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BAY LAUREL - DAPHNE - ΔΑΦΝΗ



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Bay-Laurel

The bay-laurel tree (Laurus nobilis), sweet bay or Grecian bay, is a evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean regions (not to be confused with Kalmia latiflora, the mountain laurel or calico bush, which is poisonous). In ancient Greece, bay laurel was known as Dáphni (Daphne; Gr. Δάφνη) because of the legend concerning the plant. 


The Mythology concerning Bay Laurel 

Laurel is sacred to the mighty Olympian God Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων). The mythology is that Apóllohn fell in love with the nymph Dáphni. She resisted his advances and when pursued by the God, prayed to Yaia (Gaia or Earth; Gr. Γαῖα) who then turned her into a laurel tree to protect her.

"When Apollo was pursuing Daphne, the virgin daughter of the river Peneus, she asked Earth for protection. Earth took her in and turned her into a laurel tree. Apollo broke a sprig off of it and put in on his head." (Hyginus Fabulae, 203 Daphne, translated by R. Scott Smith and Stephen M. Trzaskoma in the book entitled Apollodorus' Library and Hyginus' Fabulae, Hackett Publishing co. [Indianapolis/Cambridge], 2007, p. 165)

"After the term of his silence (ed. Apollonios of Tyana) was over he also visited the great city of Antioch, and passed into the Temple of the Apollo of Daphne, to which the Assyrians attach the legend of Arcadia. For they say that Daphne, the daughter of Ladon, there underwent her metamorphosis, and they have a river flowing there, the Ladon, and a laurel tree is worshipped by them which they say is the one substituted for the maiden..."  (Philostratos Life of Apollonios of Tyana I.16, trans. F. C. Conybeare in 1912, found here in the 1948 edition entitled Philostratus: The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Harvard Univ. Press [Cambridge MA USA] and William Heinemann [London England UK], Loeb Classical Library [LCL], p. 43.) 


The Use of Laurel in Ancient Greek Religion, for Cooking, and Medicine

The laurel is sacred to Apóllohn and all the Gods. In iconography, Apóllohn typically is wearing a crown of laurel. Laurel is also a symbol of victory and other auspicious things: 

"And they crowned him (ed. Apóllohn) with laurel, partly because the plant is full of fire, and therefore hated by (ed. evil) daemons; and partly because it crackles in burning, to represent the God's prophetic art." (Porphyry On Images, Fragment 8, excerpt, translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford) 

At the pan-Hellenic games such as the Pythian Games of Dælphí (Delphi; Gr. Δελφοί), the winners were crowned with branches from the tree. Crowns of laurel were also awarded at musical contests.

"The crown for a Pythian victory is a bay wreath, so far as I can see because of the legend that Apollo was in love with Ladon's daughter (ed. Daphne)."  (Pausanias' Guide to Greece I: Central Greece, Book X Phokis, 7.4, translated by Peter Levi, 1971,  found on p. 423 of the Penguin 1979 edition)

Remainders of these customs can be found in titles, still in use in our time, such as Poet Laureate and Baccalauréat (the bachelor's degree).

For modern practitioners of Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, if we do not have branches of olive available, we use boughs of laurel in October for the Eiræsióhni (Eiresione; Gr. Εἰρεσιώνη) at the festival of Pyanǽpsia (Pyanepsia; Gr. Πυανέψια). Leaves from the Eiræsióhni may be burned in times of great trouble to beseech succor of Apóllohn

If you visit Dælphí, the ancient sanctuary of Apóllohn in Greece, you will find laurel trees growing in abundance all over Mount Parnassós (Parnassus; Gr. Παρνασσός). Just below the sanctuary there is a thick forest of the trees which you must pass through before ascending the mountain to arrive at the entry to the temple. 

The leaves of the tree are the principle offering to Apóllohn and all Gods in the rituals of Ællinismόs. If there is just one person making an offering, you would offer one leaf, but if there are many people, the leaves are offered in the foreground of the ritual altar, each person adding one....left, right, left, right, etc. ...forming a wreath. The laurel leaves can also be offered in a ritual fire or, after they have dried, they can be used as an incense-offering.

It is well known that the leaves of bay laurel have culinary uses, but they are said to have medicinal and nutritional properties as well. Laurel has fragrant flowers which are attractive to bees; the flowers develop into berries which were used for cooking in ancient times; if you wish to try the berries in food, be frugal as the flavor is unusual and can be overwhelming. 


The Cultivation of Laurel for Use in Ritual

If possible, offerings of laurel should be made with fresh leaves, not dried. If you cannot buy fresh laurel in the market, consider growing a tree. If you live in zones 7-8, the tree can be planted outside, otherwise, you may grow them in a pot. Laurel is very easy to grow.  

Plant laurel in a very large pot. In various articles it is often said that laurel is a slow-growing tree, but from the perspective of its use as a house-plant, laurel is rather fast growing and can become quite large in just a few years. The plant is trying to become a big tree; when it grows out-of-doors it can attain a height of 30-60 feet. After a mere two summers, the author's laurel reached five feet. Make sure there are holes in the bottom of the pots. Drill the holes yourself if they don't have them already; use a ceramic drill-bit if pottery. I love the beautiful clay pots made in Greece, but they become very, very heavy, together with all the soil and the large plants, so you may find it wiser to use a decorative plastic pot.

