A laurel wreath is a round wreath made of connected branches and leaves of the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), an aromatic broadleaf evergreen, or later from spineless butcher’s broom (Ruscus hypoglossum) or cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). It is a symbol of triumph and is worn as a chaplet around the head, or as a garland around the neck. The symbol of the laurel wreath traces back to Greek mythology. Apollo is represented wearing a laurel wreath on his head, and wreaths were awarded to victors in athletic competitions, including the ancient Olympics – for which they were made of wild olive-tree known as “kotinos” – and in poetic meets. In Rome they were symbols of martial victory, crowning a successful commander during his triumph. Whereas ancient laurel wreaths are most often depicted as a horseshoe shape, modern versions are usually complete rings.
In common modern idiomatic usage, it refers to a victory. The expression “resting on one’s laurels” refers to someone relying entirely on long-past successes for continued fame or recognition, where to “look to one’s laurels” means to be careful of losing rank to competition.
Laurel Wreath History
Apollo, the patron of sport, is associated with the wearing of a laurel wreath. This association arose from the ancient Greek mythology story of Apollo and Daphne. Apollo mocked the god of love, Eros (Cupid), for his use of bow and arrow, since Apollo is also patron of archery. The insulted Eros then prepared two arrows – one of gold and one of lead. He shot Apollo with the gold arrow, instilling in the god a passionate love for the river nymph Daphne. He shot Daphne with the lead arrow, instilling in her a hatred of Apollo. Apollo pursued Daphne until she begged to be free of him and was turned into a laurel tree.
Apollo vowed to honor Daphne forever and used his powers of eternal youth and immortality to render the laurel tree evergreen. Apollo then crafted himself a wreath out of the laurel branches and turned Daphne into a cultural symbol for him and other poets and musicians.back to menu ↑
Laurel Wreath Academic Use
In some countries the laurel wreath is used as a symbol of the master’s degree. The wreath is given to young masters at the university graduation ceremony. The word “laureate” in ‘poet laureate’ refers to the laurel wreath. The medieval Florentine poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri, a member of the Sicilian School, is often represented in paintings and sculpture wearing a laurel wreath.
In Italy, the term laureato is used in to refer to any student who has graduated. Right after the graduation ceremony, or laurea in Italian, the student receives a laurel wreath to wear for the rest of the day. This tradition originated at the University of Padua and has spread in the last two centuries to all Italian universities.
At Connecticut College in the United States, members of the junior class carry a laurel chain, which the seniors pass through during commencement. It represents nature and the continuation of life from year to year. Immediately following commencement, the junior girls write out with the laurels their class year, symbolizing they have officially become seniors and the period will repeat itself the following spring.
At Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, USA, laurel has been a fixture of commencement traditions since 1900, when graduating students carried or wore laurel wreaths. In 1902, the chain of mountain laurel was introduced; since then, tradition has been for seniors to parade around the campus, carrying and linked by the chain. The mountain laurel represents the bay laurel used by the Romans in wreaths and crowns of honor.
At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, United States, members of the senior class receive laurel wreaths upon submitting their senior thesis in May. The tradition stems from the use of laurel wreaths in athletic competitions; the seniors have “crossed the finish line,” so to speak.
At St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts, students who successfully complete three years of one classical language and two of the other earn the distinction of the Classics Diploma and the honor of wearing a laurel wreath on Prize Day.
In Sweden, those receiving a doctorate or an honorary doctorate at the Faculty of Philosophy (meaning philosophy, languages, arts, history and social sciences), receive a laurel wreath during the ceremony of conferral of the degree.
In Finland, in University of Helsinki a laurel wreath is given during the ceremony of conferral for masters’s degree. Doctors wear a special kind of Doctoral hat.back to menu ↑
Architectural and decorative arts motif
The laurel wreath is a common motif in architecture, furniture, and textiles. The laurel wreath is seen carved in the stone and decorative plaster works of Robert Adam, and in Federal, Regency, Directoire, and Beaux-Arts periods of architecture. In decorative arts, especially during the Empire period, the laurel wreath is seen woven in textiles, inlaid in marquetry, and applied to furniture in the form of gilded brass mounts.
Alfa Romeo added a laurel wreath to their logo after they won the inaugural Automobile World Championship in 1925 with the P2 racing car.back to menu ↑
As used in heraldry
Laurel wreaths are sometimes used in heraldry. They may be used as a charge in the shield, around the shield, or on top of it like an annular form. Wreaths are a form of headgear akin to circlets.
In heraldry, a twisted band of cloth holds a mantling onto a helmet. This type of charge is called a “torse”. A wreath is a circlet of foliage, usually with leaves, but sometimes with flowers. Laurel wreaths are used the arms of a territorial branch. Wreaths may also be made from oak leaves, flowers, holly and rosemary; and are different from chaplets. While usually annular, they may also be penannular like a brooch.