The apple is a potent fruit long equated with the rites of courtship, marriage and fertility. Centuries before the apple of knowledge was eaten in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, couples in seventh-century B.C. Greece shared apples as symbols of marriage and their hopes for offspring. There was the equally ancient practice of throwing apples at newlyweds at weddings so it's not surprising to find Aphrodite the goddess of love associated with apples. We are familiar with the story of the suitor, Melanion or in some sources Hippomenes, who on Aphrodite's advice rolled three golden apples that she had given him to distract Atalanta who had promised to marry anyone who outran her in a race. In the tradition of Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica, Atalanta, a formidable warrior, is listed as taking part in the expedition to recover the golden fleece probably because of her skills as a runner. According to Diodorus Siculus and Apollodorus, Atalanta was wounded in a battle with the Colchians and healed by Medea on the voyage. Suckled by wolves and brought up by hunters in Arcadia — Hesiod differs in this, he says Boeotia — where she had been exposed by her father who wanted a boy, Atalanta had joined the Calydonian Boar Hunt which led to some objections and bloodshed after which she was reunited with her father Iasus who wanted her to marry. However, an oracle forbade that but the lure of Aphrodite's golden apples proved too powerful for Atalanta to resist. She relented and the couple's sexual union in the temple of Zeus angered the god so much that he turned them into lions. It is worthwhile to mention another possible connection of Atalanta with gold. Αταλαντη "equal in weight" is derived from αταλαντος (atalantos) which is related to ταλαντον (talanton) meaning "a scale" or "a balance" used to weigh metals.
The source of the golden apples myth is interesting. In what some see as evidence of a shift in the classical pantheon from Titans to Olympians, Gaia the earth goddess gave golden apples as a present to Hera and Zeus on their marriage. Although the tree was planted in a grove circled by a high wall, guarded by Ladon a dragon with many heads which spoke different tongues at the same time (kind of an early-day Erich Auerbach or Spitzer), Hera assigned some nymphs, the hesperides (daughters of Hesperus, evening), to look after the fruit. The grove was in the Atlas region although some traditions put it in the isle of the hesperides among the hyperboreans ("beyond the north wind" at the northern edge of the world), the land of perpetual sunshine and perfect happiness. Perseus after slaying the gorgon Medusa rested in the kingdom of the titan King Atlas who had been told that a descendant of Zeus would steal the gold fruit hidden by golden leaves hanging from the golden branches of a tree made of gold in his orchard. In that story, Perseus used the gorgon's head to petrify Atlas into a mountain. In a related myth, Atlas had to travel from his kingdom to the land of the hyperboreans for the fruit. In his eleventh labour for his cousin Eurystheus (also associated with Atalanta and the Calydonian boar hunt), Perseus's descendant Heracles fulfilled the prophecy when he followed Prometheus' advice (whom he had found chained to a rock with his liver being devoured by an eagle which, according to Hesiod, he slew) and tricked Atlas into fetching the hesperidean apples from the land of the hyperboreans. (According to Jan Kott, the myths of Heracles were assimiliated into the bible and his eleventh labour to Mount Atlas which divides the cosmos vertically prefigures Christ's ascension to paradise.) Milton in his Comus also refers to the golden tree and calls the hesperides the nieces of Atlas. The legends of the golden apples, Atalanta, the argonauts, and the feats of Perseus and Heracles are intertwined with the geography of the Atlas kingdom and the land of the hyperboreans.
