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Why Apple Bobbing Is Actually a Female Fertility Ritual

Apple-bobbing is more than just a watery Halloween game. Throughout history, it has been the dominion of witches, sex, love, and women—an act of enchantment rather than simple pomaceous fondling.

by Nell Frizzell
30 October 2016, 10:00am

Photo via Flickr user Tony Bradbury

As a spherical girl of nine—with the hair of Meatloaf and the smile of Robbie Coltrane—I was once ushered into my friend Darren's house, dressed as Jafar from Aladdin. Darren's mother was a tiny, soot-toothed Scottish woman with matted hair and boots like Soviet tanks. She led me through a dingy hallway scattered with dog blankets and woollen cobwebs. Damian Marley blasted from the front room and I couldn't see my feet on the carpet. I stumbled into her dimly lit kitchen before being knocked to my knees and my head forced into a bucket of freezing water. I couldn't see, I couldn't breath, icy trickles ran down my neck, and I bit down on something hard. Something seedy.

Apple bobbing isn't, on the face of it, the most child-friendly game. But then, perhaps it was never intended to be. Perhaps, in fact, this watery Halloween ritual was the dominion of witches, sex, love, and women—an act of enchantment rather than simple pomaceous fondling.

READ MORE: Why Pagans Spend Halloween Baking Bread

Many argue that Halloween lies across the older Celtic harvest festival of Samhain like cheese across across a burger. That when the Romans got to Britain, they adopted some of those Celtic traditions into their own pagan festival honouring Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees.

It's as good an explanation for buckets full of wet apples on October 31st as I've ever heard.

You see, here's where things get a little choker-wearing-crystal-waving-girl-who-watched-The-Craft-in-1996-and-can't-let-it-go, but please stick with me. When you slice open an apple, the seeds and fibrous membrane that make up the core are arranged in a pentagram—a five-pointed star. This is the kind of shit that makes celts and witches cream their gussets, as they believe the pentagram is not just magic but also a fertility symbol.

When you slice open an apple, the seeds and fibrous membrane that make up the core are arranged in a pentagram—a five-pointed star. This is the kind of shit that makes celts and witches cream their gussets.

Goddesses, seeds, pentagrams, virgins, harvests, and juice—plop all of that together and lo, centuries of female-centric apple play is born.

According to the 1864 miscellany Chambers Book of Days (a genuinely brilliant breakdown of fact, trivia, and history across a calendar year), apple bobbing has long been associated with predictions of future love, summoning a husband, and celebrating female fertility.

"There is perhaps no night of the year which the popular imagination has stamped with a more peculiar character than the evening of the 31st of October, known as All Hallows' Eve or Halloween," it says. "It is clearly a relic of pagan times, for there is nothing in the church observance of the ensuing day of All Saints to have originated with such extraordinary notions as are connected with this celebrated festival, or such remarkable practices as those by which is it distinguishes."

Some of these "remarkable practices" include a "game" that sounds like nothing so much as a hot round of oil-splattered foreplay. Namely, "hanging up a stick horizontally by a string from the ceiling and putting a candle on the other end, and an apple on the other. The stick being made to twirl rapidly, the merry-makers in succession leap up and snatch at the apple with their teeth, but it very frequently happens that the candle comes round before they are aware, and scorches them in the face, or anoints them with grease."

Scorched in the face and anointed with hot grease? Where do I sign!

Goddesses, seeds, pentagrams, virgins, harvests, and juice—plop all of that together and lo, centuries of female-centric apple play is born.

There is also, according to Chambers, a "celebrated Halloween spell of eating an apple before a looking glass, with the view of discovering the inquirer's future husband, who it is believed will be seen peeping over her shoulder."

It won't have escaped your attention, I'm sure, that the history of women and apples isn't, in the Christian tradition at least, entirely uplifting. As Milton put it, when greedy Eve gorged without restraint, "all was lost." It's unsurprising then, that for centuries, women have used apples to try and harness some magical, vaguely elicit, possibly carnal knowledge—to see into the future, to allow love to slide into their garden like a serpent. And that doing so was interpreted by the men around them as sinister, witch-like, dangerous, and fearful.

READ MORE: This Apple Historian Wants You to Meditate on Your Fruit

But surely we're past the point of finding female sexuality innately terrifying now? We're all old enough and hardy enough not to get spooked by women eating fruit and looking for sex? Surely the centuries of codified misogyny spread across pagan mysticism, layered over celtic lust can finally be un-peeled and appreciated for what it is: the chance to get your face wet.

So come on, pass the hot grease—it's time to party like Granny Smith.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2015.

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