Bay

In Greek mythology, Daphne fled from Apollo, and was changed into a bay tree, which from that time became sacred to him (Clair). Did the priestess chew bay leaves before delivering the oracle? Palaiseul suggests that the leaves chewed would put them in a favourable state. Every sanctuary to Apollo had a bay tree, and none could be found where the soil was unfavourable to the tree's growth. No worshipper could share in the rites who did not have a crown of laurel on his head or a branch in his hand (Philpot). Since Apollo was the god of poetry, it follows that the crown of bay leaves became the customary award in the universities to graduates in rhetoric and poetry (Clair); we still speak of the "Poet Laureate" as the highest award for a poet in this country. Bachelor is from French bachilier, and Latin baccalaureus - laurel berry. Students who took their degree were not expected to marry, so single men are still bachelors (Wilks). The staff of bay of a reciting poet was assumed to assist his inspiration, just as the bay rod in the hand of a prophet or diviner was assumed to help him to see hidden things. That is why the use of bay played an essential part in the oracular ceremony at Delphi, to name but the most famous (Philpot).

Bay was used at weddings in a similar way to rosemary (Andrews. 1898) (see Rosmarinus officinalis). It featured in weddings in Burgundy, when, decorated with ribbons, a bay used to be hoisted to the highest chimney of the wedding house by the best man and six assistants. Then a bottle of brandy would be broken over it, and healths drunk, as guests sang:

Il est planté, le laurier.

Le bon vin l'arrose

Ménage tout rose,

Tout rose (Baker.1977).

This is a lightning tree, and a protector from lightning, which was believed powerless to hurt a man standing by one (Dyer. 1889), one of the "vulgar errors" listed by Aubrey (Aubrey. 1686). But people have been known to carry branches of it over their heads in a storm (Waring). "He who carrieth a bay leaf shall never take harm from thunder" (Browne. 1646), and Culpepper added to the belief - " ... neither Witch nor Devil, Thunder nor Lightning, will hurt a Man in the Place where a Bay-tree is". As garlic protected the boats from storms and the evil eye, so laurel protected them from lightning (Bassett). It was said (by Pliny) that the emperor Tiberius wore a laurel chaplet during thunderstorms for this reason. In the New Forest, the bay was planted because of the protection it gave from lightning and forest fires, but also because it averted evil (Boase), and in East Anglia, a bay (or holly) growing near a house has the same effect (G E Evans. 1966).

There are many more superstitions attached to the bay. The crackling of the leaves in the fire was a good omen. But if they just smouldered, the signs were not so good (M Baker. 1980). It used to be said that the decay of the tree was an omen of disaster, just as oaks were. Every Roman emperor solemnly planted one by the Capitol, and it was said to wither when he was about to die. Before the death of Nero, though the winter was very mild, all these trees withered at the roots; a great pestilence in Padua was preceded by the same phenomenon (Evelyn. 1678). It was the custom, too, for a successful general to plant a laurel at his triumph in a shrubbery originally set by Livia. Hence, bay is a symbol of glory (Leyel. 1937), or triumph, and as it is evergreen, of eternity (Ferguson). Shakespeare speaks of this superstition :

'Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay,

The bay-trees in our country all are wither'd

See also Holinshed : "in this year 1399 in a maner throughout all the realme of England, old baie-trees withered, and contrary to all men's thinking grew greene againe, a strange sight, and supposed to import some unknowne event".

It was believed in ancient Greece that spirits could be cast out by the laurel, and a bough was often fixed over the door in cases of illness (Philpot). That is why in ancient times a man would put a bay leaf in his mouth when he got up in the morning (Durham). That, though, can be quite rational, for a bay leaf has antiseptic properties, so that chewing one first thing was a good cleanser (like toothpaste) for a furry tongue. The practice on Chios of bathing in water to which bay and hazel leaves have been added (Argenti & Rose), must surely be another protective measure. Similarly, if a baby is born feet first, it will be lamed in an accident while still young, unless bay leaves are immediately rubbed on its legs (Waring). Aubrey mentions that branches of bay were strewn on coffins at 17th century funerals, and Jersey burial customs required the coffin to be covered with laurel and ivy (L'Amy). It used to be the custom in some parts of Wales for a funeral to be preceded by a woman carrying bay. She sprinkled the leaves on the road at intervals (J Mason). It is a symbol of resurrection, for seemingly dead trees often revive from the roots (Drury. 1994).

Cornelius Agrippa said that a sick magpie puts a bay leaf into her nest to cure herself (Berdoe), and, according to Aelian (De nature anim.), the pigeons put laurel sprigs in their nests to protect their young against the evil eye. The same use was noted in Morocco, where people would insure their ploughs against the evil eye by making some part of them in laurel wood.

It was used for love divination charms in this country. A St Valentine's Eve charm was to put two bay leaves across the pillow, after having sprinkled them with rose water, and saying:

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