August – Laurel

August (Mensis Augustus) is named for Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. He was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus (Octavian) on September 23, 63 BCE. On March 15, 44 BCE, Octavian learned that Julius Caesar, his great-uncle, had been assasinated and had adopted Octavian as his sole heir. Octavian inherited the title Gaius Julius Caesar.

Statue of Augustus Caesar Augustus next to a laurel tree at the Forum of Trajan. – Rome, Italy.

When Octavian became the first Emperor of Rome in 27 BCE, the senate gave him the title Augustus, “the exhalted one”. Augustus Caesar, the divine son of the divine Julius” felt he had also been “chosen” by Apollo, (god of light, prophecy, healing, music and art) to usher in a new “Golden Age”. Augustus claimed the sacred tree of Apollo, (bay laurel – Laurus nobilis), as a symbol of his divinity. In response, the senate proclaimed that two laurel trees be planted at the entrance of Augustus’s home in Rome to signify his divine political status.

Denarius coin of Augustus Caesar – c. 19 BCE.
(Left) Augustus wearing the civic crown of oak leaves.
(Right) Roman shield with two laurel trees.

In 8 BCE the Roman Senate changed the name of the month Sextilis (sixth month in the old Roman calendar, when the year began in March) to Augustus (eighth month in the Julian calendar, when the year began in January). They chose this month because it signified the month of Augustus’s greatest victories in Actium and Egypt. Augustus ruled for 41 years, before passing away on August 19, 14 CE (Common Era).

Augustus in the Temple of Apollo – by Giovanni Battista Tiepole – c. 1743.

During his reign, he restored peace and prosperity to the Roman people. One of his greatest personal legacies was reviving the old Greco-Roman gods. He oversaw the construction of many temples, including the Temple of Apollo, which was connected to his home on the Palatine Hill. The Temple of Apollo was a sanctuary for artists, poets and philosophers such as Horace and Ovid. It also housed a library along with numerous paintings and statues.

In Greek and Roman mythology, Apollo/Phoebus (god of sun/light) is the son of Zeus/Jupiter (king of the gods) and Leto/Latona (daughter of Phoebe (light) and Coeus (North Pole). Apollo’s twin sister is Artemis/Diana (goddess of moon/hunter). Apollo was the father of Asclepius (god of medicine) and half-brother to Hermes/Mercury and Dionysis. Apollo is considered the most Greek God in the Roman pantheon, his origins are a blend of earlier solar gods from Anatolia, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Apollo at the Academy of Athens, Greece.

There are numerous stories that link Apollo with the laurel tree (Laurus nobilis). All of them are intertwined with the fact that bay laurel is native to the humid and sunny region of Mt. Parnassus, near the Gulf of Corinth in central Greece.

Around 4000 BCE, a rugged east-west trade route was established between the Gulf of Corinth and Northern Greece. It meandered through the Phaedriades, a pair of cliffs called “the shining ones.” Weary travelors found refuge in a grove of laurel trees near a freshwater spring and large secluded cave on the southwestern slope of Mt. Parnassus.

Trail on Mt. Parnassus going to Delphi, Greece

Archaeologists have discovered ritual artifacts dating back to 4000 BCE, plus evidence that a Mycenaean settlement was established there by 1400 BCE. This sacred space was worshipped by locals as the navel (omphalus) of mother earth (Gaia). Some saw it as the birthplace of humanity, and named it Delphus, meaning “womb”.

Laurel trees, known as Daphne, were thought to possess magical qualities that purified the mind, body and soul, and protected one from unwanted spirits. This was achieved by sprinkling laurel branches dipped in water or using the branches and leaves for bathing. Other methods included chewing laurel leaves and inhaling smoke from a fire made of laurel wood.

