In 1919, author James Rendel Harris of England (Doctor of Letters, Doctor of Theology, Master of Arts, among other degrees) published a remarkable study entitled Origin and Meaning of Apple Cults, which had previously been published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library.
In it, the author advances the argument that the gods and goddesses are actually personifications of various trees -- and that there may thus be a connection between the god Apollo and the apple tree, whose name bears a linguistic similarity to that of the deity.
That there are connections between the gods of the myths and the trees of the world cannot be disputed -- the oak, for example, is well-known as the tree of Zeus, and Odin is of course closely associated with the mighty ash-tree Yggdrasil, upon which he hanged himself for nine days and nine nights in order to bring back the secret of the runes.
Of course, it does not necessarily follow that the associations with the trees came first, or that the trees themselves furnished the archetypes for the gods and goddesses -- but even if we disagree with that aspect of Harris's starting point, his study of the "apple cult" as he calls it, in search of mythological connections within certain folk practices surviving in the British isles until recent centuries, contains numerous fascinating and important insights.
Much of the book consists of a collection of accounts describing the practice of "wassailing the apple trees," also known as "Apple-howling," which apparently lasted until the first decades of the 1800s in several English counties, but which subsequently disappeared and was largely forgotten, even in Harris's time.
In this practice, groups of youths and young women, or of grown men and women, would go out to the apple orchards, either on Christmas Eve or on the eve of Twelfth Night ("Twelfth Day Eve," the night before the day of Epiphany, observed twelve days after Christmas). There, they would perform variations on a tradition involving offering wassail (in this case, made of apple cider mixed with ale and other liquors and containing pieces of baked apple) and pieces of cake or toast to the apple-trees, in some cases dipping the twigs on the branches into the wassail or pouring it over the roots or even throwing it at the trees after drinking some of it, placing the cake or toast upon a bough of the largest apple-tree in the orchard, and singing a special toast to the trees several times.
The words of this toast are recorded by various observers from the 1600s and 1700s. Versions include:
Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mays't bud, and whence thou mays't blow!
And whence thou mays't bear apples enow!
Hats full, caps full!
Bushel -- bushel -- sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
Stand fast root,
Bear well top,
Pray God send us
A good howling crop.
Hats full, caps full,
Full quarter sacks full.
Holla, boys, holla! Huzza!
Another version recorded says:
Wassaile the Trees, that they may bear
You many a Plum, and many a Peare:
For more or less fruit they will bring
As you do give them Wassailing.
Several other variations are recorded as well. In all cases, at the end of the singing, the accounts tell us that a huge amount of noise would be made, by shouting and by banging upon metal pans (in some cases the wassail was carried to the trees in metal pans for this very purpose), and even by firing off guns at the trees!
This aspect of the custom, Harris notes, may have been preceded in earlier centuries by the use of bows and arrows or other weapons, before firearms were available. And, indeed, in some of the accounts from the 1700s, it was said that the trees would be struck with sticks and cudgels.
J. Rendel Harris then goes on to make a series of insightful and valuable possible connections to ancient mythology, including the myths of ancient Greece in which Ganymede and Hebe were the cupbearers to the gods and goddesses of Olympus, and as such were sometimes depicted giving drink to the divine birds who perched in the divine trees. He also makes connections to the Soma described in the Vedas, which is simultaneously a drink, a deity, and a plant or a tree.
Most intriguing of all the connections, however, is the connection that Dr. Harris makes to the myth of the god Balder, from the Norse mythology. Beginning on page 43, he writes (quoting James George Frazer beginning in the third sentence):
The story of Balder the Beautiful and of his tragic death by an arrow of mistletoe is well known. He was the darling of the northern gods, and of the goddess Frigg in particular. She, Frigg, "took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earths, and from trees, sicknesses, and from poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds, and creeping things, that they would not hurt Balder. When this was done, Balder was deemed invulnerable: so the gods amused themselves by setting him in their midst, while some shot at him, others hewed at him, and others threw stones at him."
But Frigg had forgotten to include the mistletoe among the possible enemies of Balder: so had not the malicious Loki, who fashioned an arrow out of mistletoe and showed the blind god Holdr how to aim it at Balder. So Balder died by the mistletoe, and there was much wailing of gods and goddesses on his account. 44.
Harris argues that the "howling" of the apple-trees, and the attacking of the tree with sticks and stones that are not meant to hurt it (and in later centuries with guns) is an enactment of the Balder-myth, with the apple-tree personifying the god Balder.
Harris then argues, based on evidence he presented in previous lectures at the Rylands Library, that:
Another reason why we say that Balder is the Northern Apollo and the personified apple-tree is that his name invited the supposition. We have shown (in the Rylands Library Lecture on "Apollo") that the word "apple," in its primitive form "abal," had the accent on the second syllable; when suffixes were attached to the word, the forward accent released the initial vowel, and left the syllable "bal."
