Notes from Diane's Garden

Or The Curious Lore and Magical Property of Plants
By Diane Fenster

October 1987: Apple/Pumpkin/the Day of the Dead

Who can tell
The hidden power of herbes and might of Magick spell?
--Spenser, The Faerie Queene

October, the month of Halloween. The days grow shorter and the night sky is filled with ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Witches, if any month of the rolling year can be called ours, it's this one, so let us dance by the light of the moon.

If ever I feel homesick for the deciduous forests of the East Coast, it's during this month when the leaves turn colors and the first chill of approaching winter is felt. If any of you out there have never seen this miracle of nature, you owe it to yourself to experience it once in your life.

So for this very witchy month I'll ramble on through the symbolism of the festival, apples, pumpkins, and also touch upon November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, which is so interconnected. I know this seems a bit off the subject of garden folklore, but then I'm a "bit off" too and besides, who wants to be consistent?

We are entering the dark time of the year. A time when Kore returns to the Underworld to live with her consort, the Lord of the Dead. The Celtic Feast of the Dead is Samhain, named for Samana, the Lord of Death or the Grim Reaper. It is a night of divination, traditionally by the ancestral dead who return at this time of the year. In Ireland, fruit still left on the trees after Samhain was thought to be contaminated by Puka, or spirits and was declared unfit to eat.

I really didn't realize how fruitful a topic the apple would be until I peeled aside the mundane skin and cut through to the very core. (Please forgive me, I know it's awful but I just couldn't resist!)


(Malus sylvestris). Apples have a role in Halloween and seem to have been thought of as a symbol of rebirth. When an apple is cut transversely, a pentacle is revealed. This is the sign of Kore the Virgin, hidden in the heart of Mother Earth, with Demeter, the apple, being the World Soul. It is thought by Robert Graves that the story of Eve is a misrepresentation of icons that showed the Great Goddess offering apples of life to her worshipper. Her Appletree of Life is guarded by her Sacred Serpent.

The game of bobbing for apples is a leftover belief that the apples were symbols of the souls floating in the Cauldron of Regeneration. These apple games hinted at cheating Death, in the guise of Cerridwen, the Sow Goddess and Keeper of the Cauldron. Another source explains that according to Druid rites, the souls had to pass through water in order to reach Avalon. That belief has degenerated into ducking for apples. Apples are also associated with ordeals by fire (Halloween or Samhain of course being one of the fire festivals of the Celts). It seems the only remnant of this is a game that requires a person to eat an apple that is balanced on a small rod of wood which also supports a candle.

Apples abound in the myths and legends of the world. The Apple Macintosh computer is already a legend in its own time. The meaning of King Arthur's Avalon is Isle of Apples. (The land of rebirth and regeneration. Remember, Arthur is the "Once and Future King" and was taken to Avalon by three fairy Queens... the Triune Goddess herself). In the land of the Hesperides grew golden apples. (Perhaps this was a Greek myth about an early visit to the British Isles?) Aphrodite and Eve both carry an apple in their hands. Tantalus vainly reaches for an apple while in Hades.

Scandinavian cultures believed that apples were essential to rebirth. The Norse gods of the Prose Edda have only to eat of the apples that Iduna keeps and they will once again become youthful. They will continue to regain their youth in this manner until "Ragnarok", the Twilight of the Gods. The Yule pig is roasted with an apple in its mouth so that the apple can be its heart in the next life. Snow White seals her doom by eating the poisoned apple of the wicked Queen. In Medieval times, old women were slain for giving an apple to a child who later developed fits. (And put to death for a lot of other reasons too). Again we see a dual symbolism in these myths; the apple as kind and restorative mother goddess and as death dealing crone goddess.

We also find apples being used for divination on Halloween. An apple is peeled, thrown over the left shoulder and the letter of the alphabet that the peel most resembles is the first letter of the name of the future mate. Or sit alone in your bedroom by the light of a solitary candle and eat an apple. When you finish eating, the face of your lover will appear in the mirror. One source says these divinations must be worked at midnight's best achieved on a moonlight Halloween. To eat an Allan apple from Cornwall on Halloween brings good luck.

In Devonshire lore, the appletree is ruled by the Moon. Apples that are earmarked for storage through the winter are picked during a waning moon. If an apple to be stored is picked before the wane, it is thought to be "full" and will not keep, but an apple that is picked on the wane is "fasting" and will not rot so quickly. In this same shire it is also thought that if the sun shines on the appletrees on Christmas Day, the following years' harvest will be a good one.

