Olives – A short history

The eternal olive tree: a tree to be reckoned with

Wild olive trees existed as long as forty million years ago, in the area we now know as the Mediterranean. No doubt they would have been a prized delicacy for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Who knows what kind of joyous dancing and whooping early humans performed when the olives were in season.

The first cultivated olive tree is said to have been planted by the ancient Greek goddess, Athena, at the rock of the Acropolis in Athens. Athena had had a disagreement with Poseidon, god of the sea, over who would govern the great city. They had a contest in which each had to offer a marvellous present, and the other gods would decide which was the most precious.

The immortals watched, on tenterhooks, as Poseidon drove his holy trident, the great forked spear which decided the fate of the seas, and stabbed it into the side of the holy rock, opening a precious spring of salty water. Everybody was suitably impressed.

But then Athena stepped forward, in her flowing white robes. She stabbed her javelin into the earth, and immediately an olive tree sprang up, its branches loaded with fruit. The beautiful tree wowed everyone with its silver-green foliage and its invaluable oil.

Guess who won? It was no contest, really. As we know, it was Athena who gave her name to the city.

The story doesn’t end there. One of Poseidon’s sons, infuriated by the insult to his father, took an axe, climbed the rock, and brought the axe down on the tree. But it slipped in his hands and killed him instead by chopping off either his head or his leg – mythology isn’t clear on this point, but it doesn’t matter – the power of the olive tree had been revealed. Even today, a magnificent olive tree stands in the same spot as the original.

The olive tree at the holy rock of the Acropolis today

When the Persians invaded Athens in 480 BC, they burnt down the olive tree, which was said to be the very same holy tree Athena had planted. There was great despair amongst the people, until the next morning when they saw that a new bud had sprouted from the burnt remains, which grew into a new holy tree. The origin of this legend may lie in the fact that olive trees seem to be almost immortal, in that they live for hundreds of years, even in the toughest conditions, and when the trunks dry up, new shoots grow from them.

The olive tree: a civilising influence

Olive cultivation most likely began in Crete, amongst the Bronze Age people around five or six thousand years ago. Modern civilisation began in the Mediterranean, and it is thought that the olive tree helped to kick-start this development, along with wine and wheat. This means that olives have greatly shaped the world we live in today, for better or worse. You might want to remember that the next time you plop one into your martini.

Olive trees also ensured the economic dominance of Crete in the Aegean world. During the Roman Empire, olives were a precious commodity and were traded far and wide. Romans loved olives so much that they had them both as a starter and as a dessert.

A holy tree

It is said that when Christ was pursued by his enemies, he lay down under an olive tree, and his falling tears watered its roots. This is why Cretans say that the olive tree is the most holy tree in the world.

In Greece, an ancient burial custom was to put bodies on a layer of olive branches; it may have been thought that this would bring eternal life. Even today, a priest will sometimes cut three olive branches and throw them onto a coffin just before the grave is filled, and olive branches are used as part of Palm Sunday processions.

Olives aged 3500 years old have also been found by archaeologists in an area struck by an earthquake. The bowls of olives found there are thought to have been used as offerings to the gods of the underworld when the first tremors began. Olive stones from the same period have been found in graves, which shows their great value and perhaps a belief in their use in the afterlife.

The olive tree is also seen as an emblem of peace. Messengers in ancient Greece carried an olive branch as a holy symbol of peace, and of course it is written in the Bible that the peace-offering dove carried an olive leaf to Noah as a sign from God that the flood had abated.

Olives: a health food

Of course, olives have been enjoyed and relied upon as a food source since prehistoric times. Over time, people worked out how to soak and preserve olives with salt water so that they could be eaten year-round, and presses were created to extract the precious oil. During Byzantine times, olives were seen as a symbol of survival during harsh agricultural conditions; it is likely that olives kept people alive.

Scientists today agree that olives are one of the most health-giving foods we can eat. They are a central part of the famed Mediterranean Diet, and two of the world’s longest-living people have cited the olive as one of the main reasons for their great longevity.

Olive oil as medicine

Olive oil has many health-giving benefits, including anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. So, it is no surprise that the oil has been revered as a medicine for thousands of years. Pagans in 300 AD would mix oil with water and put drops on ill people who would, apparently, be immediately cured. Marcus the Evangelist said that Christ’s disciples anointed sick people with olive oil and cured them, whilst Byzantine doctors used it for fever, stomach ailments, and even leprosy. The oil has also been used in olden times as a tooth-whitener.

Olive oil is also traditionally believed by Greeks to be an aphrodisiac and fertility-booster. An old custom amongst newly-weds was to eat bread soaked in the first olive oil of the year.