THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN DOGMA
[This article is the a continuation of an earlier article titled: The Fruit that grew of the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge adapted from the wisdom of Allen Stewart. It provides invaluable elucidation on the development of Christian ideas through the Dark Ages in Europe. An enlightened understanding of the past (history) provides one the opportunity for understanding the present and to have a wise discernment of the future itself. The awakened realize that eternity attained through having a perfect understanding of these three facets of time. To be in spiritual sleep means to lack a cognizance of this dimension and that is why many unawakened religious fanatics worship the past alone and hence lack awareness concerning the Present moment. Therefore, to be enlightened means to have a certain peculiar presence that extinguishes all such dualities —that is, to attain to unsurpassed Divinity.]
For years after my Christmas on Mount Athos I puzzled over the hermit’s comment that the naming of the apple as the forbidden fruit was a “lie of the Pope.” I knew, of course, that the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church had been bitter enemies for almost a thousand years. So his remark could have been just a spurious attack on an old enemy. But another possible explanation can be found in the maps of pre-Christian Europe.
The Old World at that time can be roughly divided into two groups. South of the Italian-Austrian border lived the Mediterranean race, a dark-complexioned people who, among other things, were lovers of the grape. Worshipers, really, because the vine provided their preferred intoxicant, wine, which was used as a mystical tipple by everyone from the pagan Dionysian cults to the modern Roman Catholics. North of this imaginary border lived a bunch of barbarians often called the Celts. Since grapes did not thrive in their climate, they revered the apple. Instead of wine, their priests, the Druids, are believed to have used an alcoholic cider in their ceremonies. They even called their paradise Avalon, or Isle of the Apples, presumably with a cider press on the premises.
The Dionysian Mediterraneans merged their beliefs with Christianity to form the Roman Catholic Church. The Celts did the same with their Druid faith to create a brand of Christianity called the Celtic Church. Needless to say, the two groups loathed each other. Celtic monks would neither eat nor pray with Roman priests and considered utensils used by them to be contaminated. The Vatican, in turn, declared Celtic rituals to be heresy and threatened to execute the Celtic missionaries who were beginning to dominate western Europe. By the fourth century, the situation was threatening to split Christian Europe in half. All of a sudden, the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge began sprouting apples!
One Apple down from all of those upon the fatal tree
Enveloped in sweet odor, recommended it
For pleasing sigh, and offered it to Eve.
This description of Eve’s first insidious bite was written by the Roman poet Avitus around A.D. 470, near the height of the Celtic/Roman conflict. It could have been coincidence that the Romans chose that particular moment to use the Celt’s sacred fruit to epitomize all evil knowledge. But there are a number of things peculiar about their selection. First, biblical writings indicated that the forbidden fruit was a fig. Second, the Romans actually invented the word that Avitus used to describe the forbidden fruit. The word is pomum, based on Pomona, the pagan god of harvest. They could have stuck with the word the earlier Greek Bibles had used, malum, which meant both evil and fruit. Ideal, really. Why change it? We’ll never know for sure, but the obvious allegory in naming the Forbidden Fruit after a pagan deity would have been to remind new Christians that the older, non-Christian religions were heresy, i.e., forbidden knowledge.
Christian fanatics were notorious for baptizing pagan deities to cash in on their good karma. This, however, does not appear to have been a typical case of assimilation, because the Romans turned the existing myths and emotions about the apple upside down. The Celts believed that apples contained the essence of a divine wisdom that transported the diner to a kind of paradise. Yet the Christian myth clearly stated that apple-inspired wisdom led straight to Hell. This wasn’t assimilation, it was attack, and apparently so successful that they repeated the stunt one thousand years later in the New World.
The Aztecs of Mexico believed humanity had once lived in a paradisiacal garden where people ate flowers. The xochitlicacan flowers in the original Aztec myths were thought to impart divine wisdom in the most positive sense, just as Celtic mythology had characterized the apple. When Spanish missionaries arrived in the 1500s, however, they began suppressing Aztec beliefs and teaching a new version of the fall of man that replaced Eden’s apple with a flower. According to accounts from the time, the Indians said it was the destruction of these sacred flowers and plants, often used to make ritual beverages, that broke the heart of their culture.
