Allure of Laurel

Bay Leaf

Bay Leaf

The laurel tree is indigenous to the Mediterranean region. Its aromatic leaves are called “sweet bay”, and have long been fashioned into wreaths, adorned by statesmen, and prized by champions. In myth, laurel is the beautiful nymph Daphne, daughter of a river god.

Commonly identified as “bay leaf”, laurel is found in abundant supply in its dried form on most modern-day kitchen spice racks. Adding a few of its leaves to soups and stews enlivens their flavor; but laurel also has a reputation as a potent ingredient in folk medicine1.

It’s ancient tie to love plays out in the myth of Daphne, Apollo, and Eros.

The Sun God Apollo boasted of his true aim in using a brave man’s arms—bow and arrow—as weapons in hunt and battle. He mocked Eros (Cupid) for using his own bow and arrow for something as feeble as igniting the flame of love. Apollo would soon learn that Eros was mightier than he, for as we know, there is no greater power…nor curse, than love. And by these words, Eros warned:

“Your bow, Phoebus [Apollo], may vanquish all, but mine shall vanquish you. As every creature yields to power divine, so likewise shall your glory yield to mine.”

Now it was said that Eros carried in his quiver two arrows of opposing power…the piercing one of gold aroused love, and the dull one of lead repelled it. As Apollo and Eros argued, the lovely Daphne happened by. Eros shot the golden arrow into Apollo, and the one of lead he shot into the heart of Daphne. Apollo fell into a madness, overcome by his uncontrollable desire for the beautiful maiden; but she, under the spell of Eros’s lead arrow, would have none of it…and fled.

So relentlessly did Apollo pursue her that she could run no more and, nearly exhausted, cried out for help. The gods answered her plea, and as she ran she morphed into the laurel tree. Her arms turned to limbs, her hair to leaves, her body became the bark-covered trunk, and her feet were rooted where she stood.

Daphne pursued by Apollo

Still the spell was not broken, and Apollo’s love for her remained strong. He vowed that if he could not have her for his bride, she would forever remain as his sacred symbol. So it is that the laurel is closely associated, in picture and in word, with the god Apollo.

Notes: “Laureates” were originally crowned with a wreath of laurel to mark their honorable distinction.

To “rest on one’s laurels” long ago was a praiseworthy saying meant for those retiring from life’s duties. Having led a satisfactory life, it was time to rest beneath a crown of, or under the tree of the laurel. Only in recent centuries has its meaning become associated in the context of laziness or resting on past accomplishment.

Household Tip: One bay leaf placed in the cupboard acts as Mother Nature’s insect deterrent and will keep pests “at bay”.

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  1. Click here for information on the bay leaf plant []