The Problem of Apples, Pt. III: Words, Icons, and Apples

Author’s Note: This is the third part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

In the last entry we discussed the concept of approaching the deity in terms of their functional status within society, as well as detailing some of the pitfalls in a methodology that seeks to look at the religious tradition outside of the social and cultural structure in which it was found.  In this we will endeavor to delve into the background of either deity and discuss how Ēastre and Iðunn compare in deeper terms.

Linguistically and etymologically, the words which came to describe both goddesses are unrelated, and do not come from words of similar root meanings.  Though the reconstruction of linguistic lineages is based on comparative analysis they are still only theoretical, they nevertheless provide useful clues for the understanding of divinity and divine relations.  

The etymological lineage for Iðunn is particularly lacking, and only a handful of name-meanings have been suggested by various scholars [10].  Jacob Grimm associated her name with the Old Saxon idisi, of which the Old Norse dís is a North Germanic cognate [11].  Old Norse dís, meaning “goddess”, is thought to be derived from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *dīsiz, meaning “goddess”, itself from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European *dʰēs-, taken to mean “holy one, hallow, deity” [12].  This association is, however, unsubstantiated and is at best a hypothetical and as-of-yet unproved theory.

Conversely, the etymology of Ēastre/Eostre has been treated at length variously by scholars in attempt to prove her origination one way or another, whether pan-Germanic, regional, or a simple fabrication of Bede.  Ēastre “is thought to have evolved from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *austrǭ, for “dawn”, which is variously argued to be of uncertain lineage from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (“dawn”) or *h₂wes- (“to dawn”) [13].  Any permutation of linguistic ancestry denotes references to the dawn, the act of dawning, a reddish or bright coloration, etc.  An interesting point of consideration is the related term *austraz (“east, dawn”) which also derives itself from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (“east”), which may intimate less of a dawn-based facet to Ēastre and more of a directionally oriented one, as the assumption that Ēastre is potentially related to a linguistic shift from the Old English word “ēast” [14].

Comparative etymological study with Ēastre is critical, for Jacob Grimm utilized the naming convention for his popularization of an Old High German Ostarâ in his etymological deconstruction of the then still-used ôstarmânoth.  This Ostarâ is familiar to many contemporary Heathens and Pagans as the Goddess most worshiped on the Spring Equinox.  His ultimate etymological recreation was *austrǭ, already mentioned [15].

Supporters of the etymological connections between Ēastre and a German continental  contemporary point to a remarkable discovery of a series of 150 votive objects discovered in the vicinity of modern day Bonn, Germany.  These votives date from the 2nd to 3rd centuries, and have all been dedicated to a series of regional deities known as the Matronae Austriahenae [16].  Their use in the argument for the support of a pan-Germanic goddess necessitates a brief discussion here.

Initial printings of some of the inscriptions occurred in 1960, but a secondary printing occurred in 1962 containing the following:





S • E • S • L • M

“To the Mothers Austriahenae, M. Antonius Sentius, for him and his, gladly and deservedly.”[17]

The similarities between “Austria” in the Austriahenae with Grimm’s austrǭ (and thus with Ēastre) should be readily seen.  The apparent etymological connection between the Matronae Austriahenae and Ēastre appears to satisfy most in the exploration of any continental antecedents to this putative goddess.  Here we have to return again to the etymology of Ēastre as it is supposedly associated with *austrǭ which is, as a term in Shaw’s estimation, consisting of the root to be “east”.  As stated above, these terms are clearly related, but by no means are they cognates nor are they identical or possess any features which would indicate a commonality of association [18].

Given the uncertain suffix of -henae, which is only assumed to correlate with the Latin suffix of -ium and thus denoting a place, it would perhaps not be unwise to assume that the Matronae Austriahenae to be the ‘Mothers of the East’, or “the eastern most people”, perhaps those surrounding the legionary fortress of Bonna.  This is circumstantially supported by Shaw’s interpretation of the existence of the Austriates as a social or tribal group [19].  

In light of this, the assumed correlation of Ēastre with *austrǭ is apparently unfounded.  Shaw further, following Sermon and McKitterick, supports the influence of a more unconventional method of transmission of Ēastre/Ēostre-influenced names into the Old High German which gave rise to Grimm’s Ostarâ and ostarâmânoth.  It is not at all implausible that conversion activity in the region, undertaken by Anglo-Saxon missionaries who repeatedly requested the treatises of Bede and his contemporaries from their Northumbrian colleagues for a lengthy period of time, helped disseminate the material and was not indicative of a pan-Germanic goddess figure [20].  This is an opinion that the author holds.

