Allen Stewart’s Elucidation on Western Enlightenment
In search for the miraculous Way back to the Garden of Eden
It was still dark out when we left the monastery. Dawn was breaking a midnight blue etched with icy rain. Ocean waves crashed against the cliffs below. To the left and farther up the trail loomed the solitary Mount Athos. “Some Christmas,” I grumbled when George and I finally found a sheltering cave. I handed him a soggy cracker. “It is the twenty-fifth, right?” “Yes,” he said. George was a Greek fellow I’d met in a refuge run by an exceptionally grumpy monk. “But don’t wish any of the monks here a good Christmas! The people of Mount Athos believe Christmas doesn’t come until January, and they don’t like to be reminded that the rest of the world is celebrating it on the wrong day.”
Mount Athos is a six-thousand-foot-tall mountain that stands at the tip of a peninsula near the Greek-Turkish border. Surrounded on three sides by the Aegean Sea and on the fourth by roadless forests, it’s controlled and run by the Greek Orthodox Church, which has kept out almost all foreign and modern influences since the eleventh century. Military patrols search all visitors. Non-Greek males are allowed in on a strictly limited basis, and there have been no females, human or animal, allowed on the mountain for a thousand years. The only inhabitants are hundreds of robed monks who live in cliff-hugging monasteries exactly as their predecessors did twelve hundred years ago. There’s no electricity, no roads, no cars. Foods not specifically mentioned in Christian writings are avoided. Even time is different on Mount Athos because the monks follow the ancient Julian calendar, which, among other things, places the birth of Christ in mid-January instead of on December 25. Aside from farming, which is done by hand, the main activities are chanting, prayer, and creating illuminated manuscripts.
It’s a perfectly preserved slice of medieval Europe, the ideal place to find out how the apple came to grow in the Garden of Eden. The Old Testament (in the Christian Bible scripture) does not reveal the exact identity of the Fruit of Forbidden Knowledge, and how the apple came to be identified with the evil fruit remains a mystery. George and I were trying to reach a monastery on the other side of the mountain where I’d been told there was a monk with opinions on the subject.
After our breakfast, George and I continued up and over the sea cliff, then headed toward the mountain. The rain turned to snow, and soon we found ourselves hiking through a landscape covered in silver ermine. Bunches of crimson holly berries encased in ice glittered on the leafless trees. It was like walking into a Noël fairy tale, so perfect and clean and clear, Christmas before all the lies. But as morning progressed, the snowfall turned into a blizzard. The trail disappeared, then the trees, then the mountain. All I could see were whirling flakes of snow, and even they dissolved into a surreal void as my glasses became encased in inch-thick ice. The snow was up to our knees. Then my head bumped into something.
It was George. He was clawing at his face and shouting. It took awhile for me to realize he was saying that his eyes had frozen shut. I defrosted them by cupping my hands over his sockets, but it was clear that the mountain did not want any visitors that day, and so we turned around and started back the way we had come. We were, of course, hopelessly lost, and it was only by chance that after some more wandering we discovered a rundown shack with a plume of smoke rising from its chimney. In a few minutes we were warming ourselves by a little coal stove and being clucked over by two grandpa monks with their beards tucked into their belts. They were hermits—the so-called “crazy of God”—who refuse the comfort of monastic life and live alone in the crudest of conditions. These two had “married” when they had grown too old to survive alone. I’ve never met a cuter couple. The quiet one prepared us a meal of raw onions, bread, and a homemade sherry while George explained our quest.
The other monk pulled out a tiny red apple. All of nature, he said in Greek (George translating), reflects the intent of the Creator: the shape of the clouds, the sound of the leaves, the flavors of the fruit on the trees. The monk thrust a knife into the apple. He pointed to the green opalescent drops dotting the tarnished steel. Come, he said, please taste. George and I dabbed our fingers into the liquor and placed it on our tongues. The first flavor was a scintillating, honey-like sweetness, followed by a tongue-curling tartness. Sweet flavors are lures meant to distract the faithful from the word of God, said George. That’s why every meal in Mount Athos is accompanied by a reading from the Bible (and prayer), to keep the brothers from dwelling on the pleasures of the food before them, and treats like chocolate are avoided.
So the apple’s initial sweetness was a sign of seductive intent. The tart aftertaste indicated diabolic influence, because bitter flavors indicate poison, and all poisons were thought by medieval scholars to be the work of the Devil. Some view the apple’s bittersweet savor as a literal allegory of the temptation of Eve; the sweet first bite represents the Serpent’s “honeyed tongue” while the astringent aftertaste foreshadows humanity’s ejection from paradise.
The monk sliced two thin wedges from the apple and handed them to George and myself. See how the skin is red like a woman’s lips? he said. And the flesh, how white it is, like teeth and skin. He told us to take a bite. Crisp and delicious. This, too, was considered an evil sign, because most fruits soften as they grow ripe. The apple, however, actually grows harder, an “unnatural” behavior that alchemists like Vincent de Beauvais claimed was “a sign of great deviltry . . . and of an immoral, cruel and misleading nature.”
Our friend sliced the apple in half, vertically, and pointed to the seeds. You see? he said: There, within the heart of the fruit, is the sign of Eve. There was no doubt that from this angle the apple’s core looked vaguely like female genitalia. Hardly compelling, I thought. But the monk was not finished. He pulled out another apple and cut it in half, this time horizontally. Do you see the star? he asked. Sliced this way, the seeds that had looked like a vagina now outlined a five-pointed star, the pentagram, the ultimate symbol of Satan. The design was no larger than a dime but unmistakable. Even more alarming, at least to a religious fanatic, was how the seed design was highlighted by minute cavities of browned, charred fruit surrounding each pip. This is simply the result of iron-containing chemicals reacting with the air, but it really did look as if someone had magically burned the sign of Lucifer into the apple’s heart.
“In the fruit trees are hidden certain of God’s secrets,” wrote the famous medieval mystic St. Hildegard von Bingen, “which only the blessed among men can perceive.” Hildegard was describing the scientific philosophy of the Dark Ages, a discipline derived from the Platonic belief that all earthly objects are shadows cast by the true beings in the World of Ideas. Plato had been speaking in abstractions when he laid out this scenario, but medieval Christians had assumed his World of Ideas referred to their Heaven. They reasoned, therefore, that all earthly objects were symbols sent by God to communicate His intent. The priests’ (original) job was similar to that of a Jungian psychiatrist: they interpreted God’s hidden “messages” and explained them to the unenlightened masses. The apple’s seductive colors, its two-faced flavor, its suggestively feminine core, and, above all, the hidden pentagram, were interpreted as signs that it was the fruit that had grown on the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge.
The hermit laughed after he had explained. But the Bible never identifies the evil fruit, he said; it was the Roman Catholics who put the apple there. The Greek Church sees the forbidden fruit only as a symbol of pride and carnal desire. He pointed; these are only apples, my friend, which by God’s will are now divided into four pieces, one for each of us. He handed the wedges around with a smile.