Another curiosity is the belief that if an apple is cut in two and one piece rubbed over a wart, then both pieces put together and tied in two and buried, it will cure the wart. In Northamptonshire and the West of England it is believed that an apple tree blooming after the fruit is ripe is an omen of death. We've met with this superstition before about roses blooming out of season. Early peoples must have feared any deviation from the normal cycles of events in the agricultural year and taken it as an omen of doom.

There was another old English custom regarding the blessing of the appletrees, that of wassailing. The word comes from the Old English was hal meaning be in good health. It was done for the purpose of encouraging the health and fertility of the trees of the orchard but there is evidence that it was practiced in the domestic gardens as well. The season of its practice was from December 25 to Old Twelfth Day, January 18 but Old Christmas Eve, January 5, was the most popular day for the celebration. This consisted of the farmer and his laborers going out into the orchard and drinking a mulled cider toast to the prize tree of the lot. The words to one of the songs is:

Here's to thee, old apple tree!
Whence thou may'st bud and whence thou may'st blow,
And whence thou may'st have apples enow,
Hats full, caps full, Bushel-bushel-sacks-full!
And my pockets full too!

Well, they call it a song but we all know it's a growth and fertility spell and that this custom must date to the early beginning of agriculture when humans first tried to influence the growth of plants in their favor. The ceremony continues with the company of farmers bowing in salutation to the tree and then rising up as if heavily laden with sacks of apples. A libation of cider was poured on the roots of the tree and some pieces of toast left in the tree for the tree spirit known as the "robin" or as some variations go, to Pomona, Roman goddess of fruit trees. (It is said that the Romans introduced the apple to the British Isles). The final act of this wonderful ritual was to fire a round of shot through the bare branches of the tree to awaken the tree spirit to the coming year. I've read that these events took place every year until the early 20th century but I'd like to believe that there are still some followers of the old ways that practice them still.

Pomona, the apple-mother, was a goddess of all fruition, and as a recognition of such, all Roman banquets began with eggs and ended with apples. From creation to completion in one meal. That's what I call full circle.


I feel obligated to write a bit about pumpkins since I think that they are more associated with Halloween in peoples' minds than apples. So here's just a tidbit. Pumpkins, formerly called Pompion, are a North American addition to Halloween, but were cultivated in England as early as 1570. Their method of preparation at that time was to cut a hole in the side and take out the seeds and fiber, then fill the cavity with apples and bake. What a perfect dish for Samhain, combining the two magic ingredients as it does. This later developed into the pumpkin pie which was originally made from pumpkins and apples. An interesting sidenote is that the early recipes for pies call the pie crust the coffyn (coffin).


Going full circle, like the Romans, I'll end with a bit more about the symbolism of Samhain and a recipe/ritual for you to try. Since three is a magic number, representing the Triune Goddess, we find that Samhain is actually a three-day fire festival including October 31, November 1 and 2, a time when the night comes upon us and the dead roam the earth.

For the Celts, it was a time of sacrifice, both animal and human, to appease the dark gods. Fearful of encountering ghosts, they blackened their faces or wore masks to hide their identity. So what has come down to us as a time of trick or treat should be remembered in its original form, a time of terror of the unknown. Also, as this was such a dangerous time of year, the Celts made peace with anyone they were fighting with since it was not known who would survive the coming winter.

The Church, with its customary zeal, tried to take over this time of the year with All Saints' Day, November 1. But since most of the early Saints were thinly disguised pagan gods, it's really all the same.

The Mexicans have continued some parts of this tradition by celebrating the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Everyone spends the day visiting their family cemeteries with gifts of flowers, candles and food. Everything is decorated with skeletons, including the food, of which Pan de Muertos is a favorite.

Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead)

1 yeast cake
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup lukewarm water
6 eggs
5 cups flour
1/3 cup orange blossom water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup anisette

Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water and let it stand in a warm place. Sift the flour with the salt. Taking about half the flour, add the yeast, mix well, and allow to rise in a greased bowl in a warm place until double in bulk. Cream the butter with the sugar; add the egg yolks and the orange blossom water. Then add the remaining flour, the milk and anisette. Mix well and knead for a few minutes. Then add the egg whites, one at a time, kneading after each addition. Finally add the fermented dough and beat and knead until thoroughly mixed. Allow it to rise in a greased bowl in a warm place until double in bulk. Knead once more and divide into two portions. Remove a bit of the dough from each portion, enough to form two "bones." Shape the dough into round loaves and moisten the tops with water. Place the "bones" in the shape of a cross on each loaf and bake at 375 degrees F for about fifty minutes or until done. The loaves are usually covered with a light sugar glaze when baked.


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