The bay tree is shown on a Greek coin dating from about 342 B.C. It also
appears on a 1619 coin that shows James I of England. Garlands of laurel were given at the original Olympics in 776 B.C. to the winners. This established the custom of awarding laurel wreaths to winners of athletic contests.
The tree was considered a symbol of honor and glory. Originally the only ones allowed to wear bay wreaths were Apollo and victors, such as the winners at athletic events. Later, it was made into wreaths for the crowns of distinguished Greeks and Romans, including literary and athletic event winners as well as scholars.
In modern times, this custom has continued for winners of the Boston Marathon receive wreaths. The crowns were also given to priests, kings, prophets, and poets.
Although this was considered a ‘symbol of victory,’ by the Romans, it wasn’t used for this purpose prior to Roman times. Victors wore crowns of bay. The Romans began hanging crowns and sprays of bay over their front doors as soon as they received word of a victory.
It was also used at their new year festival called Kalends to keep evil spirits away and bring good luck. Romans hung sprigs or made garlands of bay to hang on their doors
This was considered to be one of the most powerful herbs of the ancients. According to legend, the nymph Daphne was fleeing from the sexual advances of Apollo, and she was changed into a bay tree. Ovid, the Roman poet, wrote about the legend of Daphne and the bay. Apollo began wearing bay wreaths from which the custom began.
Apollo also had a temple of bay branches set up at Delphi in Greece. Bay was a sacred plant at the Delphi sanctuary, which was dedicated to Apollo. This was used in the inner sanctum of the temple of Delphi. Greek priestesses at Delphi burned the plant, and breathed the fumes to see visions. Every nine years they created a bower made of bay branches in the courtyard at Delphi.
This was smoked during sacred events. The Greeks had a festival they called Feast of the Laurel Bearing. Maidens wore crowns of bay and sang hymns of praise to Apollo.
John Keats aptly described the attributes of this plant when he wrote, “What is there in the universal earth more lovely than a wreath from the bay tree.”
Dedicated to Apollo and his son, Aesculapius, the god of medicine, this plant has long been revered by the ancients. Pliny recorded the famous legend about the origins of bay trees in Rome. Supposedly, an eagle dropped a white hen, which held bay sprigs in its mouth, into the lap of Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus. These grew into trees and supplied enough bays for Augustus and his successors to wear wreaths of bay. During the reign of Augustus, the custom of having two bay trees in pots at the door also began. These were first used at the door of the Roman high priest. These plants were considered sacred. This is mentioned in the Old Testament