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Bay Laurel – Unmorphing Myth

Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae) has been associated with the scent of the paradisiacal Elysian fields in Homer’s Aeneid, the myth of Apollo and Daphne and her transformation into a tree, and the substance that caused the Delphic Oracle, known as the Pythia, to fall into trance.1 Many texts and website posts will mention these stories when describing bay laurel, but the question arises if this is actually the tree that the ancient writers refer to when they used the term “laurel”. For the latter two references, there is debate as to veracity of these assumptions.

There are variations to the myth of Daphne and Apollo, one that Apollo killed the nymph Daphne’s bridegroom and then gave chase to her and another that she had chosen a woodland lifestyle and dedication to remaining unmarried. Some versions state that Apollo insulted Eros, whereupon the god of love shot Apollo with a golden arrow filling Apollo’s heart with desire for Daphne, and then shot Daphne with an arrow of lead inciting her with repulsion for Apollo. Daphne flees, and Apollo gives chase. As he catches her, she begs for help, and her father, the river Peneus, turns her into a tree. This does not dampen Apollo’s ardor, and he proclaims in Homer’s Metamorphoses “My bride, since you can never be, at least, sweet laurel, you shall be my tree.” Henceforth, Apollo is seen decked in wreaths of laurel, as are rulers, Olympic winners, and poet laureates. However, as Cathy Skipper notes, the laurel of the myth has more in common with spurge laurel (Daphne laureola, Thymelaeaceae), which is neither a spurge nor a laurel, than with bay laurel.2 Spurge laurel has beautiful small clumped yellow-green four-petal flowers (reminiscent of Daphne’s beauty), often grows close to rivers (near her father’s realm), and prefers shade (hiding from the sun god, Apollo), where the bay laurel prefers sun and rocky, sandy, well-drained soil.

The Delphic Oracle was known to sit on a tripod over a grate from where smoke or incense arose, as well as to chew leaves or drink a water infusion, to promote her visions and prophesies. Various hypotheses state that the Oracle was inhaling fumes from gases such as methane and ethylene, was subjected to snake venom, or that she breathed in plant fumes (and consumed) oleander (Nerium oleander, Apocynaceae).3 According to several ancient texts, the Pythia was exposed to “laurel” which caused the effects of agitation, bounding/leaping, voice harshness, epileptic seizures, and sometimes death. Bay laurel does not induce any of these symptoms. However, all parts of oleander are poisonous and contain cardiac glycosides. The symptoms of oleander poisoning are similar to those experienced by the Pythia, along with nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and visual disturbances.

Since authors of these ancient texts have used plant names that are unidentifiable, or used the same name to describe various plants, botanists, historians, and others are left with the challenge of elucidating a particular plant by the various authors’ descriptions as well as reactions to its consumption. Carl Linnaeus taxonomy classification is a comparatively recent development in the course of written history, having been created in the 18th century. Ancient texts will continue to challenge causing research across disciplines to examine, research, present hypotheses, and question the hypotheses that came before.

Lori Glenn
HerbClip™ Managing Editor

References

1Rhind JP. Fragrance and Wellbeing – Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche. London: Singing Dragon; 2014.

2Skipper C. Bay Laurel digs for the Truth. Aromagnosis website. November 21, 2019. Accessed May 6, 2021. https://www.cathysattars.com/bay-laurel-digs-for-the-truth/?v=7516fd43adaa#:~:text=The%20common%20sources%20say%20that,the%20Olympian%20Greek%20god%20Apollo.&text=In%20return%2C%20Eros%20shot%20Apollo,made%20her%20flee%20from%20Apollo.

3Harissis HV. A bittersweet story: The true nature of the laurel of the Oracle of Delphi. Perspect Biol Med. Summer 2014;57(3):351-360. doi: 10.1353/pbm.2014.0032.