Wreaths, now commonly used as decorations, adornment and memorial, have had a symbolic meaning in Western culture and history for over 2,000 years.
Woven from leaves and flowers and shaped in either a circle or a horseshoe shape that was worn around the head, wreaths have, since antiquity, symbolised glory, power and immortality.
In ancient Greece, wreaths were introduced as a reward for victory in athletic competitions, military endeavours and musical and poetic contests.
Winners of the Olympic Games, which were first held in 776 BCE and occurred every four years, were awarded a wreath made of olive leaves. These wreaths were known as kotinos and were said to have been gathered from the sacred wild olive tree in Olympia.
The historian Herodotus tells a story from after the Battle of Thermopylae about this wreath. When the Persian king Xerxes asked the Arcadian deserters why so few men had fought, they told him that all the others were at the Olympic Games. When questioned what the prize was, they said it was an olive wreath. Unable to hide his surprise, one of Xerxes’ generals exclaimed “Good heavens, [...], what kind of men are these that you have pitted us against? It is not for money they contend but for glory of achievement!” (Herodotus, The Histories, 8.26.3).
Similarly, during the Pythian Games, competition winners were awarded laurel wreaths. Held in honour of the god Apollo, they differed from the others because they also included competitions in art and dance (which is how they first began). For the Nemean Games, it was a wreath of celery, while the Isthmian Games featured one of pine leaves. These wreaths symbolised the achievements and status of the winners and could be dedicated to the gods in piety.
L-R: Terracotta lekythos with image of Apollo wearing a laurel wreath ca. 460-450 BCE (53.224. The Metropolitan Museum of Art); Silver tetradrachma from Pyrrhos, Epirus, depicting Zeus Dodonaeus wearing an oak wreath ca. 280-278 BCE (Alpha Bank); and a fresco from Herculaneum of the centaur Chiron teaching a young Achilles while wearing a laurel wreath, 1st century CE (9109. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli).
Certain plants were also dedicated to the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. For Apollo, it was the laurel tree. The nymph Daphne, desperate to escape Apollo's attentions asked for help and was transformed into a laurel. Apollo promised to honour her and from then on, the laurel became a symbol of poets, musicians, achievement and status which continues to this day.
The olive and oak were symbols of Zeus, with the oak said to represent wisdom. Celery, sacred to Zeus and Poseidon, was associated with death and the deceased were often crowned with it. Myrtle was the plant of Aphrodite and functioned in both weddings and funerals, while ivy and grapes were reserved for Dionysus, and worn during festivities dedicated to him.
Gold openwork hairnet featuring a maenad (female follower of Dionysus) wearing a wreath of vine leaves and grapes around her head, ca. 200-150 BCE. (1987.220. The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Wreaths weren't worn only during sporting and poetic competitions. They were also worn at aristocratic dinner parties known as symposia where it was thought that they could help relieve drunkenness (parsley actually appears to help with the smell of alcohol but the jury is still out for the overall usefulness of wreaths in this capacity). Other events in which wreaths made an appearance include weddings, funerals, dances, rituals and religious festivals.
Scene of a symposium on an Attic red-figure bell krater. The men and the female aulos player are all wearing wreaths. (By Nikias Painter - Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen).
In the Hellenistic period (323-31 BCE) gold wreaths increased in popularity. Made from delicate gold sheets which were individually cut and woven onto a gold frame using gold wire, gold wreaths were made to resemble their natural counterparts but were too fragile to wear except on rare or special occasions. They were exclusive to the aristocracy, with Athenaeus of Nitocris (ca. late 2nd-3rd century CE), an Egyptian-born Greek writer, noting that guests wore gold wreaths around their head during luxurious dinner parties in Alexandria, Egypt.
It was these wreaths that were placed in the tombs of important individuals like Philip II of Macedon and were intended to not only symbolise the victories of the deceased during their life, but also their immortality. Gold wreaths could also be dedicated to the gods at their sanctuaries.
L-R: Roman Emperor Claudius depicted as the god Jupiter, wearing an oak wreath, ca. 42-43 CE; the Roman goddess Flora wearing a floral wreath from Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera ca. 1482.
The Romans continued the usage of wreaths - brides worn wreaths of verbena, grass crowns were awarded to military personnel who saved either a legion or the army, the civic crown of oak leaves was presented to someone who saved the life of a citizen, while Roman Emperors were crowned with laurels.
A resurgence of interest in wreaths occurred during the Renaissance (ca. 14th-17th century) that saw wreaths revived for festive occasions and depicted in art. Circular wreaths (or stephana, or rings) are a symbol for eternal life (the shape that has no end) and have been incorporated into the Christian and Orthodox religions. So, whether it be hung on your front door for Christmas or worn around your head at a festival or wedding, floral and foliage wreaths are a symbol of the enduring and adaptable nature of ourselves, and our ongoing connection with our past.