The grand dame of fruit symbolism has got to go to the apple. Featured in Christian, Norse, Roman, even Sumerian mythology, this innocuous fruit has incited so much emotion, from temptation and lust to opposing fertility, health and knowledge. However, the apple is probably now best known in popular culture to be expensive, thanks to Steve Jobs.
Image: Kirill Ryzhov/123RF.com
In medieval times, strawberries were a symbol of righteousness, goodness and virtue. St. Francis de Sales noted the berry’s pure appearance and remarked: “In tilling our gardens, we cannot but admire the fresh innocence and purity of the strawberry, because although it creeps along the ground, and is continually crushed by serpents, lizards and other venomous reptiles, yet it does not imbibe the slightest impression of poison or the smallest malignant quality, a true sign that it has no affinity with poison.”
Sour lemons are associated with cleanliness and health. And no wonder, since lemons are used commonly in cleansing agents and have a long history as a health aid: lemon juice was used as a cure scurvy aboard ships in the late 1700s and during the Baroque era, were used in funerals. They were put into the hands of the deceased, while mourners would cast the fruit into open graves. Pall bearers and clergymen would also carry them around. Why? The medicinal qualities of lemon were believed to help prevent infection, and the sharp scent helped combat the smell of decay.
Image: Inacio Pires/123RF.com
Don’t get offended the next time someone calls you pear-shaped — the pear is a symbol of sensuality. It was a fruit sacred to goddesses in ancient Greece and, in art pieces, was always depicted with curves and ripeness.
The peach, with its fuzzy skin and cleft, inspires feelings of innocence and virginity, and maybe also because it’s considered sacred to Hymen – the Roman God of Marriage. In Buddhism, it’s one of the Three Blessed Fruits, and in classical Western art, was frequently depicted with the Virgin Mary and child to uphold its symbol of salvation. That is, until Call Me By Your Name came along and ruined centuries of PR.
Image: Anna Nahabed/123RF.com
Grapes are said to inspire abundance and wealth. Not only is the fruit the main ingredient of wine (something only the rich could afford in ancient times) but it’s also often depicted in sculptures and other types decor. Plus, grapes are always part of an overflowing cornucopia, aka the horn of plenty.
This fruit that is commonly associated with with the summer season actually has a dark history in the United States. In 1869, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper printed a caricature of black slaves enjoying watermelon. The accompanying commentary suggested that the slaves, in character, were like the sloppy fruit, and that their particular enjoyment of watermelon was juvenile. When the fight for rights raged on in the late 1800s, African Americans used the watermelons as a symbol of freedom. The racial trope, however, has unfortunately persisted to this day, so much so that watermelon imagery was used by former president Barack Obama’s detractors.