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Origin and history of the olive tree

The olive tree has always been the symbol of the Mediterranean culture, since people living around the Mediterranean Sea have grown and used its fruits and leaves in everyday’s life for a very long time. Fossil evidence backs up the hypothesis that the olive tree originated in the Anatolian region, from where the Phoenicians spread it throughout the Greek islands and Greece. Here, the tree gained special relevance, as testified by a law issued by Solon in the sixth century B.C. that made it illegal to cut down more than two olive trees at a time. Indeed, the first large scale cultivation of the olive tree should probably be credited to the Greeks, who mastered this art and elevated it to a science.

The olive tree was present in Greeks’ everyday life, to the point of becoming an object of dispute between Greek deities. According to ancient mythology, when the Greeks were searching for a patron deity for a newly built city in the land of Attica that then became Athens, there was a dispute among Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the Sea, who were both interested in the patronage. To solve the dispute, it was decided that the new city would be entitled to the God who could offer the most valuable gift to the citizens. Poseidon offered a well, but the water coming out of it was salty and not very useful, while Athena struck her spear on the ground, buried a branch of olive and generated the olive tree. The council of Gods determined that Athena was the winner, because the olive tree could not only live hundreds of years, but could also provide edible fruits and a precious oil, useful to season food and to heal wounds(1). The olive tree became a symbol of peace, prosperity, wisdom and triumph. The relevance of the olive tree was such, that it was represented on ancient coins, while the Goddess Athena was represented with an olive wreath on her helmet and an amphorae containing olive oil.

The olive tree was also a symbol of peace for the Jews. In the Book of Genesis, a white dove sent out of Noah’s ark to search for land, returned with an olive branch, indicating the end of God’s anger, and becoming an important symbol of peace. Olive oil holds also a special role in Christianity, from the celebration of baptism too that of the Palms’ Sunday.

Expand Bibliography
  1. World Olive Encyclopedia – International Olive Council, 1996