guede appears as a skeletal figure with a tophat and an apple in one hand in her Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook. And then there’s this very interesting spell involving apples and court-case work:
Take green and yellow candles, enough to last for nine days, and with a sharp object write on them the names of the chief prosecution witness, the judge, and the district attorney, in that order. Burn the candles upside down to ‘upset the heads’ of these people. Bore a hole in each of three apples and put the name of each of the three above-mentioned persons in the apples. Set them before the candles while they burn the requisite nine days. At the end of nine days take the apples to the vicinity of the jail. Roll one from the entrance, one from the right side, and one from the left side, thereby rolling the prisoner out of jail (Haskins, Voodoo & Hoodoo, 185).
This spell is supposed to be used during an appeals process or after a new trial has been ordered. Perhaps it is tied to the sweetening effect mentioned by Yronwode as a way of urging a new judge or jury to look upon your case favorably?
In any case, the apple has certainly earned its place in American magical lore. If you know of other magical uses for the apple, feel free to post them here. And next time you’re eating an apple, do as the wicked queen suggests—make a wish, take a bite.
Thanks for reading!