Sunday, March 19, 2006


Golden Apples

Henry David Thoreau, Wild Apples:
Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits. Let the most beautiful or the swiftest have it. That should be the "going" price of apples.
Thoreau seems to be referring to stories from classical mythology here. The first allusion ("the most beautiful") is a straightforward reference to the Judgment of Paris. Lucian, Dialogues of the Sea-Gods 5 (tr. H.W. and F.G. Fowler), tells the beginning of the tale:
PANOPE. Galene, did you see what Eris [Strife] did yesterday at the Thessalian banquet, because she had not had an invitation?

GALENE. No, I was not with you; Posidon had told me to keep the sea quiet for the occasion. What did Eris do, then, if she was not there?

PANOPE. Thetis and Peleus had just gone off to the bridal chamber, conducted by Amphitrite and Posidon, when Eris came in unnoticed -- which was easy enough; some were drinking, some dancing, or attending to Apollo's lyre or the Muses' songs -- Well, she threw down a lovely apple, solid gold, my dear; and there was written on it, FOR THE FAIR. It rolled along as if it knew what it was about, till it came in front of Hera, Aphrodite, and Athene. Hermes picked it up and read out the inscription; of course we Nereids kept quiet; what should we do in such company? But they all made for it, each insisting that it was hers; and if Zeus had not parted them, there would have been a battle. He would not decide the matter himself, though they asked him to. 'Go, all of you, to Ida,' he said, 'to the son of Priam [Paris]; he is a man of taste, quite capable of picking out the beauty; he will be no bad judge.'
Isocrates 10.41-42 (tr. George Norlin) picks up the thread of the story:
For not much later when strife arose among the goddesses for the prize of beauty, and Alexander [Paris], son of Priam, was appointed judge and when Hera offered him sovereignty over all Asia, Athena victory in war, and Aphrodite Helen as his wife, finding himself unable to make a distinction regarding the charms of their persons, but overwhelmed by the sight of the goddesses, Alexander, compelled to make a choice of their proffered gifts, chose living with Helen before all else.
The Judgment of Paris, of course, started the Trojan War, when Helen's husband Menelaus wanted her back.

Thoreau's second allusion is more problematical. At first glance, one might think he's referring to the story of Atalanta. See Apollodorus 3.9.2 (tr. J.G. Frazer):
Grown to womanhood, Atalanta kept herself a virgin, and hunting in the wilderness she remained always under arms. The centaurs Rhoecus and Hylaeus tried to force her, but were shot down and killed by her. She went moreover with the chiefs to hunt the Calydonian boar, and at the games held in honor of Pelias she wrestled with Peleus and won. Afterwards she discovered her parents, but when her father would have persuaded her to wed, she went away to a place that might serve as a racecourse, and, having planted a stake three cubits high in the middle of it, she caused her wooers to race before her from there, and ran herself in arms; and if the wooer was caught up, his due was death on the spot, and if he was not caught up, his due was marriage. When many had already perished, Melanion came to run for love of her, bringing golden apples from Aphrodite, and being pursued he threw them down, and she, picking up the dropped fruit, was beaten in the race. So Melanion married her.
In other words, Atalanta ran a hoplitodromos, a foot race in armor, like the competitors in the Olympic games. If she caught her competitor in the race, she slew him. If she lost the race, she gave her hand in marriage to the winner. Melanion (aka Milanion or Hippomenes) distracted Atalanta by throwing golden apples and so won the race.

Was Thoreau referring to the story of Atalanta? In this story, the apples are clearly not the prize for "the swiftest." I don't know of any other classical myth that fits, though.

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