Olive oil in Ancient Greece El aceite de oliva en grecia


history of olive oil in greek culture

The olive tree, its fruit and olive oil are closely tied to Greek culture because, as we see in Greek mythology, Cecrops of Athens is accredited with its foundation, to the sixteenth century B.C.and the goddess of Athena who, as their promoter and protector, according to legend, brought forth an olive tree in the city with the tip of her spear.

The source Athens also is related to the installation of the olive tree by Athena, in her fight with Poseidon for supremacy in the protection of the city. in order to calm the contest between them, Zeua intervened and stated that he would grant the domain of that territory to whoever was able to provide the most useful gift to humanity. Poseidon took a horse, a resistant, fast and capable animal to lighten the men's work; Athena, on the other hand, appeared with a small branch entwined in her hands, with subtle leaves of silvery green. Poseidon was already savoring the victory when Athena went on to explain the extraordinary properties of olive tree, a strong plant that could live for many years and produce tasty fruits, of which man could extract an ideal liquid for seasoning food (the olive oil), strengthening the body, healing wounds and illuminating the night time. The goddess' victory was crushing. Zeus declared Athena to be the winner, for giving citizens the most useful plant and she was granted sovereignty over the entire region.


Olive oil was stored in amphoras

Greek amphora decorated with the re-enactment the olive harvest and used for keeping olive oil.


In the Odyssey, the presence of the olive tree is repeated several times; for example Ulysses and his companions used a beam of wood from olive tree to blind the Cyclops. It often occurs that the main characters are bathed in olive oil, as was a popular regime at the time. Olive oil was also used in textiles, to spread the yarn. Perhaps the most famous passage is that which refers to the bridal bed of Ulysses; Book XXIII "he cut an enormous olive tree of vast foliage and constructed a bedroom around it". He worked on the trunk and embedded into it gold, silver and ivory jewels, creating a beautiful and unique bridal chamber.

According to mythology, the art of agriculture was taught to the men by Aristeo, son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene. The cultivation of olive tree was so important that Aristeo also invented systems of extraction for olive oil, among which can be found the press.

It should be noted that the presence of the olive tree in mythology was of great importance, directly proporcional to the utility of the plant. According to Greek legend, a dove came Phoeniciato offer a branch of the olive tree to the Temple of Zeus, in Epirus.

Not only is the olive tree heavily linked with literature and mythology but it was also found in day to day life, the winners of the Olympic games were crowned with a crown woven from olive branches since the seventh Olypics. 

Olive branch crown. Symbol of vistory in the Olympics.

  Olive wreath. Was placed over the head of the winning athletes from the seventh Olympics.



In classic Greece they are numerous signs that trace back to the olive cultivation and the use of olive oil. The shaking technique was used and scenes of Greek 'shakers' are embodied on decorated amphoras. For the Greeks, the olive tree was a totem tree, especially for the artisan citizens, given that olive oil was the source of the foundation of the "polis".

Silhouettes from the VII century BC.

 Harvesting olives in a Greek amphora. Black figures VII century BC.

Although the Ancient Greek citizens were familiar with the wild olive tree, its cultivated varieties for the production of olive oil came from Egypt, but they contributed a lot to improve their cultivation and the extraction of olive oil. The importance of both aspects can be better understood on studying the severe legislation that regulated and protected them; if somebody uprooted an olive tree from Areopagite, near Acropolis, it could lead to their exile and the confiscation of all of their goods; in addition no Athenian could cut down more than 2 olive trees even on their own property. The affection that the Greeks had for the olive tree is reflected in one of their legends, according to which, at the turn of 480 B.C, during the medical wars, the Persian army, sent by Xerxes, captured Athens and set fire to Acropolis, in which the sacred trees burnt like torches. When, after their victory at Salamis, the Greeks returned home they found only ruins, ashes and desolation. But Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, made the sacred olive trees sprout overnight.

The Greeks used olive oil as a form of nutrition; normally their meals were made up of bread, oil, wine and honey, accompanied at times by cheese, milk, fish and meat. They also employed olive oil as fuel for lighting. Olive oil was used for cosmetics as well and in human or animal medicine to give flexibility and softness to fabrics and as a form of preservation for other foodstuffs.


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