The olive wreath also known as kotinos (Greek: κότινος), was the prize for the winner at the ancient Olympic Games. It was a branch of the wild olive tree that grew at Olympia, intertwined to form a circle or a horse-shoe. The branches of the sacred wild-olive tree near the temple of Zeus were cut by a “pais amfithalis” (a boy whose parents were both alive) with a pair of golden scissors. Then he took them to the temple of Hera and placed them on a gold-ivory table. From there, the Hellanodikai (the judges of the Olympic Games) would take them, make the wreaths and crown the winners of the Games.
According to Pausanias it was introduced by Heracles as a prize for the running race winner to honour his father Zeus. In the ancient Olympic Games there were no gold, silver, or bronze medals. There was only one winner per event, crowned with an olive wreath made of wild-olive leaves from a sacred tree near the temple of Zeus at Olympia. Olive wreaths were given out during the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens in honor of the ancient tradition, because the games were being held in Greece.
Herodotus describes the following story which is relevant to the olive wreath. Xerxes was interrogating some Arcadians after the Battle of Thermopylae. He inquired why there were so few Greek men defending the Thermopylae. The answer was "All other men are participating in the Olympic Games". And when asked "What is the prize for the winner?", "An olive-wreath" came the answer. Then Tigranes, one of his generals uttered: "Good heavens! Mardonius, what kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight? Men who do not compete for possessions, but for virtue."'
Why, Zeus is poor, and I will clearly prove it to you. In the Olympic games, which he founded, and to which he convokes the whole of Greece every four years, why does he only crown the victorious athletes with wild olive? If he were rich he would give them gold.
The victorious athletes were honoured, feted, and praised. Their deeds were heralded and chronicled so that future generations could appreciate their accomplishments. In fact, the names of the Olympic winners formed the chronology basis of the ancient world, as arranged by Timaeus in his work, The Histories.
- LSJ entry κότινος
- "As a result of the early domestication and extensive cultivation of the olive tree throughout the Mediterranean Basin, the wild-looking forms of olive (oleasters) presently observed constitute a complex, potentially ranging from wild to feral forms." observe R Lumaret, N Ouazzani, H Michaud, G Vivier, "Allozyme variation of oleaster populations (wild olive tree)(Olea europaea L.) in the Mediterranean Basin" Heredity, 2004; feral "wild" olives (Olea europaea) were distinguished by Theophrastus and other ancient Greeks from kotinos the wild-olive, today informally but confusingly rendered oleaster; compare the unrelated modern genus Cotinus, from Anc. Gr. kotinos.
- Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants, IV.13.2: 'the wild-olive [kotinos] at Olympia, from which the wreaths for the games are made".
- Αρχαίοι Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες: Οι τιμές στους Ολυμπιονίκες.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.7.7
- Herodotus, The Histories, Hdt. 8.26
- Aristophanes, Plutus, 585.
- What prizes did Olympic victors get? at Perseus
- Winners’ rewards in Antiquity not in numbness (page 11)