A laurel wreath is a symbol of accomplishment, so to get one is a great honor. However, you had better not get too complacent about your achievement and rest on your laurels!
What’s a Laurel Wreath?
Merriam-Webster reports that the laurel plant used for making laurel wreaths is a type of evergreen tree or shrub with shiny, pointed leaves.
Though this type of plant is native to the Mediterranean, according to Britannica, it is now widely cultivated in other parts of the world. It’s actually the same plant that bay leaves used in cooking come from.
Laurel Wreath History
Laurel was one of the sacred plants of the Greek god Apollo, according to GreekMythology.com. He was often depicted wearing a leafy crown made of laurel branches.
Merriam-Webster notes that the association between Apollo and laurel began when Apollo was pursuing a river nymph named Daphne who wanted him to leave her alone. She prayed to be rescued from his advances, and this got her transformed into a laurel tree. Apollo then embraced the tree.
In ancient Greece, athletic and musical competitions known as the Pythian Games were held every four years in honor of Apollo. These were separate from the Olympic Games. Winners, like Apollo, got to wear laurel wreaths.
Laurel Wreath Symbolism
A laurel wreath is a symbol of victory. If someone gives you one, that’s generally a good sign that they recognize you have accomplished something significant. Feel free to take a healthy amount of pride in your achievement.
Laurel Wreath and Graduation
The use of laurel wreaths is not limited to recognizing the winners of athletic competitions. Laurel wreaths can also be used to mark academic achievements on such important ceremonies as graduation day.
The term “baccalaureate,” which refers to a bachelor’s degree, is possibly derived from “laurel berry,” according to Merriam-Webster. Wikipedia has also collected a list of colleges and universities that give physical laurel wreaths or use laurel chains when conferring degrees to this day.
Getting a laurel wreath, or something else that refers to laurel, in an academic context can mean that you have accomplished something remarkable there. However, it might also more broadly mean that the priorities of the academic world are priorities that you personally relate well to and find important.
GreekMythology.com reports that Apollo was “harmony, reason, and moderation personified.” This association between Apollo and reason is important to keep in mind when people talk about conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian ways of being.
Duke University professor William Johnson notes that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first identified this opposition between Apollo and his more chaotic fellow Greek god Dionysus as central to classical Greek thought.
Camille Paglia, a cultural critic and professor at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, elaborates in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, “In the west, Apollo and Dionysus strive for victory.
Apollo makes the boundary lines that are civilization but that lead to convention, constraint, oppression. Dionysus is energy unbound, mad, callous, destructive, wasteful. Apollo is law, history, tradition, the dignity and safety of custom and form. Dionysus is the new, exhilarating but rude, sweeping all away to begin again.”
Point being, if you wear Apollo’s laurel instead of the grape or ivy vines associated with Dionysus, you’ve come down on the side of reason, rational thought, and honoring the institutions of society. That may not be the only thing in life that is important, but it’s what’s most important to you at the moment.
That said, sometimes colleges are known for their Dionysian parties as well as their Apollonian academics. One type of party especially popular with college fraternities and sororities is the toga party, which is a costume party inspired by ancient Greek and Roman culture. A toga party costume might include a laurel wreath that is worn just for fun!
Why Do Laurel Wreaths Appear on Military Badges?
BBC Extra reports that the Romans borrowed the idea of laurel wreaths from the Greeks. The Romans, however, emphasized the use of laurel wreaths to honor victorious military commanders.
Continuing that association between laurel wreaths and military triumphs, the laurel wreath is depicted on some military badges and decorations to this day.
One example is the Distinguished Service Order, a British military decoration awarded to officers who have performed meritorious or distinguished service in war, as shown on Britannica. Another example is the Air Force Cross given for extraordinary heroism while serving with the United States Air Force.
Laurel Wreath as Tattoos
Spiritus Tattoo shows that there are many creative ways to put a laurel wreath tattoo on one’s body. Some options include just drawing the leafy, horseshoe-like wreath on a flat surface, like one’s back or arm. Other laurel wreath tattoos encircle a round part of the body, like the neck or the kneecap.
As the laurel wreath is associated with victory, a person may get a laurel wreath tattoo to commemorate a major achievement in their life. If they want, they can put details about their achievement inside the wreath.
For a famous example, singer Justin Bieber has a laurel wreath tattoo around his collarbone. Celebrity news website TMZ speculates that this may have marked an important triumph in Bieber’s life, supporting the interpretation of the laurel wreath as a symbol of victory.
TMZ also notes a potential religious significance to Bieber’s laurel wreath tattoo. Christianity was influenced by Greek and Roman culture as it developed, so early Christians would have been familiar with the Greek and Roman uses of laurel wreaths.
In describing a Christian interpretation of laurel wreaths, Catholic Straight Answers notes that, “laurel reminds us of Christ’s victory over sin and death, and our call to holiness. We hope to attain the crown of victory over sin and reign with our Lord in Heaven.”
Of course, many people just get tattoos because they like the look of the design. The laurel wreath, aside from its rich symbolic history, has a simple and classy appearance that could fulfill that desire.