First cultivated in Southeast Asia and New Guinea, the banana is now an important crop in many parts of the world. Although the symbolic meaning of the banana varies quite sharply from area to area, individual connotations can reveal important insights into the cultures from which they originate.
One of the banana’s most famous meanings- or infamous depending on your point of view- is as a symbol of the male genitalia. In modern times, such meanings are primarily associated with psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud, who put forward the notion that anything resembling the human sexual organs- male or female- could have underlying psychological significance in that capacity.
Even before Freud, however, similar notions of sexual symbolism had been applied to the banana. The Book of Genesis contains perhaps the most iconic image in the Bible: Adam and Eve tasting the forbidden fruit and covering their newfound shame with leaves. Although the actual type of fruit from this tree is never mentioned in any canonical scripture, that hasn’t kept a wealth of scholars and commentators from speculation. In Christianity, the “culprit” is usually portrayed as an apple, but Islam offers an interesting alternative, that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a banana tree. While there is no definitive evidence on either count, such an association clearly demonstrates that the banana has long been seen as a foodstuff with sexual connotations.
As we move closer towards the banana’s heartland, the fruit’s symbolism changes significantly. In Tamil Nadu, a state in India’s southeast corner, the banana is one of the Mukkani, or three royal fruits, along with the mango and the jackfruit. Throughout Thailand, there are many stories about spirits inhabiting trees. Among these spirits, which can be either good or evil, the Nang Tani (spellings vary) are closely associated with banana trees. Finally, in Malaysian folklore, there exists a creature called the Pontianak. Like the Nang Tani, the Pontianak is associated with banana trees, but possesses a far more malevolent nature. Essentially a type of vampire, these female spirits are highly bloodthirsty. Although there are protective measures that one can take, there is no sure way of killing them.