In contrast to May day, June’s significant date, the summer solstice, has surprisingly few references in traditional folk tales and mythology considering it’s modern popularity. However, the seaways are clear; the roads less muddy; the crops have all been planted and harvest is a couple of months away: now is the time to set out on impossible missions in search of improbable objects!
The spur to action is often a sickness that has fallen upon a loved one and only the Water of Life (from the Fountain of Youth at the end of the world, guarded by an ogre/ giant/ multi-headed dragon) or a Golden Apple will cure them. Not much to ask. You might think that the apple is a better bet but the quest for the Golden Apple invariably leads our hero to far flung lands and, of course, in to myriad dangers facing exotic beasts.
It’s unsurprising that, with all these brave youths off scrumping, there is another set of tales which start with a king whose wondrous tree of life-giving fruit is raided every summer. The cure for this trouble tends to be the procurement of an equally wondrous, brightly plumaged bird which a posse of princes is dispatched to acquire.
Now, folktales are as much about learning as entertainment, so if you find yourself in a foreign land hunting for a mythical avian or metallic fruit, here are some tips:
1. Horses, foxes, wolves (in fact, any kind of canine) and the maid at the first castle you are imprisoned in, should all be treated with respect as they usually turn out to be endowed with astonishing magical powers. Without their help you are likely to be eaten, put to death or left wandering and lost in the first impenetrable forest you come to.
2. If your elder brothers are on the same quest, watch out: They will nick anything valuable you have obtained and leave you stuck in a swamp as soon as look at you. (But don’t worry, after your supernatural assistant has sorted it all out you can really tick them off by forgiving them at the end of the story).
In the Norse myth “The Theft of Idun’s Apples”, the giant Thiazi, with help from Loki, steals Idun and her Golden apples of immortality from Asgard (home of the Norse Gods). With these life giving treasures gone the Gods start to grow old, staggering and stammering beneath the hot summer sun until Loki, as he so often does, makes good again. This time it is achieved by borrowing Freya’s falcon skin to fly out and retrieve Idun. Thiazi pursues Loki in the form of an eagle, gets his wings singed, crash lands in Asgard and, in an almost Pythonesque scene, is set upon by the geriatric Gods before Idun hands out her apples thus returning the Gods to their youthful vigour.
But why all this fuss over apples? Wouldn’t golden ones be a bit difficult to chew? Well, some scholars believe that the unidentified illness suffered by the princess/ king/ Gods is actually scurvy, the cure for which is vitamin C. Come the summer, the fruit from the previous year had been used up, hence the need to travel to warmer lands. Historically ‘apple’ was a general term for any fruit: a Golden Apple is an orange!
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.