According to Pausanias, a Greek historian, Daphne (laurel tree) was an oracle of Gaia. The spring was named for Castalia, awater-nymph with healing powers. The Castalian Spring was guarded by a female serpent/dragon (drakaina) named Delphyne, who lived in the Corycian Cave next to the spring. The cave was named for the Corycian nymphs: Corycia, Malaina, and Kleodora.

Archeological site of Castalian Spring in Delphi, Greece.

Between 850 – 700 BCE, poets such as Homer and Hesiod brought elaborate stories and myths to life, which defined the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. Their epic and often contradictory poems included: The Iliad, The Odessey, Works and Days and the Theogony.

Homer and Hesiod often invoked the “Nine Muses” who lived on Mount Parnassus to inspire their writing. The word “muses” comes from the Greek word “mosis” meaning “a desire or wish”. The Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory), were born at the base of Mount Olympus. But, they lived on Mt. Parnassus with Apollo, who taught them art, literature, theatre, science, music, dance, astronomy and geometry. The word “muses” inspired the word “museum”.

Parnassus (Nine Muses at Delphi) – by Henryk Siemiradzki – c. 1900.

The Nine Muses:

  • Calliope – the superior muse of epic poems and art.
  • Clio – muse of history and books.
  • Erato – muse of love and lyric poetry – Eros
  • Euterpe – muse of music.
  • Melpomene – muse of tragedy and rhetoric.
  • Polymnia – muse of geometry and sacred songs.
  • Terpsichore – muse of dance.
  • Thalia – muse of comedy.
  • Urania – muse of astronomy.

In honor of Apollo, the Muses wore crowns of laurel or held laurel branches in their hands to inspire creative thought. Laurel staffs were given to poets, such as Homer and Hesiod, as symbols of poetic authority.

Hesiod and the Muse (holding a staff of laurel) – by Gustave Moreau – c. 1857.

The Muses inspired Homer to write the epic myth that identified the omphalus as the stone that Cronus/Saturn (Titan god of time and agriculture) swallowed after devouring 5 of his children. When his wife Rhea secretly gave birth to Zeus in Crete she swaddled the omphalus in cloth and gave it to Cronus. Thinking it was Zeus, Cronus promptly swallowed it. When Zeus was older, his grandmother Gaia gave him a tincture that would force Cronus to disgorge his siblings. Before he administered the tincture, Zeus sent two eagles to fly toward the east and west to determine the location of earth’s navel. When their paths crossed over Delphus, Zeus declared that this was the center of the earth, where Gaia lived. When Cronus ingested the tincture, the omphalus was the first thing he vomited. Zeus took the stone to Delphus and set it in a glen of magical laurel trees on Mount Parnassus.

Original Omphalos, “Navel” of Delphi. c. 300 BCE.

In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Apollo (beloved son of Zeus) traveled from his birthplace on the island of Delos to Delphus to claim the oracle, a laurel tree that spoke for Gaia. When he arrived, he was forced to kill Gaia’s serpent Delphyne with his arrows. To cleanse himself of her blood, Zeus banished Apollo to Thessaly to live as a shepherd for eight years. Before leaving, Apollo purified himself with laurel as he bathed in the Castalian Spring. Worried that no one would tend to his oracle, he looked for a boat in the Bay of Corinth. When he spotted a ship he took on the shape of a dolphin and swam to the boat. As Apollo Delphinius “Apollo of the Dolphin,” he flipped himself onto a boat sailing from Knossos, Crete. When Apollo revealed his true identity he instructed the ship’s crew to travel to Delphus and to serve as his priests. They were tasked with protecting the laurel trees along with the spring and its cave. Upon arriving at Delphus, the sailors found the corpse of Gaia’s serpent, which they named Pytho (Python) based on the verb puthein, “to rot”.

Apollo and the Python – by J.M.W. Turner – c. 1811

Bronze figurines from Crete have been found at Delphi that date to 800 BCE. It is believed that actual priests from Knossis, Crete, were historically responsible for bringing the cult of Apollo to Delphi. They renamed the settlement Delphi and the oracle Pythia, in honor of Gaia’s serpent. These male priests tended the nearby laurel trees, built its temples and managed the Pythia’s affairs. The Pythia (priestesses) were typically women over 50 from the region of Delphi. They were required to be cellibate during their service as a Pythia.

