Today’s post is about an ancient symbol from Greece that made its way into other cultures and even religions such as Christianity. We will be looking to the symbolism and meaning behind the laurel wreaths, the origin story of the symbol as well as its modern uses.
So, let us jump straight into it starting with the historical journey of laurel wreaths across cultures.
Laurel Wreath’s Symbolic Origins: Apollo And Daphne
Various myths and interpretations surround the meaning and origins of laurel wreaths.
One such myth involves the story of Daphne and Apollo. Apollo, who was worshiped as the god of music, the sun, sport, poetry, and archery, once mocked Eros, the god of love, for his use of arrow and bow.
Eros, in retribution, created two arrows, one containing gold and one containing lead. He shot Apollo with the golden arrow, making him fall fervently in love with Daphne.
Daphne was said to be the daughter of Gaia and the river god Peneus. She was a nymph of extraordinary beauty who had taken an oath of chastity, having rebuked all previous suitors. She was also good friends with Apollo’s sister, Artemis.
Eros shot Daphne with the lead arrow, inciting hatred towards Apollo. To save herself from Apollo’s advances, she begged her father to help her. Peneus transformed her into a stout laurel tree.
Saddened and unwilling to abandon his object of affection, Apollo swore to always honor Daphne and keep the tree evergreen. He made a wreath out of the laurel tree’s branches to always wear on his head.
For this reason, the word ‘daphne’ in Greek is, in fact, the word used for laurel.
Laurel Wreaths at Pythian Games And Delphi
As opposed to the olive wreath (or kotinos in Greek) that was given to Olympian victors in Ancient Greece, a laurel wreath would be used at the Pythian games instead.
More specifically, the Pythian games began in 582 BC, taking place in honor of Apollo at Delphi. They also included competitions in dance and art, unlike the Olympics. Women were even allowed to participate in some sports.
The games, second in gravitas to the Olympics, were held until the 4th century BC.
Laurel And Ancient Greek Botany
Laurel was frequently ingested by the priestess of the Delphi Temple, Pythia. Acting as the oracle of the temple, she would smoke a concoction containing laurel leaves to deliver her dubious prophecies.
Theophrastus, a philosopher famous for his work on botany, said that he used laurel wood to build canes and drilling tools thanks to its durability and robustness.
On the other hand, Pedanius Dioscorides, a prominent physician of ancient times, recommended laurel for indigestion, rheumatisms, and arthritis.
Laurel Wreath Crowns: Symbol of Victory
The Pythian games are said to derive their name from the victory of Apollo over the monstrous serpent, Python.
According to some versions, Python prevented Apollo from establishing his own oracle, as the serpent was considered the oracle of the goddess Gaia. Other versions depict Python as a murder weapon sent by Hera to hurt the mother of Apollo, Leto since Apollo was fathered by her husband Zeus.
In any case, Apollo’s triumph over Python and the god’s engrained connection to the plant, rendered laurel wreaths a symbol of victory and glory.
As a result, the Greek goddess Nike and her Roman counterpart Victoria have been often depicted with a laurel wreath, ready to crown the champion.
As such, emperors and kings are often represented wearing a laurel wreath as a symbol of grandeur and dominance.
For example, in Ancient Rome, the Corona Civica (civil crown) constituted a military distinction for Romans that had saved the lives of their fellow citizens. The wreath was made from oak as well as laurel leaves.
Julius Caesar is among the notable figures who wore laurel wreaths. The famous general and emperor was rewarded with a laurel wreath for his service at the siege of Mytilene in Asia Minor, following a revolt that had broken out against Rome.
On a side note, it has been rumored that Caesar started wearing laurel wreath crowns more often to hide his baldness.
In addition, busts of Charlemagne and Charles V were engraved on coins or immortalized through paintings, like Van Dyck’s ‘Charles V on Horseback’.
Moreover, several statues and artworks of Napoleon portrayed the emperor wearing a laurel wreath. A famous instance would be his coronation in 1804, where he allegedly used two crowns; a laurel wreath and the imperial Charlemagne crown.
Laurel Wreath: Symbolism In Christianity
The mention of laurel wreaths in Christian texts is commonly associated with salvation, victory, and new life.
For instance, in the Book of Genesis of the Old Testament, the great flood ended when a dove brought Noah a laurel branch.
Similarly, in the Book of Revelation, John sees a conqueror riding a white horse and wearing a crown, which has been interpreted to be a laurel wreath.
Therefore, the meaning of laurel wreaths in Christianity alludes to the defeat of Death. This, in Christian belief, is a synonym to the resurrection of Jesus, eternal life, and redemption of humanity.
Modern Uses of Laurel Wreaths
Laurel wreaths have become a symbol of distinction also in the world of academics and the arts.
You are probably already familiar with the term Nobel or poet laureate.
Also, the word baccalaureate or the phrase “resting on one’s laurels” traces its origins back to the symbolic use of laurel wreaths and branches as a sign of success and achievement.
Furthermore, laurel wreaths or branches are, in various countries, given to either bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate graduates to celebrate their hard work and transition towards a brighter tomorrow.
In Italy, for instance, graduates are called ‘laureati’, while it is customary to award them with a laurel wreath to wear following the ceremony.
The use of laurel wreaths has been adopted in a couple of US colleges as well. At Connecticut College, Mount Holyoke College, and Reed College, laurel wreaths are given upon graduation, or chains made of laurel are used during commencement to symbolize the passage from one year to the next.
In Sweden, in turn, a laurel wreath is present in graduation ceremonies of doctorate students, while in Finland its tradition accompanies master’s graduates.
In the art world, depictions of laurel wreaths were prominent during the Beaux-Arts and Empire period (19th century) in textiles, furniture, and architecture.
In heraldry, a laurel wreath is often presented alongside a shield or a helmet to reflect victory and honor.
Laurel wreaths continue to be an important element in Greek customs. This involves the Easter holiday, where laurel wreaths are used during the epitaph processing. At weddings, the couple could also be seen wearing such wreaths to symbolize a strong and resilient marriage.
This wraps up our piece on the laurel wreath as a symbol, its meaning and origins. If you liked it, you will probably enjoy reading our other articles on ancient symbols here. See you in the next post!