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According to Wikipedia,

The Garden of the Hesperides is Hera's orchard in the west, where either a single apple tree or a grove grows, producing golden apples that grant immortality when eaten.

That is, the golden apples of the Hesperides grant immortality to the one who eats them, or at the least are somehow related to immortality. This is particularly interesting if true because I recall some Norse myth about stealing apples that grant immortality to the gods.

In any case, the problem is that Wikipedia mentions absolutely no source for the relation of the apples to immortality. Some other sites mention they grant immortality, as well, but they too mention no source and seem to copy from Wikipedia.

Now I have found zero evidence for a relation between the apples and immortality in ancient sources, and have looked in all the sources that theoi mentions regarding the apples. So my question, does anyone know about an ancient source that mentions the apples grant immortality? If not, it seems someone may have mistakenly thought about the Norse apples when he wrote the Wikipedia page.

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    IIRC golden apples + immortality = some other mythology (other than norse, if there is one for norse). Now everyone thinks it's greek because of Rick Riordan – bleh Jun 29 '17 at 17:05
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    @bleh After a quick search this link talks about the norse myth, mentioning it's not necessarily about apples. Do you mean wikipedia mistakes the Riordan stuff for the actual mythology? I don't remember immortality apples in what I've read of Riordan but in any case it seems odd that someone will write the wikipedia article based on it. – roymend Jun 29 '17 at 17:32
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    Wikipedia should not be using Riordan's stories as a source except possibly in a subsection for contemporary literature. I understand that he has written a fairly faithful adaptation of the stories, but again, it's not a scholarly source. The confusion may make the connection per the Peaches of Immortality, or, more likely, Idun's apples. The Wikipedia section has no reference, which is suspicious, but not definitive. This needs looking into. Thanks for bringing it to our attention! – DukeZhou Jun 29 '17 at 17:43
  • Idun is associated with immortality per her ability to grant eternal youthfulness. (Hopefully the Norse experts will weigh in an provide more detail on her apples;) – DukeZhou Jun 29 '17 at 17:51
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    The myth book thing, in great heroes, hercules' chapter i believe – bleh Jun 30 '17 at 3:46
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There does not seem to be any ancient text explicitly stating that these apples confer immortality upon anyone, although a case can be made that, thematically, they—as you put it—“at the least are somehow related to immortality.”

Precious Purpose

Contrary, indeed, to what the Wikipedia article that you mention says, neither is there any ancient literary instance of the apples being eaten or consumed in any way.1 The impression might be gathered here that this is not their purpose at all. Perhaps worth noting is that whenever golden apples occur in Greek mythology—and also, as it happens, in the Norse myth to which you've alluded in which the Jötnar (Giants) steal both the goddess Iðunna and her apples—there is no (explicit) mention of them being eaten nor of anyone attempting to eat them.

As silly as it might seem at a glance, the most obvious reason for this that I can see is that golden apples are—if understood to be described as solid gold (or anything close to this) rather than merely gold-coloured—are basically chunks of metal, which should be simply inedible, perhaps even to the gods.2 If this is the case then it would make much sense to conclude that they are a symbol more so than a practical foodstuff, even in the narratives themselves.

At the very least their function in the stories is that they are valuable on account of being (wholly or partially) composed of a precious substance. If for no other reason, Hera posts guardians over the fruit of her gardens because people have a tendency towards pilfering gold. I do think, though, that there is more to this than simply expensive fruit-shaped ingots. It seems to me that it is not the apples per se that have to do with immortality but rather the process of acquiring them which results in this eventual condition.

1. Juba of Numidia is said to have claimed that the Libyans called oranges “the Apples of Hesperia,” saying that it was Herakles who brought them into Libya shortly after stealing them from Hera's gardens.

2. Things get decidedly weird, however, when one considers that the Azteca apparently considered gold to be the excrement of the gods, which is literally what is meant by teocuitlatl, their word for gold.


These and Other Golden Apples

There are three instances in Greek mythology in which mortals interact with golden apples:

(1) A prince, either Meilanion of Arkadia [Arcadia] or Hippomenes of Megara, is enamoured of the renowned huntress Atalanta and is granted three such apples by the goddess Aphrodite in order to win the huntress's hand in marriage.

(2) Herakles is commanded by his slave-master Eurystheus, as the eleventh of his twelve athloi, “labours” or “tasks,” to steal for him the apples of the Hesperides from Hera's gardens in Libya.

(3) Prince Paris of Troy is charged with the responsibility of adjucating a beauty contest among the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, the winner's prize being a golden apple.

None of these three men gets to keep the apple(s) that he has obtained, and all three eventually die. Herakles, however, becomes an immortal after his demise, which is a fairly common prerequisite for mortals' acquisition of immortality: they must die first, by some means or another. A few other differences are noticeable between Herakles and the other two heroes. Herakles takes the apples himself, by force, from the otherworldly location in which they have been planted by the gods, while Meilanion/Hippomenes and Paris are each freely given their apples while in the ordinary realm of mortals.

Herakles neither receives the apples directly from any divinity nor does he hand them over to any deity. He takes them directly from their tree and then presents them to his mortal slave-master, who gives them to Athena, who then returns them to Hera's gardens.3 Meilanion or Hippomenes receives his apples from Aphrodite. Another goddess, Eris, is the originator of Paris's apple, which ends up with Aphrodite after the beauty contest. According to Colluthus' Abduction of Helen, Eris' apple is actually one of those from the Hesperides.

