A Classicist Explains The Word's Roots In Ancient Greek Victors Winning Crowns Of Laurel Leaves

Despite the phrase's relative youth, the word's history lends a deeper meaning to the title.
By: The Conversation
Greek Gods {PD}
Greek Gods {PD}
PORTLAND, Maine - Oct. 5, 2022 - PRLog -- By: Joel Christensen, Brandeis University

When the Nobel Prizes are handed out each year, honorees each receive a medal and monetary prize. Even in the absence of these material goods, the honor of being a Nobel laureate persists as part of someone's name or title, like a heroic epithet to recognize a life's achievement.

I annually join my colleagues in the arts and sciences praising the winners and everything they have accomplished. As a scholar of classical studies, I also mull over the journey of that strange word, laureate, and how aptly it names those who receive it.

The English word "laureate" dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when it jumped almost straight out of the Latin "laureatus," an adjective to describe someone crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves. But laurel's history as a symbolically important plant goes back thousands of years.

A Plant Linked To Apollo

While "laurus" is the Romans' word for the cultivated plant, the idea of being crowned or wreathed with laurel likely came first from the Greeks. They associated this plant, which they called "daphne," with ritual purification and divine inspiration.

Worshippers of the god Apollo held the laurel tree to be sacred, as the location of the god's oracular statements. In some traditions, the Pythia – the priestess who pronounced oracles at Delphi, one of the most sacred sites in the early Greek world – would chew laurel leaves, potentially to hallucinogenic effect, before delivering a prophecy.

The origin story of Apollo's love for the laurel tree is more menacing. In the Roman poet Ovid's "Metamorphoses," Eros – Cupid to the Romans – sought to punish Apollo for mocking him, so he made him become infatuated with a young female nymph, Daphne.

She fled his repeated – and violent – advances, and begged her father, a river god, for help. He transformed his daughter into the laurel tree. Daphne avoided Apollo in her human form, but she could not escape becoming his sacred property.

While this story explains the laurel as Apollo's sacred plant, its medicinal or imagined mind-altering effects may be better explanations for the tree's association with Apollo, a god of medicine, prophecy and poetic arts.


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