Now the name for "apple-tree" is found in early charters as a place-name in the form "Appledore," "Apuldre," closely related to which are the forms Apfalter, Affalter, Affolter, in the Middle High Dutch. Upon these names I remarked as follows in the Rylands Lecture on the "Cult of Artemis": --
"It has occurred to me that perhaps the 'apel-dur,' 'apel-dre,' and 'appeldore,' which we have been considering may be the origin of Balder (and of Paltar of Grimm's hypothesis), in view of the occurrence of the corresponding forms mentioned above in the Middle High Dutch. If, for instance, the original accent in apple (abal) is, as stated above, on the second syllable, then it would be easy for a primitive apal-dur to lose its initial vowel, and in that case we should not be very far from the form Balder, which would mean the apple-tree originally and nothing more." 63 - 64.
Of course, I tend to disagree with J. Rendel Harris in his starting hypothesis that the gods and goddesses originated as trees, because I have found so much compelling evidence which points to the conclusion that the gods and goddesses the world over reflect specific constellations and heavenly bodies in the celestial realms. That said, I do not for a moment deny that there are also very real connections between specific gods and goddesses and trees and other beings on our planet -- such as the possible connections between the apple-tree and the god Apollo or the god Balder.
And there is much more of interest in the little study on the "apple cult" written nearly one hundred years ago by Harris. It is a short read, and worth looking through in its entirety (using the link above).
At the end of the book, Harris adds an appendix based the recollections of one Mr. P. G. Bond who contacted him after the main part of the book was written, and who remembers participating as a young boy of eight years old in the wassailing of the apple-trees on a farm in the County of Devon, around 1860. Mr. Bond remembers that "the drink offered was warmed cider in which were placed baked apples. The cake offered was a good currant cake, there was no deficiency of fruit. The health of the household was drunk, and the health of the apple-trees" (49).
Mr. Bond goes on to say that although he himself does not recollect so many details from that custom, he heard it described "from many a source." He says:
My father was born in 1806, my grandfather in 1774, my great-grandfather in 1754, and my great-great-grandfather in 1730, my great-great-great-grandfather in 1697, all on farms; all were farmers, and the account of the old custom has been passed on. I have not heard of it during the past fifty-five years.
I regret very much the passing away of the old folk-lore and legends of the past. On a winter's evening to sit around the old hearth-fire eating apples and drinking warm cider in the fitful light of the burning wood, and where the conversation became general, dulness did not take hold of the company, and tradition was passed on as in the old Icelandic Sagas.
How can we resuscitate English country life with all its old charms fast disappearing? 49-50.
It seems to me that the author of the above sentiments, as well as the author of the book in which they appear, are aware that in these old customs, which were already rapidly disappearing a hundred years ago, something important was being lost.
I would hazard to point out a few of these things, among many others that could be mentioned.
- First and perhaps most important is the understanding implied in the blessing of the trees themselves, and of offering them wassail and toast or cakes -- an understanding that the world of spirit flows through and is present in every living thing on earth, and indeed in all the rocks, stones and streams as well. This understanding is characteristic of the worldview found in the ancient myths and sacred traditions the world over -- myths and traditions to which this particular custom J. Rendel Harris clearly establishes a connection. This understanding, that "every fountain has its nymph" is clearly associated with the worldview of ancient Greek tradition, but I would argue that it is in fact characteristic of all the world's ancient wisdom.
- Second, it is noteworthy that the various blessings which were offered to the apple-trees are in every case given in the form of songs or of rhymed meter. I believe we can find evidence that group song and recitation of verse was much more common in previous generations than is the case today -- perhaps because of the rise of radio and television and with them a process by which some people become "singers" for everyone else. There is plenty of evidence that in traditional cultures, chanting and singing was considered important for everyone to do. See previous posts such as "Mantras: sacred words of power" and "Your song."
- Third, it is my contention that by enacting customs with clear parallels to the ancient myths -- such as the connection between the now-forgotten tradition of "Apple-howling" and the myth of Balder which J. Rendel Harris has discovered, those who participate in these traditions are deliberately aligning their motions with the motions of the heavenly realm, the infinite realm: the realm of the gods. It is an incorporation into cultural practice of the meaning of the powerful esoteric dictum, "As above, so below." Traditions in which we align our motions with those of the heavens are becoming scarcer and scarcer. They have in many places been deliberately stamped out (such as by religious authorities), or ridiculed and discouraged (often by "scientific" authorities, who seem to have sprung up to finish off any remnants of ancient culture that were not successfully stamped out by the religious authorities). A few ways in which people still to this day align their motions with the cycles of the heavens include observation of birthdays, observation of celebrations corresponding with the solstices and equinoxes and cross-quarter days, or specific intervals before or after solstices and equinoxes and cross-quarter days, and participation in disciplines such as Yoga or Tai Chi or other traditional arts which incorporate forms that may have precessional numbers in their sequence, for example.
I am grateful to J. Rendel Harris for preserving the record of this now-forgotten folk-custom, a custom which was already barely remembered when he investigated it a century ago.
Perhaps it will inspire some readers to decide to plant an apple tree near their home, if possible . . . and to "wassail" it on Twelfth Day eve!
image: Wikimedia commons (link).