Imprinted on Olympic medals is a sprig of laurel because, since antiquity, laurel has been associated with victory. The victory laurel began, though, not with the Olympics, but with another Panhellenic festival, the Pythian Games. Sacred to Apollo, the Pythian Games were almost as important to the Greeks as the Olympics, and as is appropriate for a religious festival in honor of Apollo, the laurel symbolizes an important mythological event for the god Apollo. The British poet Lord Byron describes this major Olympian god as:
"...The lord of the unerring bow,
The god of life, and poetry, and light,
The Sun, in human limbs arrayed, and brow
All radiant from his triumph in the fight.
The shaft has just been shot; the arrow bright
With an immortal's vengeance; in his eye
And nostril, beautiful disdain, and might
And majesty flash their full lightnings by,
Developing in that one glance the Deity."
- Byron, "Childe Harold," iv. 161
The games were called "panhellenic" because they were open to all free adult male Hellenes or Greeks. We call them games, but they could also be called competitions. There was a 4-year Panhellenic Athletic Game cycle:
- Olympic Games
Isthmian Games (April)
Nemean Games (late July)
Originally held every eight years, the Pythian Games were held every fourth year by c. 582 B.C.
- Isthmian Games and Nemean Games
Mythological Origins of the Games
The mythological origins of the Olympics include the story that Pelops defeated and killed his would-be father-in-law in a chariot race or that Hercules put on the games to honor his father after he defeated the perfidious King Augeas. Like the Olympics, the Pythian Games also have mythological origins.
During the Great Flood (aka the Deluge), Deucalion and Pyrrha (like Noah and company) were spared, but when they arrived on dry land without an ark at Mt. Parnassus there were no other people around. Saddened by this, they prayed to the oracle at the temple there and were given this advice:
"Depart from me and veil your brows; ungird
your robes, and cast behind you as you go,
the bones of your great mother."
Skilled in the ways of oracles, Deucalion understood "the bones of the great mother" (Gaia) were rocks, so he and his wife walked away throwing stones behind them. The stones Deucalion threw became men; those Pyrrha threw, women.
Gaia continued to produce even after Deucalion and Pyrrha had finished throwing stones. She formed animals, but Gaia also took the mud and slime to fashion a giant python.
The Pythian Games' Namesake - The Python
This period just after the Deluge was a simpler time when not even gods -- let alone men -- had powerful weapons. All Apollo had was the bow he used to kill tame, game animals, like deer, and goats, but nothing he could count on to use against a creature of great size. Still, he resolved to rid mankind of the frightening monstrosity, so he shot his entire quiver into the beast. Eventually, Apollo killed the Python.
Lest anyone forget or fail to honor him for his service to mankind, he instituted the Pythian Games to commemorate the event.
Music at an Athletic Event
Apollo is associated with the art of music. Unlike the other Pahellenic games (Olympics, Nemean, and Isthmian), music was a major part of the competition. Originally, the Pythian Game was all music, but athletic events were added over time. The first three days were devoted to musical competition; the next three to athletic and equestrian competitions, and the final day to worship of Apollo.
This unique and competitive emphasis on music was a fitting tribute to Apollo, who was not only a gifted, but also a competitive musician. When Pan claimed he could make better music on his syrinx than Apollo could on his lyre, and asked the human Midas to judge, Midas awarded Pan the victory. Apollo appealed to a higher judge, a fellow god, won, and rewarded Midas for his honest opinion with a pair of donkey ears.
Apollo didn't just compete with the goat god Pan. He also competed with the love god -- a foolish move.
Love and the Victory Laurel
Filled with bravado from slaying the mighty python with his arrows, Apollo looked at the god of love's delicate little golden arrows and his equally unthreatening dull, heavy, iron ones. He might even have laughed at Eros and told him his arrows were puny and worthless. Then they might have had a competition, but instead Apollo grew needlessly angry and demeaning. He told Eros to content himself with flames and leave arrows to the strong and brave.
While Eros' bow and arrows might have seemed puny, they were not. Annoyed by the condescension, Eros resolved to prove whose bow was truly the more powerful, so he shot Apollo with a golden arrow that made him fall hopelessly in love with the woman whom Eros shot with the iron. With the iron arrow Eros pierced the heart of Daphne, forever turning her against love.
Thus Apollo was doomed to pursue Daphne and Daphne was doomed to flee from Apollo's advances. But Daphne wasn't a goddess and had little chance against Apollo. In the end, when it looked as though Apollo would have his hateful way with her, she begged to be saved and was -- by being turned into a laurel tree. From that day forth Apollo wore a wreath made from the leaves of his beloved.
So, in honor of Apollo and his love of Daphne, a laurel wreath crowned the victor at Apollo's Pythian games.