Thursday, 29 March 2018

Flower Power : Botanical Crowning Glories

With so many international sporting festivals this year (Winter Olympics and Paralympics, Commonwealth Games, Gay Games, Asian Games, Youth Summer Olympics, among others) athletes’ attention turns to winning medals. The ancient Greek games from which so many of them take their inspiration didn’t have medals. Instead they had various prizes, and those that didn’t had victory crowns made from sacred plants as their only reward.
We saw some acknowledgement of these victory wreaths at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, both in the form of the games logo (above) and in the olive wreaths presented to the medallists on the victory podium.

Only the winners of the ancient games were awarded victory wreaths. There was no prize for coming second or third. All of the athletes, regardless of which shrine the games were being held, has trained the same way. Athletes joined a gymnasium as a boy of about 12, and were immediately sought out by an older athlete as a training and sexual partner. It gives a whole new slant of the term “gym buddy”. That is why there was always a statue of Eros in every gym. Without repeating what I’ve written many times before Eros was associated with male same-sex activity more than with any other kind.

The ancient Olympics were the most famous and most prestigious games. Olive trees grew in the grove around the temple of Zeus at Olympia and were considered sacred to him. One myth recounts that Herakles brought the first olive tree to Olympia after one of his many adventures and planted it at Olympia to honour his father Zeus. Herakles is also said to have founded the Olympic Games and was the first to present the victors with a wreath of olive branches.

Before we look at the other floral victory wreaths let’s look at which games awarded them. The Olympic games were the most important of the four Panhellenic games. These were the games that were open to all Greeks regardless of which city state they came from. The other games were held in specific years of the Olympiad.

An Olympiad is a period of time, not an event. It lasted four years and the Olympics were held in the first year, as the modern games still are. If you’ve wondered why the 2018 Rio Olympics were referred to as the games of the 31st Olympiad even though they were only the 28th games that have been held, that’s the reason why. The World Wars prevented games from being held for the 5th, 12th and 13th modern Olympiads.

Here is a table of the ancient Panhellenic games and where and when they were held. 




Year 1

Olympic Games


Year 2

Isthmian Games (April-May)


Nemean Games (July)


(modern day Archaia Nemea)

Year 3

Pythian Games


Year 4

Isthmian Games (April-May)


Nemean Games (July)


(modern day Archaia Nemea)

In the second year of the ancient Olympiad two Panhellenic games were held. The first was the Isthmian Games held at the temple of Poseidon at Corinth. The victors of these games were awarded wreaths of pine fronds. The pine tree was sacred to Poseidon, the god of the sea, because it was used for building ships. Like the flora used for the other victory wreaths pine was considered a vital part of the local economy and culture and held sacred significance.

During the 5th to 1st centuries BC the Isthmian pine wreath was temporarily replaced with one made of celery. No, not the crunchy salad celery but the leafy wild celery from which it was cultivated. I can’t get the image of a hunky naked Greek athlete standing on a victory podium with a wreath made of stick of celery on his head! It’s like something out of the abysmal “Horrible Histories” alleged children’s educational television series. But while the Isthmian Games regained the pine wreath the Nemean Games always awarded wild celery victory wreaths.

Wild celery was considered to be unlucky to the ancient Greeks. So why would anyone use it to celebrate victory? The reason goes back to one of the myths about the creation of the Nemean Games. An oracle had told a local king that his son, Prince Opheltes, should never touch the ground until he had learned to walk. One day the Seven Against Thebes, a group of legendary heroes who led an army against the usurper of the Theban throne, rested for a while in the foothills of the Arkadian mountains. There they met a nursemaid carrying the baby Prince Opheltes. The nursemaid offered to fetch some water to refresh the heroes and laid the baby down onto a bed of wild celery, ensuring that he couldn’t touch the ground. It wasn’t high enough to stop a snake from slithering up to the baby and killing it. This seemed like a bad omen to the Seven heroes and to bring good luck in their mission they held funeral games in the baby prince’s honour at the place where he died. Funerals were always occasions where sport played a major part in Greece, so this was not unusual. Victory wreaths made from wild celery were given to the victors. That’s one of the myths of the Nemean Games and celery. The modern revival of the Nemean Games still has wild celery wreaths as the only reward for the victors.

The fourth of the Panhellenic Games was the Pythian Games held at Delphi in honour of Apollo. These games awarded the most famous victory wreath of them all – the wreath that has given its name to the best of other endeavours. The laurel wreath.

The honour of being appointed a Poet Laureate or a Nobel laureate originate in the ancient award of a laurel wreath (the word “baccalaureate” comes from a different source). The reason is because of the original contests held at the Pythian Games. I’ll write more about this later this year as part of my “Around the World in Another 80 Gays” series, but, briefly, the Pythian Games originated as song and poetry contests. Apollo was god of music and poetry and Delphi was his most important shrine. Sport was added to the games a few centuries later.

The laurel was sacred to Apollo. The myth goes that he and Eros argued over who had mastery over archery. Eros secretly created two arrows, one of gold and one of lead. He shot the gold arrow at Apollo, giving him an overwhelming feeling of sexual passion. Eros then fired the lead arrow at a nymph called Daphne, giving her an overwhelming revulsion to sex. Apollo pursued Daphne relentlessly, ignoring the nymph’s protests. In desperation Daphne called upon the gods for help and they turned her into the first laurel tree. Apollo’s passion was not diminished and he declared his eternal devotion to the laurel. Since then Apollo was always seen wearing a laurel wreath on his head. Therefore the Pythian Games awarded laurel wreaths to the winners of the poetry and song contests in honour of Apollo.

I like the idea of presenting floral victory wreaths. Like the 2004 Athens Olympics it’s a nod to those ancient games which have inspired so many modern games. At least it’s more likely to be welcomed than having all-male naked sport with same-sex couples is likely to be.

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