Olive oil origins between myths and legends

Since the dawn of civilization the olive tree has been a positive symbol of sacredness and peace. Olive oil is a valuable product for thousands of years and has been called “the life blood” of societies developed around the Mediterranean area.


The olive tree and the generosity of its harvest are known since the ancient Egypt Goddess Iside. She taught men to cultivate the tree to extract oil. Olive oil has always had an important role in Egyption funerary rites, used for the cult of dead persons. The mummies of the XX dynasty (1200-1090 BC) were decorated with garlands and twisted olive branches.
The roman mythology attributes to Hercules the introduction of the olive tree from North Africa. The roman Goddess Minerva taught the olive cultivation and the extraction of its oil. According to another legend, the olive tree dates back to the first man: the first olive plant would be born from Adam’s leg: an angel gave Seth, Adam’s son, three seeds to put between the lips of his father, a cedar seeds a cypress seed and an olive seed.

The ancient Greeks told of a race between the sea God Poseidon and Athena, the goddess of peace. Victory would be assigned to those who had produced the most useful gift for a newly city in the Greek region of Attica. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident, and there came a copious source: a horse appeared (symbol of strength and power) precious help in the war. Athena jabbed a spear into the ground: it became an olive tree, symbol of peace, source of food and combustible. Athena’s gift was considered the greatest, and the new city was named Athens in her honor. The olive tree is still considered a divine gift. Nowadays there is an olive tree on the Acropolis in Athens.

In addition to its function of providing precious calories to the diet, the olive oil was used in many other ways. If was used as a combustible for the lamps and for cosmetic aims. Athletes considered massages with olive oil an important way to keep muscles fit. The wrestlers added sand and dust to their oil to prevent the capture of the rivals. Women used olive oil to keep young skin and shiny hair. They thought that oil would prevent baldness and to promote strength. In Greece, doctors prescribed olive oil for many diseases and disorders such as nausea, cholera, ulcers and insomnia.
In the Bible, there are a lot of references to olive tree and olive oil, for example: after the deluge, the dove, gone out of the ark, returned to Noah with an olive branch, to announce the withdrawal of water from the earth. Moses prepared an ointment with spices and olive oil. The good Samaritan poured oil and wine upon the wounds of the victims of marauding gangs. In Jerusalem there is the mount of olives.

The great poet Homer called olive oil “Liquid Gold”. Democritus argued that a diet based on olive oil and honey could allow a man to live one hundred years. In the Odyssey, Circe transformed Odysseus friends into pigs. Ulysses wanted his friends returned to human form by covering with an ointment: it was the olive oil, so miraculous to change the appearance and promote rejuvenation. Ulysses built his nuptial chamber with the trunk of an olive tree. In the ancient Greece the olive tree became synonymous of peace: today we still say that a branch of olive tree is a sign of peace. The olive tree was also considered a symbol of victory; the winners of the Olympic games received a wreath of olive leaves and oil as prize. In different cultures, oil symbolized power and wealth, virginity and fertility. Olive oil has been used for several centuries to grease kings and emperors during their coronations.

Finally the olive tree represented the strength; in fact, an olive trunk was the stick of Hercules. If also represented the sacrifice: Jesus was crucified on an olive cross. In the middle ages, olive oil was a precious gift, employed for liturgical use. Only after the year 1000, agriculture had a new impetus with the drainage of wetlands and the planting of new olive trees. After the XII century, the interest in the olive and olive oil had a steady growth. Many Venetians and Genoese merchants had their business in olive oil. So, it became one of the pillars of the commercial success and the venetian politics. In Southern Italy, the Basilian monks, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, planted olive groves in Puglia. Faced with the growing demand of Italian and European merchants, Puglia became the largest olive growing region of Italy. In 1700 there was a strong increase in the production and trade of oil. The production of oil increased and brought a free market development. The XVIII century is considered the golden age for the national olive growing: the Italian oil was considered the best in the world.


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