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Bay or laurel, and the star of a myth:

Daphne was the daughter of the river god Pineios, which flows across Thessaly into the Aegean near the beautiful Vale of Tempe.

At the time, the god Apollo was serving eight years as a shepherd to the King Admetus, his punishment dictated by Zeus for slaying the dragon at Delphi. Apollo that great archer had been mocking the little bow and arrows of Eros (Cupid); Eros replied by shooting him with the gold arrow of love, while shooting Daphne with the lead arrow of hate. Others say Daphne was a huntress who had dedicated herself to Artemis and virginity. But the end result was the same: as Apollo pursued her, Daphne begged the gods on nearby Olympus to save her, which they did, perhaps more permanently than she may have wished, by turning her into a laurel tree (dafni).

Bernini's Apollo and Daphne

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Apollo and Daphne (1625), in the Villa Borghese, Rome

In her memory, Apollo made the laurel his sacred tree and is often depicted wearing a laurel wreath. He plucked a branch from the tree at Tempe and replanted it in Delphi, and used it to crown the victors at his Pythian Games. Every nine years a messenger would come to Tempe to collect a new branch.

The Pythian games were one of the four great Panhellenic games. In the better-known Olympics, victors were crowned with wreaths of wild olive; at the Nemea games they were crowned with wild celery; at the Isthmian games it was pine. But laurel became the favourite in Roman times for crowning victors and Caesars, and so it's laurel we sit on today.

Text © Dana Facaros

Images by Architas, Creative Commons License, Francesco Gasparetti