The Pythia only provided consultations on the seventh day before the new moon. Because Delphi would close over the winter months, there were only nine sessions a year. Before each session, the Pythia would perform a purification ceremony with laurel branches in the Castalian Spring.

The Oracle – by Camillo Miola – c. 1880.

The Pythia would then walk from the spring to the Temple of Apollo. She went into the Adyton, in the center of the sanctuary, where she sat upon a tripod made of laurel positioned over a fissure. It was here that she could connect with Apollo and reveal his prophecies. The omphalus sat next to the Pythia as she chewed laurel leaves and held a branch of laurel. She slowly breathed in the aromatic smoke of a fire fueled by laurel wood as well as vapors that rose through the fissure to induce a trance-like state. Once she was fully prepared, she provided prophecies on agriculture, life, death, succession, war and peace. The words of the Pythia were considered to be the voice of Apollo.

Priestess of Delphi – by John Collier. – c. 1891.
Pythia holding a laurel branch.

According to legend the first temple of Apollo was made of laurel wood, the second of beeswax and feathers and the third of bronze. The fourth temple, the first true historic temple, was built of tuff (volcanic rock) around 650 BCE. It was destroyed by fire in 548 BCE. The fifth temple, made of stone and marble, was built in 510 BCE. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 373 BCE, which caused the oracle to go silent.

After the oracle went silent, three Dephic Maxims attributed to Apollo through the Pythia or the Seven Sages of Greece, were inscribed on the Temple of Apollo for all visitors to see:

  • “Know thyself”
  • “Nothing in excess”
  • “Surety brings ruin”
The stadium of Delphi – Mount Parnassus, Greece.

The Pythian games, in honor of Apollo, began in Delphi around 586 BCE. They ranked second to the Olympics in Athens. Unlike the Olympics, competitive performances in poetry, painting, drama, singing, music and dancing were added. Women competed in both athletic and artistic events. They occurred every four years, two years before and after the Olympian games in the month of August (sextilis). The winners recieved laurel wreaths as a symbol of honor and victory. 

Ruins of Apollo’s Temple on Mount Parnassus. Delphi, Greece

The final temple of Apollo was built in 327 BCE, primarily for visitors of the Pythian games. With the rise of Christianity in 391 CE, the Roman Emperor Theodosious closed all temples and shrines dedicated to the ancient Greco-Roman religion. The Pythian games continued to be held at the stadium in Delphi until 424 CE (Common Era). Today only fragments of Delphi remain.

Ovid, a poet and contempory of Augustus, wrote his masterwork, Metamorphoses in 8 CE to better explain why laurel was so loved by Apollo. The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books, in chronological order, beginning with Book I, which features the stories of Creation, the Ages of Mankind, the Flood and the story of Apollo and Daphne. The last volume, Book 15, focused on the deification of Julius Caesar.

Apollo and the Python – by Peter Paul Rubens – c. 1636-1638.

According to Ovid, after Apollo killed Delphyne, he boasted to Cupid (son of Venus) that he was better with a bow and arrow. Cupid then shot a golden arrow into Apollo’s heart, which made Apollo fall madly in love with Daphne, a mountain nymph and Gaia’s oracle at Delphi. Cupid then struck Daphne with a lead arrow that made her hate Apollo.

Apollo and Daphne – by John William Waterhouse – c. 1908.

As Daphne fled Apollo’s affection she pleaded to the gods for help. They transformed her into a laurel tree that would protect and purify her. Undeterred, Apollo vowed to love Daphne and the laurel tree forever. Apollo created a wreath of laurel leaves, that he wore as a symbol of his undying love and determination.

Laurel leaf crown (bay laurel – Laurus nobilis).

