17 October 2022 – Today I learned:

Two things (well, more): That I’m shockingly unfamiliar with a lot of misconceptions in all fields of study (had not heard of or didn’t recall 80% of them), and that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden wasn’t an apple but was a clever pun.

I found this NPR piece and another at LiveScience on how the apple came to be the representation of the forbidden fruit that Eve and Adam ate in the Garden of Eden at the serpent’s behest, though Genesis never specifies it. Genesis 3 calls it “the fruit of the tree,” and the Hebrew word used for the fruit is peri, which is generically “fruit.”

In the 4th century, when scripture scholar Jerome translated the Bible into Latin over 15 years, he intentionally chose the Latin word malus as a translation for peri, making a clever pun because malus means both “apple” and “sin.” Though actually, at that time, the genus Malus, which is now used only for apple and crabapple species, also included other fruits with fleshy fruit around a seed or seeds, such as a peach (which was originally Malus persica, or Persian apple), nectarine (Malus persica hybrida), pear (Malus persica maxima), apricot (Mala armeniaca, “Armenian apple”), pomegranate (Malus punica), et al. I think it was with Linneaus in the 1700s that Malus became the genus of apples, Prunus became stone fruits (apricot, cherry, almond, peach, nectarine), and Pyrus is pear.

But in any case, originally, the fruit of the tree was a just a fruit. Jerome’s translation to malus contributed to the traditional misconception that it was an apple, and possibly the many Greek myths featuring apples (some described here), but it was Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which he specifies the fruit as an apple (also here: “Him by fraud I have seduc’d / From his Creator, and the more to increase / Your wonder, with an Apple”), as well as a bunch of paintings that show the forbidden fruit as an apple (after all, you can’t paint a “fruit” in a realistic painting without some specificity), that sealed the deal: “German artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1504 engraving depicted the First Couple counterpoised beside an apple tree … became a template for future artists.”

Though “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco features a serpent coiled around a fig tree,” and “Ghent Altarpiece” by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (1432) depicts the fruit as a citron, “Eve Tempted By the Serpent” by Defendente Ferrari (1520-25) as an apricot, and “The Fall of Man” by Rubens (1628-29) as, possibly, a pomegranate.

Horticulturally, it’s much more likely that the fruit was a fig (and the shamed pair covered themselves with fig leaves soon after in the Genesis story), a grape (possibly the idea that intoxication might have been part of the sinfulness or the eye-opening of the fruit-eating), a citron (Hebrew etrog), a pomegranate (symbols of fertility for all their seeds), or even, some have suggested, wheat (the Hebrew word for wheat, chitah, is very similar to the Hebrew word for sin, cheit — but it’s peri and not chitah that’s used? And wheat isn’t a tree? And it’s not IMO especially “pleasant to the eyes,” as Eve describes it? And does raw wheat really taste that good?).

Anyway. next time I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac,” I’m going to have to insert “or some other seeded fruit” after “They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple …”

Other things I learned today, a few being misconceptions corrected and others just additional information or clarifications:

— that cooking spinach (in a couple changes of water) significantly lowers the oxalates in it, and therefore makes available the iron and calcium whose absorption oxalates block — I’m glad to learn this, as spinach is very high in oxalates, which can increase kidney stone formation, but I always cook it and now will remember to at least drain and rinse it before adding garlic and other tasty things to it.

— that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake (brioche)”: “The phrase was first published in Rousseau’s Confessions when Marie was only nine years old and not attributed to her, just to ‘a great princess.’ The phrase was used as anti-monarchist propaganda.”

— that there’s no evidence the Buddha was fat: “The chubby monk known as the “fat Buddha” or “laughing Buddha” in the West is a 10th-century Chinese Buddhist folk hero by the name of Budai.” (More here.)

— that George Washington did not have wooden teeth. Well, I knew that, but I didn’t know that Washington’s “dentures were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, animal teeth (including horse and donkey teeth), and probably human teeth purchased from slaves.” (More here.)

— that Pres. John F. Kennedy did not accidentally, in saying “Ich bin ein Berliner” in a speech in 1963. convey to Germans that he was a German doughnut specialty called a Berliner: “This is an urban legend which emerged several decades after the speech, and it is not true that residents of Berlin in 1963 would have mainly understood the word “Berliner” to refer to a jelly doughnut or that the audience laughed at Kennedy’s use of this expression” (Wikipedia) Furthermore, “the pastry which is known by many names in Germany [a plum-filled jelly doughnut] was not then nor is it now commonly called ‘Berliner’ in the Berlin area.”

— that “the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was not caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern. A newspaper reporter later admitted to having invented the story to make colorful copy.” What?

— that there is no such thing as an “alpha” in a wolf pack: “An early study that coined the term “alpha wolf” had only observed unrelated adult wolves living in captivity. In the wild, wolf packs operate more like human families: there is no defined sense of rank, parents are in charge until the young grow up and start their own families, younger wolves do not overthrow an “alpha” to become the new leader, and social dominance fights are situational.”

— that poinsettias are not highly toxic to humans or cats: “While it is true that they are mildly irritating to the skin or stomach, and may sometimes cause diarrhea and vomiting if eaten, they rarely cause serious medical problems.” Huh. I’m glad that Poison Control and the APSCA know this but this is really a widely spread myth! But no one should eat this tree:

at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Savannah, GA

Also of note:

One thing I HAVE long known was a misconception is that “‘Xmas’ did not originate as a secular plan to ‘take the Christ out of Christmas,'” nor is it a sloppy, irreverent way to write “Christmas”: “X represents the Greek letter chi, the first letter of Χριστός (Christós), ‘Christ’ in Greek, as found in the chi-rho symbol ΧΡ since the 4th century. In English, ‘X’ was first used as a scribal abbreviation for “Christ” in 1100; “X’temmas” is attested in 1551 [why?], and “Xmas” in 1721.”

And I learned this one from sad experience with a dog-skunk encounter: “Tomato juice and tomato sauce are ineffective at neutralizing the odor of a skunk; it only appears to work due to olfactory fatigue” (And for me, it never worked at all.) Apparently the U.S. Humane Society recommends washing your dog or spraying it with a mixture of dilute hydrogen peroxide (3%), baking soda, and dishwashing liquid.

Humans have more than the commonly cited five senses: This one is just interesting. Most of us already know that we have these “senses” but we don’t consider them senses in the same way we consider the five senses to be: “The number of senses in various categorizations ranges from five to more than 20. In addition to sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, which were the senses identified by Aristotle, humans can sense balance and acceleration (equilibrioception), pain (nociception), body and limb position (proprioception or kinesthetic sense), and relative temperature (thermoception). Other senses sometimes identified are the sense of time, echolocation, itching, pressure, hunger, thirst, fullness of the stomach, need to urinate, need to defecate, and blood carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.” Now we have words for some of these!

Finally, this will be a relief to many people I know: “People do not swallow large numbers of spiders during sleep. A sleeping person makes noises that warn spiders of danger.” Hmm. I never believed we swallowed 30-something spiders while sleeping over a lifetime, but now I’m not entirely convinced by this argument.

Featured image: I want the forbidden fruit to be a pomegranate. This one’s on a bonsai at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA, Oct. 2017.

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