by Piet Coetzer

Taking the ultimate trophy home

Thank the Greeks for having to sit through hours of school prize-givings

Final word - Taking the ultimate trophy home
Trophy 002.jpg

It is that time of the year again – the time for award and prize-giving evenings at schools all over the country. Isn't it amazing how many trophies schools can amass over the years from ex-learners yearning for the “good old, carefree days of youth”,  from sponsors in “honour of” past young “stars” and promoters of some special subject or skill, from perseverance to maths. 

Headed towards another butt-testing prize-giving evening on the laminated wood chairs of my daughter’s school hall last week, I decided to have a look at where the tradition of trophies and the word describing it comes from. Several elements of the tradition passed through my mind during the course of the evening as the master of ceremonies carried on.

The word itself derived  originally from the Greek word tropajon, which referred to arms, standards and other property, human captives and body parts (from there comes the expression 'to headhunt') captured in battle.

The word 'trophy' arrived in the English language in the mid-16th century via the French word trophée. The French got the word from Latin, trophaeum, which was a  latinanisation ofthe original Greek .

There are plenty of testimonials to the brutal historical origins of the term 'trophy' in the definitions that it still holds. The list includes:

  • Anything taken in war, hunting, competition, etc., especially when preserved as a memento; spoil, prize, or award;Anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valour, skill, etc.; A carving, painting, or other representation of objects associated with or symbolic of, victory or achievement; and a memorial erected by certain ancient peoples, especially the Greeks and Romans, in commemoration of a victory in war and consisting of arms or other spoils taken from the enemy and hung on a tree, pillar, or the like.

In modern warfare, trophy taking, especially of bodies and body parts, is strongly discouraged. But there are examples of this tradition surviving into modern times. The infamous Selous Scouts of the old Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) Army of the 1970s severed the ears of their “kills” to save as mementos.

The Rhodesian special operations unit took its name from Frederick Courteney Selous (31 December 1851 - 4 January 1917), who was a British explorer, officer, hunter and conservationist famous for his exploits in South-East Africa. His exploits inspired Sir Rider Haggard to create the fictional character Allan Quatermain.

The tradition of this type of trophy collection is also still very strong in the world of game hunting. In fact “trophy hunting” is a huge industry in many parts of the world, and especially in Africa.

Those zillion silver cups displayed on what looked like a kilometre-long table on the stage in the school hall and which nearly made me turn around and do a record-breaking sprint for the parking lot and home for a glass of wine, are also a tradition for which we can thank the Greeks.

In ancient Greece, the winners of the Olympic games initially received no trophies except laurel wreaths. Later they also received an amphora with sacred olive oil. In local games, as at schools today, the winners received different trophies, such as a tripod vase, a bronze shield or a silver cup.

Two hours after I sat down on that cheap laminated seat, hanging onto my knees by my elbows for dear life, my greying and thinning hair hanging towards the floor, I swore a solemn oath: I don’t care how embarrassed my daughter is going to be, but next year I’m bringing a cushion to sit on along with me.

The next moment the master of ceremonies launched into another long-winded attempt at a joke. I lifted my weary head to look at him and started to fantasise about what his head would look like as a hunting trophy above the braai.

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