Medieval Christians took their symbols much too seriously to have done all this while unaware of the repercussions. Particularly someone like Avitus. His poem, “The Fall of Man,” was among the first dramatizations of the Bible aimed at the general population and was so popular it earned him the nickname of the “Christian Virgil.” Since Avitus lived in the Celtic north, he would have realized with what fruit the word pomum would be identified. In fact, the Christians were so preoccupied with the hold the Celtic apple had on the popular imagination they created a bizarre series of myths that described the apple’s power actually draining into the body of Christ. In these stories, probably created around the eighth century, Christ is crucified on an apple tree. Then a “wild apple,” representing the Celtic faiths, is nailed into the same tree and its juices are allowed to seep into the Messiah. The end of the tale describes Christ growing out of the apple tree’s foliage like a nature spirit. (This kind of propaganda was not that uncommon, and, in fact, some Islamic scholars did the same thing about five hundred years later when they identified the Catholic grape as the Fruit of Forbidden Knowledge.)
The Christian defamation of the apple did not end its consumption, but it did create a valuable tool to teach new converts in northern and western Europe of the dangers of heretic thought. Every peasant munching a McIntosh from then on received a visceral reminder of how the fruit worshiped by his grandfather had damned him to earthly purgatory. Its bittersweet flavor was a lesson in how sweet and tempting the teachings of non-Catholic churches might, at first, appear. It also changed the popular perception of the apple. The Celts had associated apples with the glorious wisdom from the sun (the Celtic word for apple, abal, is believed to derive from the name of the sun god Apollo). By the time the Christians were done, scholars had assigned it to “the jurisdiction of Venus” and lust. It became a low-class love charm sometimes associated with venereal disease.
The apple’s most telling transformation can be seen in the story of King Arthur and Merlin, a myth cycle that is in many ways the aborted New Testament of Celtic Christianity. In the original version, Merlin’s supernatural powers were consistently associated with the abal. He prophesied while standing beneath a tree dripping with crimson fruit, and his most famous writing, The Apple Tree, is an ode to the apple’s crucial role in resurrecting the Druid faith after its destruction by the Romans.
“The sweet apple tree loaded with the sweetest fruit,” goes an early version of the poem, “growing in the lonely wilds of the woods of Cleyddon! All seek thee but in vain until Cadwaladr comes to oppose the Saxons. Then shall the Britons be again victorious, led by their graceful and majestic chief [Arthur]; then shall be restored to everyone his own; then shall the founder of the trump of gladness proclaim the son of peace, the serene days of happiness.” The apple orchard in Merlin’s poem refers to Avalon, Isle of the Apples, where King Arthur is said to lie sleeping until his countrymen’s hour of greatest need. The poem is thought to have been penned in the fifth century, around the time that the real King Arthur led a rebellion against the Romans and Avitus wrote his version of the tale of Eden.
But when the official Christian version of the Arthur myth was put on paper seven hundred years later, the apple’s role was again reversed. In this version, written in the twelfth century by the devout Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Druid priest/wizard Merlin is said to have been “driven mad and foaming at the mouth” by eating apples, which are described as being full of “the poisonous delights of women.” Later versions tell of his being dragged into hell where his true father, Satan, awaited. The Vatican eventually banned the use of apple cider from its religious ceremonies.
In the end, however, it was the apple that had the last laugh. The Celts revered all trees—not just apples—and their priests used groves of oak and ash as places of meditation. It is these sacred groves that are the source of the trees we drag into our living rooms every Christmas, loving the forest smell that spreads through our homes, and admiring the globes that hang upon their branches: sacred abals every one of them, stylized, commercialized, but as red and green as any Pippin or McIntosh, our homage to an ancient vision of paradise.