The Ancient Greeks often anthropomorphized the natural world around them, assigning gods, goddesses, demigods and divine spirits to explain the processes witnessed before them. The sacred trees were thought to be inhabited by dryads; one form, the Epimeliad, are a subset of the dryads, specifically thought to guard fruit trees. The most noted of these were the Hesperides, nymphs especially tasked with guarding the sacred golden apple trees, given to Hera to celebrate her marriage to Zeus and thought to bestow the power of immortality. The apples weren’t the only sacred objects kept safe in the garden; Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca has Perseus visiting the garden on his way to slay the Gorgon. From the Hesperides he borrowed Hermes’ winged sandals, the Kibisis (satchel or bag) in which he could put the gorgons head, and Hades’ Helmet of Darkness which would render him invisible.
The sacred apple grove was thought to be located at the edge of the ocean, out towards where the world ended and the entrances to the underworld could be found. The glow in the evening after the sun had sunk below the horizon was thought to be the golden apples shinning in the distance. The apples were highly coveted by the goddesses and mortals alike, and it was the pursuit of these apples that feature in many of the mythological stories. One of these apples, known as the Apple of Discord, was the catalyst for the Trojan war. Others were given to Hippomenes to aid his pursuit of Atalanta, the shiny orbs used as a distraction while racing allowed him to best her and claim her as his wife.
The Hesperides were not the only guardians of the golden apples; the serpent-dragon Ladon coiled himself around the trees protecting the precious fruit. A paradisaical garden with sacred apples and a snake… sound familiar?
In some versions of the myth poor Landon met an unfortunate end. The task of stealing the apples was thought so impossible that it was the 11th task given to Hercules in his series of trials given to him by Eurystheus. In the Argonautica Landon was:
Stricken by Heracles, he lay fallen by the trunk of the apple-tree; only the tip of his tail was still writhing; but from his head down his dark spine he lay lifeless; and where the arrows had left in his blood the bitter gall of the Lernaean hydra, flies withered and died over the festering wounds.
Other versions such as Psuedo-Apollodorus claimed that Atlas helped Heracles gain the apples – asking his daughters – the Hesperides – for the apples in exchange for a brief respite while Heracles shouldered his earthly burden. Either way, the apples were eventually restored to the garden of the Hesperides by way of Athena, Eurystheus knowing it would be foolish to keep possession of that which was owned by the gods.
Many believe that the golden apples were actually oranges; a theory supported by the fact that the Roman word for oranges, pomum aurantium, can be translated as ‘golden apples’ (Trees in Paradise by Jared Farmer, p 227). This was later amplified when the Greek botanical name chosen for citrus was Hesperidoeidē.
Whatever they were, the golden apples were special enough that even the gods would bicker over them; one can only imagine what would happen if they fell into human hands…