Among all the gods in Greek mythology, Apollo is the most Greek and is considered the most flawlessly beautiful male god. However, the laurel wreath symbol closely associated with Apollo was actually a result of his unrequited love affair.
1. History of Greece
Greece is located in South Europe, is considered the cradle of Western civilization, a glorious civilization of mankind in the Ancient times. It is the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, Western literature, Western drama, historiography, political science, and the Olympic games. Since the 8th century BC, Greece was divided into several city-states (polis), in which Athens and Sparta played a crucial role in Greek history when they fought against and repelled many invasion attempts of the Persian Achaemenid empire.
Under the rule of Alexander the Great, in 4th century BC, the Greeks rapidly conquered and expanded from the Mediterranean to Egypt, Persia and India, spreading Hellenic cultural influence further than ever. This period was called the Hellenistic period. After that, Greece was annexed and became a part of the Roman empire in the 2nd century BC and then the Eastern Roman empire, also known as the Byzantine empire, but Greek culture and language still existed dominantly.
Since the 1st century AD, the Greek Orthodox church has helped create the modern Greek national identity and also merged many Greek traditions to the larger Orthodox World. This religion still remained dominant during the Ottoman rule, from mid-15th century, until today. The modern Greek nation-state was established in 1830 after a war gaining independent against the Turkish Ottoman empire.
Today Greek’s emblem is a blue shield with a white cross in the center representing the belief in the Orthodox church of the majority of Greeks. The shield is surrounded by a very unique and common symbol of Greece: the laurel wreath.
2. The laurel
The laurel whose binomial name is Laurus nobilis, an evergreen shrub or small tree, sometimes reaching 7–18 m tall, has green and fragrant leaf, originating in the Mediterranean Basin. The edge of the laurel leaf is even with a smooth margin, without teeth. Laurel flowers are pale yellow-green and are borne in pairs beside a leaf. The fruit is a small, shiny black berry-like drupe that contains only one seed.
The laurel is a very popular plant in the Mediterranean region and has many uses and benefits in many aspects such as cuisine, ornamental and medicine.
Laurel leaves with a special scent are a source of spices in Mediterranean cuisines such as pasta, soups and stocks. Dried laurel berries and pressed leaf oil can be used as robust spices, and the laurel wood can be burnt for strong smoke flavoring. In addition, the laurel is also widely cultivated as an ornamental plant in regions with Mediterranean or oceanic climates.
In medicine, aqueous extracts of laurel leaf have been used as an astringent and salve for open wounds. It is also used in massage therapy and aromatherapy. The Roman listed several symptoms that laurel oil is able to treat such as paralysis, spasms, sciatica, bruises, headaches, catarrhs, ear infections, and rheumatism.
3. Apollo, god of the Sun
The laurel wreath in Greek mythology is a symbol of Apollo, one of the most important and complex Greek gods on mount Olympus. Apollo is the god of light, the sun, music, prophecy, medicine, truth, poetry and arts, often depicted as a young man with blond hair, a silver bow and carrying a lyre. He is the most beautiful male god and represents the beauty of kouros (a beardless, athletic youth). Apollo is also considered to be the most Greek of all gods and the patrol god of Greece.
He is the son of Zeus and Leto, his twin sister is the Moon goddess Artemis. During the Hellenistic period, especially in the 5th century BC, Apollo was often identified with Helios, the Titan of the Sun, whose daily responsibility was to ride a chariot drawn by fire-darting steeds carrying the sun across the sky each day and shining through the world.
Apollo is also the god of archery and archery is considered to be invented by him and his sister Artemis. He possessed a golden bow and a quiver filled with golden arrows which never missed their target and caused instant deaths or deadly plagues.
Medicine was also associated with Apollo, or his son who is Asclepius, the god of medicine. However, Apollo is also considered a god capable of bringing diseases and deadly plagues. In the agricultural aspect, Apollo is depicted as a shepherd protecting crops and livestock from pests. Therefore, Apollo is also a righteous god fighting against and destroying evil.
