According to Greek mythology, the creation of the olive tree was a result of a contest held between Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, held a contest in which the winner would become protector of a newly built city in Attica. The city would be named after the god who gave the citizens the most precious gift. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and as water began to rush out of the rock, out ran a horse. Next, Athena struck the rock with her spear and the first olive tree appeared at the gates of the Acropolis. Considering her gift more valuable, residents of the new city declared Athena the victor and themselves Athenians for life. To this day, an olive tree still stands where this event took place. It was also believed that the Greek gods were born under the branches of the olive tree.
The first Olympics were held in 776 BC. The olive tree played a crucial role in this event. The first Olympic torch was a burning olive branch. The Olympic winners were awarded with a crown woven from olive branches. These olive branches symbolized peace and a truce of any hostility. Olive oil was also awarded to the winners of the Panathenaic Games. The olive branch continues to be seen today as a symbol of peace and friendship.
Olives and olive oil have significance in Christianity as well. In the Book of Genesis, an olive branch was returned to Noah by a dove, signaling the end of the flood. Noah recognized this as a sign of peace to come. In the Book of Exodus, the Lord tells Moses how to make an anointing oil of spices and olive oil. In ancient Greece they also used olive oil as an anointing oil during the consecration of their kings and priests.
Evolution of Olive Oil
Greece was the first civilization to be involved in the full-scale cultivation of olives. Production of olive oil in Greece has spanned more than 5 millennia. Scientific evidence suggests that olive trees grew wild on the island of Crete as early as 3500 BC and that systematic cultivation and exportation of the oil began as early as 2000 BC. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle further developed the cultivation of the olive into a science.
Olive oil was largely responsible for establishing Greece’s early commercial success. With the expansion of the Greek colonies, their knowledge of olive tree cultivation and olive oil extraction techniques spread throughout the Mediterranean, from Italy to northern Africa. The olive had become increasingly important to both the Greek culture and its economy. Homer even referred to olive oil as “liquid gold” in The Odyssey. Greece continues to remain the world’s largest exporter of extra virgin olive oil. In fact, many Italian and Spanish olive oils add Greek extra virgin olive oil to their own products to enhance their color and flavor. Seventy percent (70%) of total Greek production is extra virgin olive oil of the highest quality.
Overall, the olive tree is a very resilient plant. It thrives in dry climates and can tolerate both droughts and high winds. Olive trees do require very warm temperatures however, and cannot endure cold temperatures below 10° F. Therefore the olive prospers in Greece – and the Mediterranean region – with its mild, rainy winters and long, hot, dry summers. This region has an abundance of sunshine, nurturing soil conditions, gentle sea breezes, a temperate climate and year-round growing season. And Greece’s proximity to the sea allows their olive trees to produce up to 20 times more fruit than those planted inland. This is why the Mediterranean is responsible for 98% of the oil harvest.