By Amy Smith

Can we identify the round objects to which the woman reaches on this ancient Athenian red-figure mug in the Ure Museum of Greek archaeology at Reading?

An Athenian Red Figure mug at the URE Museum

Perhaps she is reaching towards round fruit: apple or quince? Even with the best artist, we are hard pressed to distinguish a ball from a fruit, an apple from a quince. We need three of other four senses—touch, taste and especially smell to know the difference. Fresh quince emit a flowery scent that fills the home with a lovely aroma, but they’re better eaten cooked, e.g. in jellies or ‘cheese’.
The fruit of quince (CC 0)

Apple & quince are abundant in European Christmas traditions because of their seasonal availability. While mistletoe might hang on the apple trees throughout the year, it is at Christmas time that its berries appear and stand out from the relatively barren apple trees, which have lost their fruit. Yet the apples & quince have been harvested, carefully kept so that they might still be enjoyed fresh, or dried in rings to symbolise fertility in Christmas decorations, or smaller pieces in a Christmas cake mix. Quince peel is commonly added to savoury cuisine. In Greece, with its warmer climate and thus a triple-season cycle, fresh apples & quince ripen closer to Christmas. Quinces are also used with Greek weddings and fruit and nuts have been poured on the bride & groom in ancient and modern Greek weddings. Whether at Christmas or a wedding these fruits symbolise fertility. Since Christmas celebrates the birth of a baby it is easy to understand why fertility symbols are important, but how did the apple & quince become symbols of fertility? Perhaps because of their health benefits, as they are rich in minerals and vitamins. Could our young woman on our vase be taking apple or quince to enhance her fertility? The winged boy who offers them to her is none other than Eros, the god of love.

The wedding of Peleus and Thetis by Cornelis van Haarlem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis—the future parents of Achilles—the apple (or quince [1]) gains more sinister associations. Eris, the goddess (and personification) of discord, threw out a golden apple for ’the fairest’. Zeus sent it to young Paris, the shepherd Prince, a son of King Priam of Troy, with the instructions that he was to give it to the most beautiful of three Olympian goddesses—Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera.  Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and by connection fertility, won the contest and the apple—thus her association with the apple ever since—when she promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, notwithstanding the fact that Helen was married to Menelaos, brother of King Agamemnon, who led a Greek armada to Troy to get her back. And the rest is history, as they say.

Helen and Menelaeus (Jastrow 2006) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
True to her name, therefore, Eris, with her apple, brought on the 10-year Trojan War. Thus was she feared, revered and even worshipped with her own festival, on this day in parts of ancient Greece. Ancient Greek calendars tied religious festivals into the lunar calendar and farming cycles, so it is more than likely that the abundance of apples/quince in Greece at this time brought the story of Eris ‘apple of discord’ and the judgment of Paris to the minds of the ancient Greeks.

Eris and the Apple of discord by Jacob Jordaens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
[1] It is better known a an apple but some argue that it was a quince. Different sources use different words, usually μήλον.

You can see more objects from the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology at their website or by visiting the museum at The University of Reading.

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