The apple, for all of its wholesome goodness, has a bit of a dark past.
The forbidden fruit at the root of humanity's falling out with God is often illustrated as an apple. Cut an apple in half, and you will find a five-pointed star, or pentagram, often associated with Satanism and the occult. More recently, apples have been used in metal videos to convey images of creepy paganism.
Today, most trick-or-treaters who get apples are unaware of their dark past and discard them immediately, presumably because of their lower sugar content than the rest of their loot. Instead, we mostly enjoy them dunked in caramel or bobbed from huge vats of water by children with tied-up hands, in the popular Halloween ritual known as apple-bobbing.
And while apple-bobbing is widely considered to be a fusion of Roman and Celtic pagan traditions, there is evidence that the custom goes back way further, and some believe that it was part of an elaborate human sacrifice ritual.
Proponents of this theory claim that Samhain, which also takes place on October 31, was prime time for offering humans to the gods. Supposedly, the Druids of the British Isles would force villagers to bob apples from huge cauldrons of scalding-hot liquid—and get their faces scalded—or be decapitated and thrown into a burning wicker man if they refused; an offer that sounds way more hardcore than trick-or-treating.
That makes for a great Halloween story, but it doesn't mean it's true. We spoke to Tony Locke, a writer and current-day Druid, to unpack the murky past of apple-bobbing and to better understand the occult significance of the apple.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Tony. I only know the Druids because they were mentioned by Spinal Tap in the song "Stonehenge." Who, in fact, were the Druids? Tony Locke: The Druids were a class of people within Celtic society that fulfilled many roles—that of religious advisor, astronomer, healer, poet, or historian. They were held in high esteem and considered in many ways to be just below the Chieftain or King in the social order. They settled disputes, acted as judges in the event of disputes, sometimes intervened between warring tribes, and in some cases, stopped battles being fought.
How does one become a Druid today? I underwent a period of training with the order that I joined, as a prerequisite of acceptance. This training included areas such as plant lore, herbalism, history of the gods and goddesses, rites and rituals, and the like. I undertook written and practical exams and was eventually accepted into the order. But to be a Druid is to follow a path, sometimes without even realising you walk upon that path, that brings you to a point that just seems to be right for you.
The practice of cutting open an apple to reveal that most potent symbol within— that of the pentagram—is still carried on today, particularly at Samhain and Halloween.
What is the occult significance of the apple? The apple has been held as magical throughout history, although it was never identified as an individual fruit until roughly the 17th century. It has been suggested that all fruit from a foreign source was referred to as an "apple," even the tomato was commonly known as the "love apple." The apple was never identified as the fruit that grew on the tree of knowledge in Christian mythology. The apple and its place in mythology can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, where it was considered to be a potent symbol of the goddess Pomona and was depicted as being favoured by Venus. Hence, it has become known as a love fruit.
Are apples used for spells? It is used in many spells and rituals and has been mentioned in stories throughout history; from the Garden of Eden to Snow White. The apple was considered sacred by many societies and has been used in divination spells and is still used today by many pagan groups. The practice of cutting open an apple to reveal that most potent symbol within— that of the pentagram—is still carried on today, particularly at Samhain and Halloween.
Samhain is a time when the doorway to the "other world" is open and we can commune with the dead—a time of divination.
What is Samhain and how is it different from Halloween? Samhain is the Celtic festival which marks the end of summer. It means quite literally "The End of Summer" in the Celtic calendar and is an Irish festival that is thousands of years old. Halloween is Christian and was incorporated into the Christian calendar All Saints, or All Hallows, on November 1 in the ninth century.
What role does food play in Samhain? Samhain is the time when we honour our ancestors. Food was prepared for the living and the dead. Of course the food left out for the returning ancestors was not eaten, so it was ritually shared with the less well-off who had nothing.
It is a time when the doorway to the "other world" is open and we can commune with the dead—a time of divination. It was also the time when livestock was brought down from the hills to overwinter and the animals thought less likely to survive were slaughtered for food during the winter, a practice still carried on today in some areas.
Most Druids will now see Samhain as the beginning of the Celtic New Year, and as we are Irish, we are always open to double celebrations. So we get two bites of the apple: Samhain and New Year's Day.
Why is apple-bobbing part of the Samhain tradition? Bobbing for apples is not really a part of the Samhain tradition itself, but was introduced into it with the arrival of the Romans into Britain. The Romans wished to incorporate their beliefs into the areas they invaded, so they blended their customs and traditions with those of the Celts.
Since the pentagram was already revered by the Celts, it was a simple progression to introduce the festival of Pomona—who was the goddess of orchards—with the festival of Samhain—a harvest festival. Originally bobbing for apples was used in the art of divination to predict matters of the heart and prospected marriages, but nowadays, bobbing for apples has become a well-known and enjoyable party game for both young and old alike.
That sounds a lot like how it is used today. Is it true that apple-bobbing was a Druid rite where participants were either scalded or beheaded for human sacrifice? I have never heard this asked before. The simple answer is "No." I can't imagine any "game" that involved either scalding or beheading the participants becoming so popular that it continued to play a part in any society. I can only suggest that this is an urban myth that may have its roots in the old Norse tradition of placing an apple on one end of a stick or spear and a burning candle on the other end.
The stick or spear would then be suspended from the ceiling and spun, the participant in the 'game' had to bite the apple whilst avoiding getting burned or scalded by hot wax from the candle or injured by the spear.
To make the "game" more interesting sometimes the player would be blindfolded. Could this be the origin behind your question? I'll leave you to decide.
Thanks a lot, Tony. That was super interesting. Take care and enjoy the festivities, whatever path you may follow.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style.