“Manannan, king of the Land of Promise, gives Cormac a magical, sleep-inducing silver branch with three golden apples and, before long, Cormac travels to the otherworld where he discovers a marvellous fountain containing salmon, hazelnuts, and the waters of knowledge.” – Erynn Rowan Laurie and Timothy White (Speckled Snake, Brother of Birch; Amanita Muscaria Motifs in Celtic Legend)
The Apple tree, or Quert, is the tenth letter of the Ogham in its tree form.
According to Robert Ellison’s Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, the Apple represents both the Otherworld and choice. In spells, Ellison elaborates, the Apple can be used for love, fertility, divination and faerie contact.
The Apple is often associated with “madness” as well[i]. Caitlin Mathews expresses this connection in a quatrain found within Celtic Wisdom Sticks. Some of the divination interpretations found within her system also seem to relate the Apple to harmony.
John Mathews studies some of the word-Oghams within his work the Celtic Shaman. The statement “shelter of the hind” is here given the meaning of “caring” as a solution to the word-Ogham riddle.
The Apple is one of the only symbols found within the Tree-Ogham that carries a universally acknowledged magic. All over the world humans have associated the Apple with properties and attributions that went beyond those of most other plants.
The Christian religion almost always portrays the fruit of knowledge, and sin, as an Apple. In other cultures the Apple is associated with love, beauty, the gods, and of the Otherworld itself[ii].
Celtic myth and legend also complies. The Apple is often associated with otherworldly love, travel to the Otherworld, music, birds, wealth, and of divinity itself[iii].
Quert, the Apple, is also representative of peace and harmony.
The Apple is almost always a symbol of the Otherworld in Celtic mythology.
In fact the Apple seems to act as a doorway to the other side. Sometimes it is the fruit of the tree itself, at other times the key appears to be a single branch, often silver, from the Apple tree.
The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz contains many such examples:
“To enter the Otherworld before the appointed hour marked by death, a passport was often necessary, and this was usually a silver branch of the sacred apple-tree bearing blossoms, or fruit, which the queen of the Land of the Ever-Living and Ever-Young gives to those mortals whom she wishes for as companions; though sometimes, as we shall see, it was a single apple without its branch.”
“For us there are no episodes more important, than those in the ancient epics concerning these apple-tree talismans, because in them we find a certain key which unlocks the secret of that world from which such talismans are brought, and proves it to be the same sort of a place as the Otherworld of the Greeks and Romans.”
The Otherworld is a paradise-place of peace and happiness. It can be described as a place where the men are bold and the women beautiful; where the food is plenty and the villains scarce. The Otherworld is found described within Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory as such:
“To be without grief, without sorrow, without death, without any sickness, without weakness; that is the sign of Emhain; it is not common wonder that is.”
In most of the stories this paradise is ruled over by, or connected to, Manannan Mac Lir. Despite being a “god of the sea[iv],” Manannan can more easily be compared to father-type gods such as Odin or Zuess.
(Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer. 1507)
The paradise of the Celts was more likely, in their minds, to be on the horizon of the sea than high up in the air[v]. There are many examples of this found within the lore. The following excerpt, for example, is taken from Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston:
“When the white horse with its riders reached the sea it ran lightly over the waves, and soon the green woods and headlands of Erin faded out of sight. And now the sun shone fiercely down, and the riders passed into a golden haze in which Oisln lost all knowledge of where he was or if sea or dry land were beneath his horse’s hoofs… they saw a young maid ride by on a brown steed, bearing a golden apple in her hand.”
These two examples, on the other hand, are taken from the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries:
“The branch sprang from Bran’s hand into the hand of the woman, nor was there strength in Bran’s hand to hold the branch. The next day, with the fairy spell upon him, Bran begins the voyage towards the setting sun. On the ocean he meets Manannan riding in his magic chariot over the sea-waves; and the king tells Bran that he is returning to Ireland after long ages.”
“Finally, at a feast, the warrior-messenger sings Cormac to sleep; and when Cormac awakes he sees beside him his wife and children, who had preceded him thither to the Land of Promise. The warrior-messenger who took them all is none other than the great god Manannan Mac Lir of the Tuatha De Danann.”
The Apple tree was clearly cherished by the Celtic ancestors. Whether it was the fruit that was eaten, or the branch that was shaken to make music, the Apple clearly had universally recognized powers within the Celtic tales. What exactly were those powers however?
One could say, perhaps, that we know that the wand belonging to Manannan Mac Lir was made from the Apple tree[vi]. We also know the Apple in these stories, with or without Manannan, had the ability to bring the traveller to Emhain or the land of the departed.
This land of the dead, in a symbolic sense, mirrors the death of the ego found in Zen Buddhism. It is this same ‘death of the self’ that many spiritual practitioners would call enlightenment.
Maybe then the word-Ogham by Morann Mac Main found in the Ogham Tract might begin to make a little more sense? This is what he said while describing the Apple tree[vii]:
“Shelter of a hind, i.e., a fold: to wit, lunatic, that is death sense, it is then his sense comes to him when he goes to his death.”
Perhaps this why the Apple was considered sacred in law and lore alongside certain other trees? Perhaps the Apple represented, or was an aid in achieving, enlightenment? This could only be possible if one could say that the Celtic form of enlightenment was to accept death, release sorrow, and experience peace. Then this connection seems more than feasible.
Certainly the Apple imagery would have found its way into ritual and folklore if this was the case.
There is no way to know with certainty. As always, we can only speculate. This is not an exercise in futility, however. Reflecting on anything often helps us understanding it better.
The following is taken from Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde:
“It is said by time-wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together and drunk fasting, will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”
There is also some interesting Apple magic found within Charles Godfrey Leland’s 1891 study Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling. According to the text, one way to determine love is to slice an Apple in half with a sharp knife. If no seeds are cut then the wielder of the knife shall have their “heart’s desire” fulfilled. In one version a girl then eats half of the Apple before midnight and half of it after midnight. She will then dream of her future husband.
“Although few contemporary herbalists consider the apple to be an herb, it has a venerable tradition as a healing agent. So much of what the ancient herbalists believed about the therapeutic powers of this delectable fruit has been scientifically supported that its time to let the apple resume its respected place on the herbal roster.” – Michael Castleman (the New Healin
[i] This “madness” is often prophetic or Otherworldly in itself.
[ii] J.C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols.
[iii] Such as the relationship found between the Apple and Manannan the sea god.
[iv] Mac Lir means “son of the sea.”
[v] There are many Celtic stories, such as those of the Tuatha De Danaan, where the Otherworld may just as likely be underground, beneath the surface of the Earth. These sites, though not always, are often water entryways as well. These lands are usually not as peaceful.
[vi] What might it mean that the branch is usually described as silver or almost white?
* All images found within this post are from wikipedia commons.