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Laurel Tree Symbolism: Ultimate Guide

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The Laurel tree symbolizes victory and honor. Its evergreen leaves were used to create wreaths worn by those worthy of a crown. Known as Laurus, this ancient tree and laurel leaf held rich symbolism and meaning across cultures.

From symbolizing triumph in ancient Greece to becoming a culinary staple today, the laurel leaf connects tradition with contemporary uses.

In this ultimate guide, we aim to delve into the deep symbolism of the laurel, exploring its history, uses, and myths to uncover the rich and hidden symbols of the laurel tree and its profound meaning.

What is the meaning of laurel

What is Laurel Tree?

The laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) is an aromatic evergreen tree or shrub with large, shiny, green leaves used for seasoning in cooking. Known as a Bay tree or Bay Laurel, Growing up to 30 feet tall, the laurel tree is dioecious, like the ginkgo biloba tree, producing male and female trees. Also known as the Bay Leaf, Sweet bay, Sweet laurel, or simply Laurel, it is native to the Mediterranean region and belongs to the family Lauraceae. 

There are other kinds of plants in diverse families (California bay laurel, Cherry laurel) that are also called “bay” or “laurel”, generally due to the similarity of the leaves or their aroma to Laurus nobilis, but with different characteristics that are botanically unrelated.

laurel branch

The symbolism of the Laurel

symbol of victory, honor, and achievement

Laurel signifies victory, and this connection can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. They used laurel wreaths made of laurel leaves to symbolize triumph and victory. It was often used to crown winners of sporting events like the Olympic games and military leaders.

In addition, Laurel was bestowed upon victors and to individuals who have selflessly served society, such as poets, writers and priests as a symbol of honor and recognition for their wisdom and devotion. The association of the laurel with poets is evident in the term “poet laureate”, where “laureate” means to be crowned with a laurel.

Similarly, The term “baccalaureate” is derived from the Latin words “bacca” (berry) and “laureus” (laurel), referring to the laurel berries used to make wreaths of laurel. In academic traditions, a baccalaureate ceremony marks the completion of undergraduate studies, and the term underscores the association with laurel as a symbol of accomplishment.

symbols of laurel: Wisdom and Knowledge

Symbol of immortality and eternal life

The laurel tree is also seen as a symbol of immortality. As an evergreen plant with green and vibrant leaves throughout the year, it signifies enduring life. The laurel tree’s association with immortality is primarily rooted in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, where it symbolized endurance, victory, and everlasting life. The laurel wreaths awarded to victors and revered individuals conveyed a sense of eternal honor.

Wisdom and Knowledge

The laurel tree is associated with wisdom and knowledge in various cultures. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that inhaling the scent of laurel leaves could enhance one’s intellectual abilities. The aromatic quality of the laurel’s leaves was thought to impact mental clarity and insight positively.

Mythology and folklore

Purification and Protection

Ancient Romans believed that the laurel tree held protective qualities. Pliny the Elder noted that burning laurel for sacrilegious purposes was strictly forbidden, as the crackling sound when it burned was seen as the tree’s protest. Additionally, Emperor Tiberius wore laurel wreaths during storms because it was widely thought that laurel trees were immune to lightning strikes. The belief in a “heavenly fire demon” within the laurel contributed to the notion that the tree could protect against threats like fire and lightning.

Prosperity and Fame

In the Bible, the laurel is a symbol of prosperity and fame. Within Christianity, it takes on additional symbolism, representing Christ’s resurrection and humanity’s triumph.

Uses of Laurel Leaves

What is the meaning of laurel

Strive for Excellence

Learn from the laurel’s symbol of victory and honor by putting effort into your endeavors and aiming for excellence. However, remember the cautionary tale embedded in the phrase “rest on your laurels.” This idiom serves as a reminder that achieving success is not the end of the journey but a milestone in an ongoing pursuit of excellence. While laurels represent past accomplishments, it’s essential to avoid complacency and the temptation to rest solely on the laurels of previous achievements. Instead, use them as stepping stones, propelling yourself toward new goals and continuous self-improvement. Embrace the laurel’s legacy not just as a symbol of victory but as an inspiration to persistently strive for excellence, recognizing that the journey is as crucial as the destination.

laurel symbolism of victory

Moderation

Laurel reminds us to reclaim our voice and wisdom while seeking a balance in life. It signifies a period of moderation and self-control, encouraging individuals to find harmony and equilibrium in their actions and decisions. Laurel serves as a reminder to approach life with measured restraint and to rediscover personal strength and insight.

Endurance

Yet, the laurel is not merely a symbol of past achievements; laurel is also a testament to enduring strength and resilience, like a willow tree. Its evergreen leaves symbolize endurance. It represents the ability to withstand challenges, adversity, and the passage of time. The laurel encourages a sense of resilience, suggesting that certain qualities, like honor and victory, can endure and remain vibrant despite changing circumstances. 