In his art aspect, Apollo is the patron god of music, dance, poetry and the leader of the Muses, the director of their choir. The invention of string-music was also credited to Apollo, especially the lyre is a common attribute of Apollo. Hymns dedicated to Apollo were called paeans.
4. Apollo and Daphne
The reason the laurel became a symbol associated with Apollo comes from a story in Greek mythology. It occurred after Apollo defeated the giant snake Python and gloated over his victory. Eros the god of love came and congratulate as well as admire Apollo. As a agressive and competitive god, in term of archery, Apollo absolutely did not accept anyone on par except his beloved sister Artemis. Now seeing Eros coming with a small bow and arrows on his hands, Apollo mocked that the bow and arrows were only meant for adults to use to conduct great achievements (hands pointing to the corpse of Python) and that Eros was just a child who could never to anything great. Eros smirked, his heart was furious, vowing to make Apollo suffer.
Waiting until Apollo turned away, Eros shot a gold arrow through his heart which will make Apollo fall deeply in love with the first person he meets. It was Daphne, who has just also gotten shot by Eros‘ arrow, but it was a lead arrow, eliminating all of her feeling of love. Daphne was originally a beautiful water nymph, daughter of river god Peneus. She preferred hunting and like all other nymphs, she always refused to marry, vowed to keep her perpetual virginity and follow the hunting goddess Artemis for life.
Apollo was enchanted by Eros‘ arrow and fell madly in love with Daphne, and the naive river nymph was horrified when she first saw Apollo flying down to confess his love, she turned to run for her life. Apollo tried to chase her, running while reading romantic poems to Daphne. She was originally a nymph so she ran incredibly fast, but because of the love charm, Apollo was very excited, running even faster than her.
Knowing it was impossible to outrun Apollo, Daphne begged her father, the river god Peneus, to take away all of her beauty to avoid being caught. With all the love for his daughter, Peneus agreed, Daphne‘s hands gradually turned into branches of a tree. Until her feet eventually turned into wood, Apollo could only miserably embrace the tree and felt her weak heartbeat slowly disappear. People called that tree the Daphne or Laurel (the laurel tree). Although Daphne had turned into a laurel tree, Apollo still loved her passionately. He took a branch of the tree and wrapped it on his head, took its wood to make a bow and a lyre to never leave Daphne again.
Since then, the Greeks believed that the laurel tree symbolizes the attributes of Apollo himself, the contact with the laurel tree would give people the ability to be protected by Apollo and transmitted all of his power.
5. Symbol of glory
The city where Apollo defeated the Python snake was later renamed Delphi and became the main place of worship for Apollo, considered by the ancient Greeks to be the center of the world. The high priestesses at the Temple of Apollo, were known as the Pythia, are considered oracles who transferred Apollo‘s prophecies, becoming the most important and powerful women in the classical world. According to ancient poems, the Pythia often chewed the leaves of a sacred laurel tree grown inside the temple and shook the laurel branches while uttering prophecies. Those who received good prophecies from the Pythia would be crowned with a laurel wreath as a symbol of Apollo’s favor.
The laurel wreath is also the highest reward for winners in sports competitions in the classical world, especially in the Pythia competition, which originally honored Apollo‘s victory over the Python snake. Since then, the laurel wreath has become a symbol that symbolizes success, victory, fame, and glory. As the plant of Apollo, the laurel also represents wisdom associated with heroism.
The laurel tree, as well as everything which is still green throughout the winter, is associated with immortal symbolism, and probably the Romans did not forget this, when they took the laurel as a symbol of glory of their soldiers and intellectuals. In the time of the Roman empire, political leaders and military men also wore a laurel wreath to express their undisputed power and noble social status . The most common image is Julius Caesar the Great with a majestic laurel wreath on his head, not knowing that he was actually putting the symbol of a woman literally on his head.
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