3. Granted there is the version of the story in which the Titan Atlas (who here is the father of the Hesperides) is still an active character in the chronology rather than having been transformed, some generations earlier, into the Atlas Mountain Range upon whose slopes Hera's gardens are themselves located.

Herakles and His Assignments

The last three of Herakles' twelve athloi take place either on the border of the afterworld or in the home of the dead itself, which generally are all points of no return. These three missions are to:

10.0 steal the oxen of the giant warrior Geryones from the island of Erytheia, where the giant's friend and neighbour Menoites is the herdsman of Haides [Hades], the lord of the dead;

11.0 steal the apples of the Hesperides, the “Daughters of Evening,” who, like Geryones, dwell on the red edge of Day and Night at the world's western extremity (and also Geryones' island Erytheia, “Red,” is named after one of the Hesperides, who is the mother of the giant's herdsman Eurytion); and

12.0 capture Kerberos [Cerberus], the monster watchdog of the Underworld, whose brother Orthros, another monstrous canine, is Geryones' sheepdog.

To return from the afterworld by succeeding in these tasks signifies victory over death. This symbolism is not necessarily spelled out so obviously in the stories themselves but we do have the fact that Herakles is instructed by the oracle of Apollon [Apollo] at Delphi to become a slave of Eurystheus and perform all the tasks that he is commanded to. He is promised that after completing these labours, he shall receive immortality. Further regarding this, Dick Caldwell says:

Two of Herakles’ primary motives, the attainment of immortality and the search for maternal nurturance, are embodied in the eleventh labor. On one hand the magic fruit in the paradise garden, like the golden apples of north European myth or the fruit of the Tree of Life in Genesis 2, are a means to immortality; for the same reason the streams of the garden of the Hesperides flow with ambrosia, the food of the gods and the source of their immortality. On the other hand both the apples and their location represent the idyllic existence of the infant at its mother’s breast; the garden of the Hesperides, like the garden of Eden and other paradise gardens, is a symbolic state of abundant maternal nurturance. Herakles’ winning of the apples is one of several attempts he makes to obtain this nurturance, the denial of which was graphically portrayed in the episode of Hera rejecting him from her breast.

In his 1902 commentary on Sophocles' Trachiniae, Sir Richard C. Jebb says severally that he perceives the original and now-lost meaning of the journey to the Hesperides and their golden treasure to be the attainment of immortality.

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    Herakles does not fetch the apples personally from the garden, but rather delegates Atlas to do it for him. Atlas's role in the story of the eleventh labor dates back at least to the fifth century B.C., as witnessed by the metopes of the temple of Zeus at Olympia. – Brian Donovan Jul 19 '17 at 22:37
  • Touché! Although there is a parallel version reported by, e.g., [Pseudo-]Apollodorus, in which "Some say, however, that he did not take the apples from Atlas, but killed the ophis that guarded them, and picked them himself." Among the "some", it would seem, might be included Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautika (going back to the 3rd century BC), & in which Herakles—more plausibly characteristic of him, at least as far as I can tell—violently leaves the garden a shambles & the Hesperides themselves so devastated by his robbery of their treasure that they miserably change into trees. – Adinkra Jul 20 '17 at 11:42
  • Thank you for pointing this out. I've so generally tended to favour the version of the story in which Atlas is actually, at this point in the story, the mountain upon which the Hesperides' garden is located, that I forget about the (more popular/famous) version in which Atlas is the one who procures the apples on Herakles' behalf. I have edited my answer to acknowledge the version you have aptly indicated. – Adinkra Jul 20 '17 at 11:46
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I could not find a single source mentioning that eating the golden apples of the Hesperides would grant immortality. I'd expect at least one of the mortal visitors to the garden to try and take a bite if that was the case.

I widened the parameters a bit and looked for references to ambrosia, the actual immortality granting mechanism of Greek mythology. This is the single mention I found:

And to the apple-bearing strand of those minstrels in the west then would come, where ocean's lord no more to sailors grants passage o'er the deep dark main, finding there the heaven's holy bound, upheld by Atlas, where water from ambrosial founts wells up beside the couch of Zeus inside his halls, and holy earth, the bounteous mother, causes joy to spring in heavenly breasts.

Euripides, Hippolytus. Translated by E. P. Coleridge

The detail of the ambrosia flowing streams in the garden does not appear to be significant to the story, as, again, none of the mortal visitors tries to take advantage of it.

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The apples of the Hesperides were golden apples, which is why they needed a guard. Hercules was tasked with stealing them as one of his Twelve Labours. The apples Idunn guarded in Norse myth kept the gods immortal as long as they kept eating them, but when the giants kidnapped her, the gods began to age (and the giants stopped).

The Greek apples are precious, but don't grant immortality, while Norse myth is a little bit ambiguous as to whether it's Idunn or her apples that grant immortality. The 8th century poem Haustlong simply says that she "knew the cure for old age" while Snorri Sturluson, writing centuries later, says that her apples granted immortality. Her name means something like "The Rejuvenating One" so some scholars (John Lindow among others) have suggested that she held the power to keep aging at bay.

It would explain why the giants didn't just steal her apples.

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Isn't there a variant of the myth where Herakles MUST convince Atlas to pick the apples FOR him? As a kid I had the impression that 'only a god could pick them,' but it was never clear exactly why. D'aulaire's (kids book) was the only source I found saying that the apples were 'apples of immortality' that actually caused death to any mortal who picked them off the tree. A bit counterintuitive, but it seemed a crucial plot twist.

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