With the differences in etymological lineage established, some word should be said about presumed and inherent iconographies between both of these deities.  Iconography and image remnants are another significant batch of evidence in the understanding of the divine.  Again, these are particularly under-attested for the lesser known Anglo-Saxon deities and only assumed through their roles in society and estimated cults; the epigraphic corpus is unfortunately scant.  There are no known native depictions of Ēastre in an Anglo-Saxon context, and the images alluded to her cult in particular are based off of comparative study with the festivals of the period of the year of Ēostremonath from Germanic and Germanic-adjacent peoples [21].

Comparatively, there is merit to the idea in order to develop a more thorough understanding of the cult of a deity, as this forms the basis of reconstructionist methodology.  It is often utilized in polytheistic practices to fill in the holes that may be had through the shoddy material record.

Ēastre is linked with Iðunn through the assumption of iconographic similarity with other Northern European goddesses, notably the connection to the Matronae Austriahenae.  As a whole, the Matronae tend to consist of similar iconography, with fruit often being associated with deities particularly concerned with fertility, wealth, and plenty, as well as who they bless with their good fortune.  As Ēastre has been commonly and paradoxically characterized as a spring or fertility goddess, the assumption is that fruit is a valid representative symbol for her.  

At best, this is tenuous, as there are a number of concerns regarding the proliferation of apples and their role in early Germanic society from which the Old English came.

Iðunn is inextricably associated with a specific iconography which has become intrinsically representative of her mythology: that of the apple, and her role in the maintenance of the divine youth of the gods.  This iconography is itself thought to be a representative remnant of a fundamental Proto-Indo-European mythological construct, as the origination of it in the North Germanic mythos is uncertain.  Whatever the origin of this, Iðunn herself is an enigmatic figure of an uncertain linguistic etymology.  H.R. Ellis-Davidson claims it was possible that her figure was an extra-Germanic origin and later borrowing, identifying both the Celtic West (Ireland) or the classical world as probable transmitters of the myth [22].  The latter classical influence would be in mimicry of the Garden of the Hesperides.  Davidson also claims that fruit had a long association with the gods in traditional Germanic paganism and particularly notes that the apple is representative of this [23], although this line of inquiry appears to be largely unrecoverable.

Iðunn’s account in the Skáldskaparmál mirrors other Indo-European mythologies centered around the iconography of apples, replicating in a certain capacity through Greek and Irish mythology primarily and forming the basis of Davidson’s claims of mythological transmission.  Indo-European myth contains several references to the incidence of apples, as explored in Roger Woodard’s book To Fetch Some Golden Apples.  Variously identified as apples, quinces, or oranges, these iconographic features have become a staple of mythological convention, most common to modern Westerners through the Biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden, although the role of the apple is inherently different.

It is ironic that those who would utilize Dumézil ’s functionalist approach for linguistic commonality would be willing to take a less-literal position to this mythological iconography and assume that representations of apples are not in actuality supposed to represent apples.  If apples are Iðunn’s most recognizable feature – who fundamentally is identified as a fertility and rejuvenatory goddess [24], then some commonality in representation should occur.   The lack of the emphasis, indeed, the lack of an identifiable role of the apple in early Germanic society as a whole, casts some doubt on the pan-Germanic association that Davidson would otherwise claim.

Native apples have grown wild in Britain since the Neolithic period, however these were crab apples consisting of a particularly bitter flavor for much in the way of culinary use.  They were sparsely scattered, as well, as they were of an anti-gregarious tree type which limited their proliferation [25].  The Mediterranean had known more palatable varieties of apple since at least the time of the Greeks, having been introduced to them through trade contacts in the Ancient Near East.  These fruits entered into the epics and mythologies, making their appearance in Classical literature by being featured in Homer’s Odyssey.  Eventually, like much of the Germanic world, the introduction of these apple varieties and their system of cultivation came about through the influence and settlement of the Romans [26].

The Roman withdrawal from Britain saw the abandonment or degradation of much of the classical infrastructure and cultural traditions which had taken hold during the period of the Roman administration.  In particular, this included the tending of apple orchards and, presumably, the knowledge of their propagation as the Germanic tribes which pushed into Britain had no known understanding of this agriculture [27].

