5 Surprising Facts You May Not Know About the History of Trophies

May 10, 2018

Now, stop right there. I know what you plan to do: stare at the title for a few seconds, decide that it’s not going to be worth the effort, then continue scrolling and/or head over to YouTube to watch that hilarious video with the singing cats. Anything that includes the words “the history of” is intimidating and sounds like it’s going to be very long, very dry, and filled with terms like “community welfare” and “political maneuvering.

Never fear, then: we’re keeping this particular biography short and sweet because we all have things to do.

The trophy isn’t a particularly complicated invention, nor something that would have required eons of evolutionary development and human ingenuity to create. We aren’t talking about the internal combustion engine or space flight, here. We’re talking about an inanimate object that people give to other people to tell them, “hey, you did a good job on this thing.”

Still, it’s a concept that had to come from somewhere, so let’s take a brief trip down memory lane and break down the past into easy-to-digest parts. Below you’ll find 5 surprising facts about the history of trophies.

1. The Term is (Surprise!) Greek in Origin

Okay, maybe it’s not that surprising of a fact since 90% of our words seem to have their start in either Ancient Greece or Rome. The word, “trophy” has had an interesting evolution over the centuries, however.

At its very core, the term comes from the Greek root trepein, which means “to turn.” This evolved to trope: “a rout” or “a turning” of the enemy, referring to an “overwhelming defeat” of opposing forces. This led to tropaios (“of defeat, causing a route”), which led to tropaion (“a monument of an enemy’s defeat”), which led to the Latin trophaeum (“a sign of victory, a monument”), to French’s trophée: “a spoil or prize of war.”

From these definitions, one can glean that the trophies of today aren’t prized for the same reason that they were back then. Which leads us to the fact that…

2. Trophies Marked Victories of Bloodshed

The earliest trophies were most definitely not something you would want to win today, at least not unless you’re completely deranged or a serial killer. That’s because originally, trophies were often body parts of vanquished enemies, things like ears, fingers, heads, and other appendages that were sometimes worn, or at least displayed on pikes or battlements. If you ask me, the old days sound like a complete horror show. I’m super happy that trophies have evolved into something completely different.

Other trophies of old — tropaions — weren’t particularly portable affairs, more akin to art installations than keepsakes. Armies of ancient Greece created monuments on the battlefield to mark their defeat of enemy forces at that spot: captured arms and standards were hung on trees or stakes and arranged in the shape of a warrior, dedicated to the gods and left as a tribute to them. Naval triumphs were even more grandiose: entire ships were laid out on the nearest beach and inscribed with details of the battle. Deliberately destroying any of these memorials was considered sacrilege.

Of course, leaving these at the site of battle didn’t give you much to show off back home, which is why…

3. Rome Moved These Constructions to Their Doorstep

Taking something of a fallen enemy’s was a common way of proving one’s supremacy to others, and Rome combined this with Greek’s penchant for display by building tropaions within their own city walls, less concerned with impressing foreign powers than they were with furthering their own political careers at home. These statues featured columns and arches inscribed with scenes of the battle, at the top of which sat stone objects that acted as the template for the classic trophy design that we use today.

4. Then Greece Started Playing Games

The ancient Olympic Games that the city-states of Greece hosted around 776 BC marked the point when trophies began to shift from talismans of war to celebrations of competitive prowess, becoming much more compact in the process. Olive wreaths made of intertwined branches from a sacred tree near the temple of Zeus in Olympia were given to the winner, sometimes with a statue in their image being built in the city in commemoration.

The Panathenaic Games — another sporting event held in Athens — were similarly restrained with the scale of its prize. The award for these competitions was one or more amphoras: painted, two-handed pitchers filled with olive oil (a very expensive commodity at the time) that was covered with depictions of Athena and the events won by the victor.

Now that we have the more ancient origins established, let’s end things with a bit of a jump ahead.

5. The New World Really Loved its Fancy Cups

Little is known about trophies in the Middle Ages, so the first evidence we have of chalices (two-handed cups that could be considered a smaller evolution of the amphora) being given as prizes for placing in a contest of sport (instead of, say, killing another human being) comes from the late 1600s, when North America was first being settled by European explorers. One of the earliest known examples is the Kyp Cup: made by silversmith Jesse Kyp, it was a small sterling grail given to the winner of a horse race between two New England towns sometime around 1699.

Chalices became increasingly associated with sporting events in subsequent decades, typically made of silver and given in racing for horses, boats, and early automobiles. The design likely came from the loving cup: a shared drinking container that was traditionally used for religious gatherings and passed among congregations and attendees of church meetings, weddings, and banquets

Final Thoughts

These days, of course, a person can find mass-produced trophies of all shapes and sizes that are given out for pretty much any reason, such as participation trophies like the ones we wrote about in this blog post from January 2018. It may make them seem less valuable so far as rarity is concerned, but there are still family owned and operated foundries like Saxton Industrial who craft unique, custom trophies using both traditional and modern methods.

Now we can all enjoy the spoils without having to stab someone or embarrass ourselves at a public sporting event! Though it would be nice to bring back the olive oil thing: that stuff is always good to have on hand.

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