FACTS ABOUT THE OLIVE
The olive was native to Asia Minor and spread from Iran, Syria and Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean basin 6,000 years ago. It is among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world – being grown before the written language was invented. It was being grown on Crete by 3,000 BC and may have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan kingdom. The Phoenicians spread the olive to the Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe. Olives have been found in Egyptian tombs from 2,000 years BC. The olive culture was spread to the early Greeks then Romans. As the Romans extended their domain they brought the olive with them.
1,400 years ago the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, advised his followers to apply olive oil to their bodies, and himself used oil on his head. The use of oil is found in many religions and cultures. It has been used during special ceremonies as well as a general health measure. During baptism in the Christian church, holy oil, which is often olive oil, may be used for anointment. At the Christmas mass, olive oil blessed by the bishop, “chrism”, is used in the ceremony. Like the grape, the Christian missionaries brought the olive tree with them to California for food but also for ceremonial use. Olive oil was used to anoint the early kings of the Greeks and Jews. The Greeks anointed winning athletes. Olive oil has also been used to anoint the dead in many cultures.
The olive trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are reputed to be over 2000 years old, still relative newcomers considering the long domestication of the olive. We don’t know the exact variety of the trees on the Mount. Man has manipulated the olive tree for so many thousands of years that it is unclear what varieties came from which other varieties. Varieties in one country have been found to be identical to differently named varieties in another. Some research is now being done using gene mapping techniques to figure out the olive family tree. Shrub-like “feral” olives still exist in the Middle East and represent the original stock from which all other olives are descended.
In the past several hundred years, the olive has spread to North and South America, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
THE OLIVE IN CALIFORNIA
As the Franciscans marched north, establishing missions in California, they also planted olive groves. Southern California saw the first olive trees. According to an account in Judith Taylor’s book, The Olive in California, a visitor to Mission San Fernando in 1842 saw the mission buildings in ruins but the orchard with a good crop of olives. The visitor remarked that the mission probably had the biggest olive trees in the state. Subsequently in the past 150 years, trees have been planted in several waves along with interest in olives and olive oil. Many of these older groves (80-150 years old) still exist in California. Most are in Northern California. In Southern California population and housing pressure have put the farmers out of business. There are many isolated trees or fragments of old groves but the land is too expensive for olive growing. Income per acre is 10 times lower than other crops like wine grapes and even those can’t compete with development potential.
Athens is named for the Goddess Athena who brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift. Zeus had promised to give Attica to the god or goddess who made the most useful invention. Athena’s gift of the olive, useful for light, heat, food, medicine and perfume was picked as a more peaceful invention than Poseidon’s horse – touted as a rapid and powerful instrument of war. Athena planted the original olive tree on a rocky hill that we know today as the Acropolis. The olive tree that grows there today is said to have come from the roots of the original tree.
THE LEGEND OF THE OLIVE
According to the ancient Greek history, Poseidon, god of the sea and Athena, goddess of peace and wisdom, disputed over whose name would be given to the newly built city, in the land of Attica. To end this dispute, it was decided that the city would be named after the one who offered the most precious gift to the citizens. Poseidon struck his trident on a rock and salt water began to flow. Athena struck her spear on the ground and it turned into an olive tree. It was decided that the olive tree was more valuable to the people of Attica, hence the new city was named Athens in honour of Athena.
Even today, an olive tree stands where the legend took place. It is said that all the olive trees in Athens were descended from the first olive tree offered by Athena.
According to Homer, the olive tree has been thriving in Greece for over 10,000 years. It was considered sacred and according to Solon’s law, anyone who uprooted or destroyed an olive tree, was judged in court and if found guilty, was sentenced to death.
For the Ancient Greeks, the olive tree was a symbol of peace, wisdom and triumph. An olive wreath was made, and used to crown the Olympic champions.
After thorough examination of the archeological evidence regarding the use and the meaning of the olive tree in Ancient Greece it is confirmed that it was one of the most used and loved trees due to its sacredness, the economic value and the many uses of its products in every day life. In older days it was wrongly supported that the cultivation was brought in Greece from Palestine. Newer evidence that came to light from pollen analysis are confirming its presence in Greece from the Neolithic period.
According to mythology the olive tree was brought in Greece from Goddess Athena which also taught the Greeks its cultivation. Indicative for the significance of the olive tree to the Athenians is the fact that there coins portrayed Goddess Athena with an Olive wreath on her helmet and an amphorae with olive oil.
The Greeks were the first to be involved in the full-scale cultivation of the olive. Between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC ancient philosophers, physicians and historians undertook its botanical classification and referred to the curative properties of olive oil (Dioscorides, Diocles) and its history (Anaxagoras, Empedocles – 5th century), while Aristotle elevated olive cultivation to a science.
It was even protected by the legislation of the time. The first Olive Protection Law was introduced by Solon (639-559 BC); in one of his statutes he prohibited the cutting down of more than two trees a year in each olive grove.
The olive and its oil also held a special position in the Orthodox religion. It was a symbol of love and peace, an essential part of several solemn rites, from the service of baptism to the oil lamps used in churches and the little shrine that is part of every Greek household.
Herodotus described Athens, in the 5th century BC, as the centre of Greek olive growing. Oil was produced in such abundance that it became one of the major exports. In fact, so important did the olive culture become to the Greeks and their economy, that olive groves were considered sacred ground and only virgins and chaste men were allowed to cultivate them.
The Bible contains many references to the culinary and religious uses of olives and olive oil. In the Book of Genesis the dove sent out from the ark by Noah returned with an olive branch. Here it became the great symbol of peace, indicating the end of God’s anger. And its recognition by Noah suggests that it was already a well-known tree.
The greatest religious significance of olive oil is documented in the Book of Exodus, where the Lord tells Moses how to make an anointing oil of spices and olive oil. During consecration, holy anointing oil was poured over the heads of kings and priests.