The often-touted theory that "golden apple" is an ekphrasis for oranges from Spain which the Greeks had heard about has been disputed by several scholars. A friend cited Timothy Gantz in his Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (John Hopkins, 1993) who claimed that the fruits were golden apples given by Aphrodite, nothing more. She further enlisted Agnes Mary Clerke's Familiar Studies in Homer (Longmans, Green, and Co, 1892): "The apple evidently excited Homer's particular admiration; he in fact, made it his representative fruit. That it should have been so considered in the North, where competition or the place of honour was small, is less surprising; and apples, accordingly, of an etherealised and paradisaical kind, served to restore youth to the aging gods of Asaheim." In her chapter on "Homeric Meals", Clerke wrote about apples, pears, pomegranates, figs, ollives, and grapes being cultivated but not oranges. Further support was garnered from the evidence that oranges came to Europe, first to what is now Spain, quite late from India. My friend cited Harold McGee on the citrus family from his On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (1984): "With the exception of the grapefruit and other recent hybrids, the members of the citrus family are native to Southeast Asia and were first cultivated in India (our word orange comes from the Hindi), China, and Japan. . . .but it wasn't until the Middle Ages that the lemon, and in the 15th century the orange, made it to the West, where they were initially treated as ornamentals and spice plants." [This is inaccurate as Hindi did not exist at the time of the transmission. Alan Davidson in the Penguin Companion to Food claims Charaka Samhita, a Sanskrit medical treatise, mentions the fruit for the first time by what has become its modern name "naranja." He derives the modern English term from Skt. "narunga" (fruit like an elephant), also transliterated as "naranga" whence Hindi "narangi." The transmission to Europe though may have been through Arabic "naranj" (Pers. "narang") which was used as "a norange" in English and later hyper-corrected aphetically to "an orange" (the original form survives in the Spanish "naranja"). According to a Purdue University website, the fruit is known as "naranja de China," "China dulce," or simply "China" (pronounced cheena) in some Caribbean and Latin American areas.]
Davidson notes that oranges were originally grown in southwest China and northwest India. Oranges were found in China as early as 2400 B.C. According to him, early Chinese documents mention them as being prized for the fragrance of their rind; when held in the hand, the warmth released their scent. The earliest eating orange, probably the mandarin, reached India from China in about 100 Common Era. Oranges went from India to Africa, and then to the Mediterranean area possibly through Italian traders after 1450. An alternative source suggests that six centuries after the Lombard invasion, the "bigarade" or bitter or sour orange was introduced into Spain by Arabs and into Italy and France by crusaders returning from Palestine. It is interesting to note that the oranges from roadside trees in modern-day Morocco are not eaten; their orange-flower juice is used to flavour food. The sweet orange reappeared in southern Italy and Sicily in the 15th century. The Portugese started to cultivate a superior kind of sweet orange upon Vasco de Gama's return from India ca. 1500. A sweeter variety emerged from China in the 16th century called the Portugal orange because the Portuguese spread it throughout southern Europe (the Greek word "portakali" may refer to this origin). The mandarin orange, a small loose-skinned orange named for the region of China from which it came, was brought to England from China in 1805. The lateness of the arrival of citrus aurantium var. sinensis L. (bitter Seville orange of which the sweet orange is said to be a variant) in Europe rules out oranges from being the golden apples of the old legends, the argument goes.
As the evidence indicates, oranges came first from India to Africa (the Atlas region was "known" to Greeks and mentioned in the heraclean labours) much earlier than their arrival in what is now Spain. However, direct transmission through Indo-Grecian contacts may be equally tenable as a theory as that's older than the transit points that have been suggested and challenged by food historians. The same Apollonius who wrote in the 3rd century BC including Atalanta on the Argosy certainly knew about India as did other Greek writers: he referred to Indian elephant tusks in the Argonautica. As the director of the Alexandrine library, Apollonius may have had access to more sources. However, other earlier and contemporary Greek writers in their extant accounts of India do not mention such a fruit. This does not mean that we cannot assume the possibility that the orange may have been known to Greeks by description, if not by name, even then although it may not have been available or eaten in Europe at the time. One also wonders if Apollonius chose to turn Atalanta into an argonaut searching for the golden fleece, not solely on account of her fleetness of foot, but maybe because of her association with something else that was also golden: apples or oranges — which, we shall never know for sure, but it's food for thought indeed.