Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Golden Apples of the Sun

Robert Graves' novel Hercules, My Shipmate, his iconoclastic retelling of the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, opens with an encounter with the Orange Nymph, priestess of the sacred Orange Grove, on Majorca, the Balearic island off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, which Graves portrays as a last bastion of matriarchal civilization and Goddess worship in a rapidly patriarchalizing world.

Rather archly he explains:

The orange is a round, scented fruit, unknown elsewhere in the civilized world, which grows green at first, then golden, with a hot rind and cold, sweet, sharp flesh. It is found on a smooth tree with glossy leaves and prickly branches, and ripens in mid-winter, unlike any other fruit. It is not eaten indiscriminately in Majorca, but once a year only, at the winter solstice, after ritual chewing of buckthorn and other herbs; thus eaten, it confers long life. At other times, the slightest taste of an orange will result in immediate death, so sacred a fruit is it; unless the Orange Nymph herself dispenses it (Graves 4).

This tongue-in-cheek passage is doubly a send-up. In it, the mythological Island of the Hesperides with its legendary Golden Apples of Life become a real-world place—in fact, the island on which Graves made his home for most of his adult life—and a real-world fruit. Likewise, Graves is satirizing a longstanding British custom: generations of English kids grew up with that exotic and expensive Southron fruit, the orange, tucked into the toe of their Christmas stocking.

Graves' history (as usual) is questionable here. The name itself tells the true story. The English word orange derives ultimately from Sanskrit, via Persian, Arabic, and Portuguese, which pretty much gives you the basics of the history of the fruit and how we got it. (I might add that the color takes its name from the fruit, not the other way around.)


Even so, as is usual with Graves, there's good, sound mythic sense to what he says. In this season of the New Sun, the orange—round and golden as a miniature Sun—is the Sun's preeminent sacred fruit, the eating of it a solar sacrament. Some friends of mine made it a point every year to buy a case of oranges before Yule, and to give one to each of the kids every morning during all Thirteen Days.

These days, we Northrons tend to take our oranges, that exotic southern fruit from the Sun-blest lands of Ever-Summer, for granted. Chances are that as oil supplies dwindle and the costs of transportation rise, we'll mostly go back to getting our C-vitamins from rose hips and rutabagas like the ancestors did, and the Golden Apples of the Sun will once again become the special Yule treat that they once were.

But hopefully without the buckthorn.

And what of the Silver Apples of the Moon, of which the poet speaks?

Well, they're apple apples, the ancestor of the domestic apple having been yellow when ripe, not red.

But that's another tale, for another night.


Robert Graves, Hercules, My Shipmate (1945). New York: Creative Age Press.


Goranges? Loranges? If you haven't seen Witchiepoo's number Oranges Poranges, you don't know from oranges.

People keep on sayin' that

there's one word that's a gem:

it's oranges, 'cause it's got no rhyme.

But we got news for them.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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