Wreaths are circular decorations usually made of flowers, vines, leaves, or other materials fashioned in the shape of leaves or flowers. In modern times wreaths have most often been used as a household decoration, displayed on a table or hung on a door. However, in ancient Greece, beginning around the sixth century b.c.e., wreaths were a common personal adornment. Worn on the head as a sort of crown, wreaths not only served as decoration but often indicated a great honor, such as a victory in war or an achievement in work or study. Since ancient times wreaths have also been used to honor the dead.
In ancient Greece people felt their connection with nature deeply, and nature was given importance in the religions of the day. For the Greeks of around 500 b.c.e., many flowers and plants had special meanings, and often gods and goddesses were identified with certain plants. Therefore, the wearing of plants had a certain significance. Though women did weave some flowers and leaves into wreaths to wear in their hair as simple decoration, other wreaths were only worn on certain special occasions. For example, those who celebrated the wild rites of Dionysus, the god of wine and merrymaking, often wore wreaths of grape leaves and ivy. Leaves of the grapevine were also used to make the wreaths worn by actors who performed in the famous Greek theaters, and laurel wreaths were placed on the heads of poets and scholars who were honored for their work.
Another occasion that called for wreaths was athletic competition. The most famous of these were the Olympic games, which were held every four years in the city of Olympia in honor of Zeus, the most powerful of the Greek gods. Young men came from all over Greece to compete in the games, and winners were honored with crowns of olive leaves. There were other games around Greece, and each had its own particular wreath. Winners of the Pythian games, which honored the god Apollo, received wreaths of laurel, which was sacred to the god. The Isthmian games, held in the city of Isthmia, featured victory wreaths made of pine needles, while the Nemean games, held in Nemea, a valley northwest of Argos, offered leaves of wild parsley.
Victorious generals were crowned with wreaths, as were priests and priestesses performing religious rituals. Along with living heroes the Greeks also adorned statues of gods, goddesses, and famous mortals with wreaths. An olive wreath hung on a Greek door during the fifth or sixth centuries b.c.e. announced the birth of a baby boy. It was fashionable at the time for Greek women to adorn their hair with elaborate jewelry, and some wore wreaths made of gold leaves.