Greek laurel (the bay tree) is undeniably one of the Greek plants with powerful symbolism and deep roots in mythology. It is the plant we use in the Christian ceremony for Palm Sunday (Kiriaki ton Vagion) before Easter, named for the plant’s common name ‘vagia’. It is also known as ‘Daphne Apollonos’. Its scientific Latin name, Laurus nobilis, with ‘laurare’ meaning ‘praise’ and ‘nobilis’ meaning ‘noble’, indicates tht the Romans considered that this plant conveys the utmost sense of honor and they therefore used it to honor soldiers, athletes, and others. But the deep history of the plant begins with the name Daphne Apollonos, meaning Daphne of the Greek god Apollo, the god of light, arts, and oracles.
It all began, as usual in Greek mythology, with a love story. Daphne was a beautiful nymph of Pineios river. Her name is etymologically derived from the words ‘Da’ (=earth) and ‘phnis’ (=suddenly), meaning “the one who was created from earth all of a sudden.” Apollo was pursuing Daphne to marry her, but she did not want to be married, so Apollo transformed her into a tree to have her close to him. From then, the daphne plant symbolized success and this tradition started in ancient Greece. A crown of daphne was the prize of athletes, musicians, and solders after their victory or success.
This tradition was used also in Olympic games. Romans, great emulators of the Greeks, followed this example too. Its symbolism has expanded to include peace, immortality, victory, fame, power, and holiness. Byzantine emperors, generals and ecclesiastical hierarchs used it as a symbol of power and success. Apart from myths and stories, the true glory of this plant, however, stems from its medicinal powers.
This gave it a prominent position in ancient oracles and was used by the priests. Apollo, as the god of oracles, shared this plant with the priests. It is not random that Apollo’s famous Oracle of Delphi had a forest of daphne trees around it. Priests burn daphne leaves and other plants as part of the rituals involved in the interpretation Apollo’s prophecies. It is said that Pythia, the oracle’s highest priestess, was placed into a trance and a hallucinatory state of mind by using this and some other plants. Daphne is rich in a powerful essential oil, hence its great therapeutic power (or toxicity if you use too much). In food we use it as a, herb, mainly in with lentil soup and other legumes to help the digestion of their fiber.
* The above is not medical advice but mere suggestions for improving your diet. Before reach herbal use you should consult your doctor, especially those who have health issues, are pregnant or are under the age of 6.
Evropi-Sofia Dalampira is an Agriculturist-MSc Botany-Biology and PhD Candidate in Agricultural-Environmental Education and Science Communication.