The term “laureate” is directly related to Laurus nobilis, and the laurel wreaths of Apollo. A person earning a bachelors degree is considered a “baccalaureate“. Its origins come from “bacca lauri” meaning laurel berry, based on the tradition of placing laurel crowns on the heads of scholars. Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Prize in 1895. Nobel Prizes have been awarded for peace, physics, physiology or medicine, chemistry, literature and economics. The winners of these prizes are known as “laureates“.

Ancient laurel forests, “cloud forests”, thrived throughout the Mediterranean Region over 150 million years ago. As the climate became less humid these forests dwindled until they almost disappeared. Today the largest laurel forest (laurisilva) is found in the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands. These unique forests contain trees in the Laurus genus along with a wide variety of evergreens such as olives, magnolias, junipers and oaks.

Laurel “cloud forest” in Madeira.

Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is the “type species” in the Laurus genus, consisting of three species. It is the only Laurus that is considered edible for humans.

  • Laurus azorica – native to the Azores – (not for culinary use)
  • Laurus nobilis – bay laurel, sweet bay, true laurel – (used as a culinary spice)
  • Laurus novocanariensis – native to Madeira and Canary Islands – (not for culinary use)
Bay laurel, laurus nobilis.

Bay laurel is also the type sepcies in the much larger Lauraceae family, consisting of 3000 species such as: cinnamon, avocado, sassafras and camphor.

The closest relative to bay laurel, in the Lauraceae family, is California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). This species, native to California and southern Oregon, produces leaves similar to bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), which can be used as a culinary spice. The leaves are stronger in aroma and flavor, which can be used in soups and stews as a flavor enhancer. In Oregon, it’s called myrtlewood. Myrtlewood is used by woodcarvers to create artisitic wooden bowls and cups. Myrtlewood is not related to the Myrtle tree.

California bay laurel, Umbrellia californica – Old growth trees in southern Oregon. – Photo by – Laural V Wauters.

In ancient times bay laurel was used as a medicinal plant that “purified” the body of disease. It was also used to keep away unwanted spirits that inhabited the body and caused disease.

Today it is primarily used as a culinary spice. The leaves are tough and difficult to eat, they are typically placed into soups or stews to infuse flavor and then removed before serving.

As an essential oil its strong aromatic quality is similar to eucalyptus, camphor and tea tree. It can be blended with Roman chamomille, lavendar or cedar to clear the air. It can also be used to deter pests around the house. Note: Bay laurel essential oil should never be ingested.

Bay laurel essential oil.

August is the perfect month to “rest on your laurels”.

This is a time to reflect and enjoy what you have achieved and to allow yourself to daydream. In today’s fast-paced and conflict-ridden world this ancient and restful phrase has been reinterpreted as a sign of laziness vs achievement. The idea of “don’t rest on your laurels” is now all too commonly used to diminish our ability to appreciate our accomplishments. In essence, it disempowers us from honoring ourself, which is important. The most notable of the three Delphic Maxims was “know thyself”. To know ourself we must take time to acknowledge who we are and what we have done, and to sit with it for awhile without taking drastic action. The month of August reminds us of that.

This is also a month of finding or reconnecting with our personal muse. What is it that inspires us? If we have placed our creative energy on the back burner, maybe now is a time to reclaim it.

Ideas for August:

  • Find your muse by acknowledging what inspires you.
  • Reflect and honor your achievements, make a list if that will help.
  • Sit back and relax to the sounds and music of nature.
  • Enjoy the clouds as they create artful images in the sky.
  • Listen to your favorite songs
  • Create a mix of bay leaf and lavender essential oil to place in a diffuser to clear the air.
  • Add a bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) or two into a slow-cooking meal like soup or stew to add flavor.
  • Visit a museum, art gallery or art show.
  • Take in any outdoor concerts or festivals in your area.
  • Go to your local farmers market to check out what’s fresh from the garden.

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