William Tell and the Apple: National Treasures

Swiss national hero William (Wilhelm) Tell might be one of the best known national heroes in the world. His famous shot at an apple placed on his son’s head inspired writers and composers from different countries. Operas, poems, dramas, books, and comics have been produced in several languages. It's Batman and Robin with crossbow and arrow.

Swiss legend tells how Wilhelm Tell was forced by his evil overlord to shoot at an apple placed on the head of his son. He prepared two arrow when making ready. One was for the apple and the other for the tyrant should he miss the first shot. The legend of William Tell inspired German literary heavyweight Friedrich von Schiller to write his drama Wilhelm Tell. This drama in turn served as an inspiration to Gioacchino Rossini for his opera Guglielmo Tell for the French libretto Guillaume Tell.

In 1891, Switzerland was looking for national unity. Nationality was an invention of the 19th century, and Switzerland didn't have one. It was the political union of 26 independent states speaking four languages. William Tell was therefore adopted and promoted as the Swiss hero of independence. All historical questions were prudently shelved and forgotten; as early as 1760, historians had relegated the hero to the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. Rewriting tradition, his famous shot at the apple was moved from its former date in 1307 to 1291. It now coincided with the date on the ‘Bundesbrief’ (Federal Charter). The tinkering annoyed the cantons of Central Switzerland so much, they unveiled a monumental statue to the hero in 1895. It shows the date of 1307 very prominently.

The story of the shot at the apple forms a central part in the legend of William Tell. The story isn't Swiss in origin. It is much older than that. There are several versions of the story in the legends and myths of other countries. The oldest version known originates from Persia; the Sun god shot an apple representing evil. Interestingly enough, the god had a second arrow ready to shoot the demon involved.

Apple trees are native to the Himalaya Mountains and were introduced from there to Persia where the Greeks picked them up and brought them to Europe. The Romans adopted apples along with many Greek ideas, inventions, and customs. As with almost anything the Romans copied or imported, they improved on the original. In the case of apple trees, they started grafting them to get sweeter fruits from hardy trees. The Romans were responsible for the distribution of apple trees all over Europe.

It is conceivable that the story traveled with the apple trees. We know that the evil aspect of it has entered a famous story collection called the Bible (it might be argued, though, that the apple of Christian Bibles is a mistake in translation; a valid objection). On the other hand, it is conceivable that the Germanic tribes were inspired by the new fruit and invented the story on their own. 

Through the ages and as late as the 19th century, apples were a luxury good. For the medieval Celts it symbolized death and reincarnation and therefore formed part of the yearly festival of Samhain on October 31. The Germanic tribes invested their goddess Iduna with golden apples that would grant immortality. And part of the insignia of the Holy Roman Empire was the Imperial orb which in German is called the Imperial apple. Saint Nicolas in turn brings apples according to the legend, not toys; toys and oranges are later replacements.

The story of the shot at the apple is considered to have been a generally known Germanic myth, as it appears in Danish and Norwegian stories, and is recorded in both the Icelandic Edda and the Old Norse Thidrekssaga. Some even claim it was directly plagiarized from Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum written around 1200.

It has to be noted that most of the persons mentioned in William Tell’s story acquired their first names only through the inventive genius of Friedrich von Schiller, before that the participants were only known by their generics. The evil overlord of the story is named as one Gessler, but in the first versions of the legend he had no name. The records of the Gessler family as well as those of the Habsburg family don’t show up any Gessler family member in a position of power representing the Habsburg in the 13th or 14th century. And Tell, originally written as Thall, is a name or generic completely unknown to Switzerland.

Further reading