Since receiving the beautiful and powerful Bay Laurel essential oil from our French distiller Florent, we have been exploring its effects along with its history and symbolism.
The common sources say that the mythological origin of bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is the story of the naiad Daphne and the Olympian Greek god Apollo. As told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Apollo ridiculed Eros (whose Latin name is Cupid) by insulting his archery skills. In return, Eros shot Apollo with his arrow, which filled Apollo with love and desire. At the same time, he shot Daphne with a lead arrow which made her flee from Apollo. Apollo keeps chasing her and she kept running away, leading him to complain that even though he knew medicinal herbs, he couldn’t heal himself from Eros’s arrow. (As a side note, this on the one hand has a very cavalier patriarchal attitude about lack of consent and objectification of women, and also reminds us of the power of a male being possessed by his anima and projecting his anima, which even ‘wise’ Apollo, paragon of intellect, couldn’t cure himself of.)
When Apollo finally catches Daphne, she pleads to her father, the river god Peneus, to help her and he turns her into a laurel tree. Apollo is still so obsessed that he embraces the tree and says “My bride, since you can never be, at least, sweet laurel, you shall be my tree.” (Ovid Metamorphoses)
This is how laurel, meaning bay laurel, became Apollo’s tree. Apollo wore a wreath of laurel, which became a symbol of the highest status and was given as a prize at the Pythian games, which were similar to the original Olympic games. Pythia, the priestess of Apollo was said to chew laurel leaves so she could utter prophecies. Romans considered a laurel wreath a symbol of victory, immortality, purification, prosperity and health. Roman emperors and later poets wore laurel wreaths and the term poet laureate derives from the laurel wreath.
So far so good, but as our son Jah with his deep knowledge and passion for botany pointed out, the tree that Daphne turned into is not bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) but rather ‘splurge-laurel’ (Daphne laureola). Jah told us that Daphne laureola has beautiful flowers symbolic of Daphne’s beauty, grows by rivers, close to her father’s realm and grows in the shade of other trees hiding from the solar Apollo. According to Jah the mythical Daphne obviously turned into Daphne laureola. Meanwhile bay laurel grows in full sun and doesn’t have very pretty flowers and so according to Jah, couldn’t be symbolic of Daphne since it doesn’t fit her attributes.
This made me wonder. When did this error or substitution occur? Why had no one else pointed this out before? There is some ambiguity about which species of Laurus or Daphne she may have turned in to, but how did this story get linked with bay laurel? And is the symbolism of bay laurel still valid or useful, if the myth that it is based on actually refers to a different plant?
While myths and symbolism often provide another way of explaining the personality or benefits of a plant, we have to remember that the plant species that myths refer to are often ambiguous and errors may occur over time.
I’m also wondering what the pre-Olympian myth around bay laurel was. Olympian or Hellenic refers to the well-known ‘Old Greek Gods’ including Zeus, Hera, Apollo, etc. It is patriarchal, e.g. Zeus is the supreme ruler. But there was an earlier, older mythology in Greece, honoring the Goddess in different forms. The goddess that was called Artemis in the Olympian canon was pre-Olympian and temples to her were built long before the Olympian gods arrived. She has many names and for example corresponds to Astarte or Ishtar in other parts of the middle east. The Olympians just took her into their canon. In many Olympian or Hellenic myths, the beings of pre-Hellenic mythology were painted in a bad light, e.g. the earth goddess Cybele and the Cabiri, earth beings akin to the ‘wee folk’ in Ireland. What stories did they tell about bay laurel, before it became sacred to Apollo? The substitution of bay laurel for daphne laureola to me is symbolic of the patrtiarchal new gods appropriating and changing the story. What is it not telling us about bay laurel?
I think the way different cultures use a plant speaks to the purpose and symbolism of the plant even if each culture has its own unique stories and myths about the plants. I think the plant communicates to those who are willing to listen and then the stories are made up afterwards. In fact, along with the story of Daphne there are many different myths surrounding the origin of bay laurel.
In “Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe” (Man & Culture Publishers, 2003) the authors Marcel de Cleene and Marie Claire Lejeune describe the extensive symbolism of bay laurel. It has cleaning and healing powers so Greek generals who wore it may have hoped to cleanse themselves of the bloodshed they had engaged in. Bay laurel became associated with victory and the original meaning was gradually forgotten. Laurel also became a symbol of peace, wisdom and courage. Being evergreen, it was associated with eternal life and it was used in funerary rites and grown in cemeteries. Bay laurel was used for protection, against lightning and evil spirits among other things.
Bay laurel also played a role in divination and Pythia the priestess of Apollo at the oracle in Delphi chewed bay leaves to make prophecies. Bay laurel was apparently still used in the 19th century in the UK for purposes of divination. Bay laurel was also used against infectious diseases, including the plague and against the poisons of venomous creatures.
We have found that bay laurel is a powerful ally for opening the 5th chakra and speaking our truth, which we are all being called to do at this time. To me Jah’s clarification about the misassocation with the myth of Daphne and Apollo is one example of this speaking our truth. Its use in divination I imagine, also is related to its ability to help us speak the truth. One lesson for me in this clarification is to remember the plant and to communicate with the plant and to remember that there’s always more than one story. Speaking our truth doesn’t mean we have exclusive access to one truth or that there is only one truth, but that we need to be authentic and we need to allow others to be authentic. The Truth with a capital ‘T’ isn’t one, but we are each a part of it, like fragments of a hologram, each reflecting the whole.
We live in a time period where there is so much disagreement and seeming inability or unwillingness to find common ground. The voice of nature and the divine feminine has been silenced in a cacophony of egoic convictions and manipulations. Perhaps bay laurel can help us speak our truth, stand in our truth and reconnect us to the truth that is in nature. As it says in Psalm 85 “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. / Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” Perhaps Psalm 85 refers to bay laurel?
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