Sign of Protection

The crackling flames of burning laurel echo an ancient belief in its protective nature. Rooted in the past, people grew laurel trees in gardens, seeing them as shields against external threats. This tradition endures, turning the laurel into more than a plant—it becomes a symbolic shield. Whether facing life’s storms or challenges, the laurel, tended in gardens, stands as a steadfast guardian, inspiring confidence in its protective embrace.

Inspiration and Spiritual awakening

Laurel leaves, placed under the pillow are believed to inspire creativity and symbolize the enduring belief in their inspirational qualities. This tradition also signifies that laurel leaves may contribute to spiritual awakening and heightened awareness.

Mythology and folklore

Ancient Greece

In Greek mythology, laurel leaves hold a special significance. A Greek myth tells the story of Apollo, a powerful god, and his love for the nymph Daphne. Apollo once mocked Eros, the God of Love, claiming that only the worthy should carry a bow and arrow. In a state of anger, Eros shoots Daphne with an arrow, provoking hatred, and Apollo with one, inducing intense love. Despite Apollo’s persistent love for daphne, Daphne sought her father’s help to escape Apollo. To protect her, he transformed her into a laurel tree so that Apollo could reach her no more. Heartbroken, Apollo vowed to take care of her forever, declared laurel leaves for crowns, and granted the tree eternal youth and immortality, which is why the laurel tree is an evergreen. The Greek name for the laurel tree, laurus nobilis, is Daphne.

In 800 BCE, Homer recounted how god Apollo, the god of light and prophecy, defeated Gaia’s python to claim the oracle. The renamed Delphi, meaning “womb,” became the site where the Oracle of Delphi, known as Pythia, served as a high priestess speaking for Apollo. Pythia, in a trance induced by laurel leaves, sat on a laurel wood tripod, and held a laurel branch, providing prophecies on various aspects of life. Because the laurel was considered sacred to Apollo, wreaths of its leaves were used to decorate the winners of the Pythian Games.

The first temple dedicated to Apollo at Delphi was believed to be constructed from laurel.

daphne turned into a laurel tree
Apollo turning Daphne into a laurel tree

Ancient Rome

Laurel held a special connection with Roman Emperors, starting with Augustus. Two laurel trees stood at the entrance to Augustus’ house in Rome, linked to the Temple of Apollo Palatinus that Augustus constructed. These laurels served a dual purpose, symbolizing Augustus’ victory in Civil Wars and his association with Apollo. According to Suetonius, Augustus’ wife Livia planted a laurel sprig at her villa in Prima Porta after an eagle dropped a hen with the sprig onto her lap. This sprig grew into a tree, forming a grove that subsequent Emperors expanded during triumph celebrations. The Julio-Claudian Emperors used laurel wreaths from the original tree planted by Livia. The grove’s demise during Nero’s reign was seen as an ominous sign, foretelling the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

The laurel wreaths held special significance during the Pythian Games held in honor of Apollo, where winners were honored with these wreaths. The god Apollo is often depicted wearing laurel on his head, as well as Roman general Julius Caesar and the notorious French general Napoleon Bonaparte.

laurel leaf for emperors
crown from laurel leaves on a head of the emperor

Uses of Laurel Leaves

in food

The laurel plant contributes to the culinary world as a source for popular herbs and a spice widely embraced in Mediterranean cuisines. Chefs actively incorporate aromatic laurel leaves into Italian pasta sauces, infusing them with flavor during the cooking process before later removing them. Whole bay leaves, known for their extended shelf life of about one year, actively serve as flavor agents in preparing soups, stocks, and even bay leaf tea or cocktails like the Bloody Mary. 

dried laurel leaves

Ornamental Purposes

Bay laurel is widely cultivated for ornamental purposes in Mediterranean or oceanic climates and as a house or greenhouse plant in colder regions. Popular for topiary, it is shaped into single erect stems with various crown styles, including ball-shaped, box-shaped, or twisted, and even low hedges.

Are fresh bay leaves better than dried ones?

Alternative Medicine

In alternative medicine, aqueous extracts of bay laurel have been utilized as astringents and salves for open wounds. The essential oil is used in massage therapy and aromatherapy. As a folk remedy, a poultice soaked in boiled bay leaves is used for rashes caused by poison ivy, poison oak, and stinging nettle. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, listed various conditions that laurel oil was believed to treat, including paralysis, spasms, sciatica, bruises, headaches, catarrhs, ear infections, and rheumatism.

Laurel leaves have a distinct fragrance, prized in potpourri and aromatherapy, 

In certain cultures, people use laurel leaves to aid hair dandruff and hair loss, serving as a natural alternative to synthetic hair care products.

As moth repellents, laurel keeps the cloth moth clean when placed in closets.

Extracted from the laurel tree, the oil finds application as an ingredient in the production of aromatic soaps.

Is laurel also seen as a symbol of peace?

In different cultures, palm branches are used in place of laurel branches to remember the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. 

LAUREL TREE SYMBOLISM
Vladka Merva on November 28th, 2023

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