Although laurel does not seem fussy about soil, I used a combination of good topsoil mixed with sand and peat moss. To this I added some blood meal, bone meal, ground oatmeal (use a blender) and muriate of potash. These are slow materials to deteriorate and will not burn the roots. They create an excellent, natural soil that will not need to be replaced for a long time. It will retain moisture well. If you use this soil-mixture, pot the plants before winter because the various organic materials (especially the bone meal, blood meal, and the oatmeal) attract little animals that will knock your pots down looking for the food that they will not find, but these materials compost adequately in a couple months such that the odor is negligible. In truth, any good topsoil should be adequate for these very easy-to-please plants.

The recommendation (for most plants) is to water deeply, then allow the soil to almost dry out. In Chicago during the winter, this takes about a week (with the above soil mixture). In the coldest part winter, when it gets so very dry, I give them water in between. I have also had good luck watering daily, making sure that they do not sit in water. If you forget to water and the leaves of laurel sag, they will revive in an hour or so after watering. An excellent method of watering any plant is to acquire a large, deep plastic pan, like one for doing dishes, but a heavy-duty one you can find in a hardware store. Place a grill on top of this. Finally, put the flower-pot on top of the grill. Start adding water slowly until it begins to come out the holes in the bottom. After it finishes dripping (be patient and wait until it does not drip at all), put the pot and plant on a tray. If you use this method of watering, and wait until all the dripping has ceased, the roots will never sit in water and rot.  

In the very hot Chicago summers when I bring these plants outside, I water daily and deeply, allowing the water to flow out the bottom of the pots. In recent years we have had blistering heat into the low triple digits (Fahrenheit) and I have been watering both in the mornings and evenings. When the hot sun shines on laurel, the new growth sags, but don't worry; as long as they are well-watered, as soon as the sun passes, the leaves will revive perfectly. Laurel loves the sun.

Bay laurel is said to be frost tolerant. In the spring of 2012 we had frost going far beyond the usual last day for frost for the Chicago area (May 15). My laurel was outside for many days during this period. Yes, the laurel survived but there was considerable damage to the leaves. Ultimately, the tree recovered dramatically but the frost-damaged leaves had to be removed, and there were many such leaves, so I would recommend bringing your laurel in whenever there is the possibility of frost.

Every fall I bring in the laurel. Over the summer it has grown so much that the top few feet must be cut off. This does not seem to bother the tree at all. Place the tree near a window and supplement this with artificial grow-lamps. The laurel over-winters perfectly. It will not grow much while indoors, but once you place it back outside next spring, after about a month it begins growing quite vigorously. You will have more than enough leaves and branches for all ritual, the Eiræsióhni, and all your cooking needs. You will have such an abundance that there will be plenty to give away to all your friends as well. 

A last but very important note on the cultivation of laurel in pots: Like any potted plant, laurel must be re-potted regularly. As stated above, the laurel is trying to grow into a giant tree. In time, the roots will fill the pot and in their search for space they will begin to circle the wall and come out the holes in the bottom; the tree will eventually show signs of stress such as entire limbs dying out, leaves turning yellow and drying up for no apparent reason, etc. The usual technique is to replace the pot with one larger than the original, but there is a limit as to the size of the pot due to both weight and placement in the home during winter. The solution is to trim not only the branches but also to prune the roots when you re-pot. This will have the effect of moderately dwarfing the tree, which is the only possibility if you are keeping the laurel in a pot. If you wait too long before re-potting, it may be impossible to extract the plant, and you will need to break the pot and replace it with a new one, which could be an expensive mistake.

Mature laurel yields yellowish-white blossoms in the spring, very attractive to bees, which develop into green berries, deepening to a dark purple by the fall when they are ready for harvest. I have had my laurel for perhaps eight years and they have not blossomed yet; I am not sure if they ever will blossom, keeping them in pots with the required pruning, but I am still hoping!


Sources:

You can obtain seeds and plants for either bay laurel or myrtle at Richter's, a wonderful source for all kinds of herbs, spices, and plants: 

Richters Herb Catalogue Directory

Bay Laurel Plants

Bay Laurel Seeds

Bay Laurel seeds require stratification, a period of time in the refrigeratorhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stratification_%28botany%29

Fortunately, Richter's stratifies the seeds for you. They arrive semi-germinated.


 

"They say that the most ancient shrine of Apollo was built of sweet bay, with branches brought from the bay-grove at Tempe.  This shrine must have been in the form of a hut."  (Pausanias' Guide to Greece I: Central Greece, Book X Phokis, 5.5, translated by Peter Levi, 1971,  found on p. 416 of the Penguin 1979 edition)


The logo to the left is the principal symbol of this website. It is called the CESS logo, i.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky. The 
Pætilía (Petelia; Gr. Πετηλία) and other golden tablets having this phrase are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two kosmogonic substances. The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods. In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithára (cithara; Gr. κιθάρα), the lyre of Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων). It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphéfs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς). 


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