This lack of awareness of the use and cultivation of the apple in Anglo-Saxon England is presumed by a distinct lack of the appearance of what would be identified as a modern apple – or products made of that fruit – in the Anglo-Saxon food-rent lists [28].  While the Old English language did contain a word which gives rise to the modern word for “apple” (“æppel”) it was used as a general term for fruit of all types, as was the case with the blackberry (“brembel æppel”).  It was not until the end of the Anglo-Saxon period where accounts can be found of the general cultivation of fruit in what can be identified as orchards (“orceard”), with the apple being reintroduced into Britain by the Normans after the Conquest and, even then, consisting of only one account within the Domesday Book [29].

The apple as either literal or metaphorical theological symbol arises only within a Norse context, and is not generally found within a wider Germanic exegesis.  Religious symbols, broadly, retain two particular purposes: practical and representational interpretations.  This is obviously how they interact within the wider community and the role that they take in what is considered performative acts as compared with how the symbols are thrown back to the religious object or belief in question and are containing representative qualities [30].  Of course, theological symbolism is inherently difficult to interpret as this thinking is highly contextual, easily misinterpreted, and consists of varying qualities of implied and ascribed meaning.  These meaning-contexts are subtle, as are the ways in which these constructs are portrayed.

In the Republic, Plato first asserted that it was mainly through repetition and imitation in which the spiritual parts of the soul is educated – that is, the ways in which one’s religiosity and spiritual paradigm were inculcated.  This is in contrast to the ways in which one’s desires and rationality are likewise informed [31].  These symbols can both be divine hypotheses and representations of the devotion of the worshiper, which are only realized through proper cultural interpretation.  Repetition and imitation would imply a reoccurrence of imagery, which is woefully under represented in Anglo-Saxon art, mythology, and society, as shown.  

What is shown is that on all the levels that have been discussed – the linguistic, symbolic, and iconographic – that there is truly no connection or similarities between the two deities other than in the most superficial of ways.  Even the connection to the Matronae Austriaheae are weak attempts at forcibly fitting the evidence into the hypothesis that Grimm had previously championed.  These features, seemingly innocuous and artifacts of their time and place in history, are absolutely important to the proper understanding of the context of divinity so that one can engage ritually with them.

Endnotes, pt. III

[10] John Lindow, in Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (2001) gives her meaning as ‘Ever Young’, while Andy Orchard in Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend (1997) gives as Iðunna’s meaning ‘Rejuvenator’.  Rudolf Simek in Dictionary of Northern Mythology (2007) gives the meaning of her name to be ‘The Rejuvenating One’.  A clear connection to the mythology of her being the guardian of the Asgardian youth and immortality is apparent.

[11] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Trans. James Stallybrass, Vol. I (London: George Bell and Sons, 1882) p. 402.

[12] Wiktionary. “dís.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Last modified May 25 2017, accessed May 17, 2017.

[13] Wiktionary.  “Easter.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Last modified March 25, 2017, accessed: May 17 2017.

[14] Wiktionary. “Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/austraz”, Wiktionary: The Free Dictionary.  Last modified March 27, 2017.  Accessed May 17, 2017.

[15] Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. I, p. 291.

[16] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 63.  No images of the iconography of the Matronae Austriahenae have been published. It is presumed that they were of a similar iconographic continuum with other Matronae figures found throughout the Continent, of which their association with “fruit” (and thus, apples) is assumed.  This is especially notable in traditions that seek to reconstruct a pre-Germanic Proto-Indo-European religious identity as found with the PIE Religion website at:

[17] Alfred Merlin (ed.), “Item 99”, l’Annee Epigraphique, Presses Universitaires de Frances, Paris, 1963.  Elaboration by author.

[18] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 54.

[19] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 63.

[20] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 54.  This naturally intersects with Shaw’s theory that Bede revived the “character” of Ēastre in the writing of his works.

[21] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Trans. James Stallybrass, Vol. II (London: George Bell and Sons, 1883) p. 380.

[22] H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 165.

[23] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[24] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[25] Contributors, “A Brief History of Apples and Pears in UK”, English Apples & Pears, accessed May 17, 2017.

[26] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[27] Peter C. Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”, Ða Engliscan Gesiðas: The English Companions, March 18, 2011, accessed May 17, 2017,

[28] Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”.

[29] Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”.

[30] Robert C. Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols, (New York City: SUNY Press, 1996), p. 135.

[31] Plato, The Republic.  See books 2 and 3, respectively.


Part IV can be found here.


~ by thelettuceman on June 6, 2017.

One Response to “The Problem of Apples, Pt. III: Words, Icons, and Apples”

  1. […] Part III can be found here. […]

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