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What's a laureate? A classicist explains the word's roots in Ancient Greek victors winning crowns of laurel leaves

Joel Christensen, Professor of Classical Studies, Brandeis University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

The origin story of Apollo’s love for the laurel tree is more menacing. In the Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Eros – Cupid to the Romans – sought to punish Apollo for mocking him, so he made him become infatuated with a young female nymph, Daphne.

She fled his repeated – and violent – advances, and begged her father, a river god, for help. He transformed his daughter into the laurel tree. Daphne avoided Apollo in her human form, but she could not escape becoming his sacred property.

While this story explains the laurel as Apollo’s sacred plant, its medicinal or imagined mind-altering effects may be better explanations for the tree’s association with Apollo, a god of medicine, prophecy and poetic arts.

The Greeks held the Pythian Games at Delphi every two years after the Olympic Games. By the time they were established in the sixth century B.C. in honor of Apollo, laurel was connected to the god strongly enough to be offered as the prize for victors.

These games, unlike the Olympics, started out with competitions in singing, poetry and dance, and later evolved to include athletic competitions. Laurel’s function as a prize in honor of Apollo and a marker of poetic power is the reason the laureate crown was adopted to honor poets and men of letters in the early Renaissance.

The story of “laureatus” has a few further twists. Ancient Greeks would suspend violent conflicts to hold their annual competitions. This tradition may be the reason the Romans used the Laurus delphica – the laurel tree native to the sacred site of Delphi – as a symbol of peace. They adorned announcements of victory called litterae laureatae (“laureate letters”) with wreaths of laurel.

In higher education, the word “baccalaureate” preserves the meaning of laureate as someone who is honored or who has achieved something. The term is synonymous with a bachelor’s degree, and hails from a medieval Latin word.

 

The custom of applying the word “laureate” to a Nobel Prize winner, however, may be younger than the prize itself. The Oxford English Dictionary documents the first description of a Nobel honoree in this way happened in 1947.

Despite the phrase’s relative youth, the word’s history lends a deeper meaning to the title. As an ancient symbol of medicine, the arts and the end of war, the laurel certainly fits Nobel’s honoring of achievement in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economics and that most fragile of hopes, peace.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Joel Christensen, Brandeis University. If you found it interesting, you could subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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Joel Christensen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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