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In ancient times, a laurel wreath, made from interwoven leaves of the bay laurel plant, was worn on the head of emperors to signify imperial power and authority. It has endured for millennia as one of the defining symbols of ancient Rome and continues to be used today. But why laurel and why a wreath? Here’s a closer look at the rich history and significance of the laurel wreath.
History of the Laurel Wreath
The laurel tree, commonly known as the Laurus nobilis, is a large shrub with green, smooth leaves, native to the Mediterranean region. In ancient Greece, it was a symbol dedicated to Apollo, and later adopted by Romans as a symbol of triumph. The laurel wreath has been used in a variety of ways and features in many ancient Roman and Greek myths.
- Apollo and Daphne
In the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne, laurel symbolized an unrequited love. It is said that Apollo fell in love with Daphne, a nymph who didn’t feel the same way about him, so she then transformed into a laurel tree as an escape. As a way to cope with his grief, Apollo used the laurel leaves from the tree and wore it as a crown.
- Victor’s Reward
The ancient Pythian Games, a series of athletic festivals and musical competitions, were held in honor of Apollo as the god of music, poetry, and sports—and winners were crowned with laurel wreath. Thus it became akin to a medal at the Olympics and was highly coveted.
In ancient Roman religion, Victoria was the goddess of victory, often depicted crowning gods and emperors with a laurel wreath in her hands. From the coins of Octavian Augustus to coins from the time of Constantine the Great, emperors were portrayed with a laurel wreath on the head.
- Military Honor
Originally made from laurel leaves but later fashioned from gold, Corona Triumphalis, a laurel wreath, was awarded to military commanders who were victors of great battles. In decorative arts, the motif is seen in paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and architecture.
Meaning and Symbolism of Laurel Wreath
There are various meanings of laurel wreath throughout history. Here are some of them:
- A Symbol of Honor and Victory – In ancient Greece and Rome, it was awarded to athletes, soldiers, and winners of Pythian Games. During the Renaissance Era, great poets were crowned with laurel wreath to signify them as princes among poets. As such, the laurel wreath became a symbol of achievement and success, much like an Olympic medal or an Oscar, today.
- A Symbol of Success, Fame, and Prosperity – When the laurel wreath was on the head of rulers of Greece and Rome, it signified their rank, status, and sovereignty. If you see a portrait of Julius Caesar, chances are he’s wearing a laurel. Napoleon Bonaparte also used it as one the emblems of his French Empire.
- A Symbol of Protection – There was a belief that lightning never struck a laurel tree, so Roman Emperor Tiberius wore a laurel wreath on his head as protection. In folk tradition, it is also regarded as apotropaic plant to ward off evil, and known for its medicinal properties.
According to The American Journal of Philology, laurel leaves were used in purification rites. In folklore after Apollo had slain the Python, he purified himself with a laurel, which was thought to protect the slayer from evil spirits whether they were those of beast or men.
Laurel Wreath in Modern Times
The laurel wreath is alive and well today, ubiquitous around the world. Do you know some colleges around the world crown graduates with a laurel wreath as a symbol of victory, in terms of academic achievements? The motif is also imprinted on modern-day Olympic gold medals, and commonly used in logos and heraldry.
Fashion and jewelry designs also feature the motif from headbands to hoop earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Some feature realistic depiction of a laurel wreath in silver or gold, while others are studded with precious stones.
Gifting a Laurel Wreath
Because of its association with victory, success and achievement, items depicting a laurel wreath makes for symbolic gifts. Here are some occasions when a laurel wreath gift is ideal:
- Graduation Gift – As a gift to a new graduate, the laurel wreath symbolizes success and achievement, but also a look towards the future and a wish for future success. Consider jewelry or a decorative item depicting the symbol.
- Goodbye Gift – For a loved one moving away, a laurel wreath gift wishes them success and hope for the future.
- Anniversary Gift – As an anniversary gift for a loved one, a laurel wreath jewelry item speaks volumes. Some ideas it implies include: You’re my achievement; Together are successful; You’re my crowning glory; Our relationship is victorious.
- New Mom Gift – For a new mom, a laurel wreath gift symbolizes a new chapter and a great achievement.
- For a Person in a Difficult Situation – A laurel wreath gift is a reminder that they will overcome the situation to become victorious and successful. This is only a setback and shouldn’t define them.
FAQs About Laurel Wreath
A laurel wreath is used as a symbol of victory, success and achievement and dates back to Greek mythology. It can be used in decorative items or in fashion, as a meaningful symbol.
The laurel wreath is a popular tattoo symbol because of its associations with success and triumph. It can be seen as a symbol of victory over oneself and one’s vices.
Laurel, as a plant, has a sweet, spicy scent. It’s used in essential oils for its uplifting and invigorating aroma.
Yes, but it wasn’t a headdress worn on a daily basis. The laurel wreath was only worn by emperors or nobles who had achieved great success. It was an indication that they had triumphed.
The laurel wreath is mentioned in the New Testament, referenced by Paul who was influenced by Greek culture. He mentions a victor’s crown and a non-fading crown, while James mentions a laurel crown for those who persevere.
The laurel wreath has a special place in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and its symbolism survive to this day. Whether represented in leaves or precious material, it remains a symbol of honor and victory.