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The Enigmatic Olive Tree: What Was Its Impact on Ancient Greece? (Part 1)

The Enigmatic Olive Tree: What Was Its Impact on Ancient Greece? (Part 1)

Melanie Ann

Ancient Greece is considered the cornerstone of Western civilization. Could something as simple—and complicated—as the enigmatic olive tree have been one of the key components to building its civilization?

The European olive tree—Olea europaea—is not a normal evergreen.
In the sense that its leaves are always green it is. But its influence upon the history of the Greek world most definitely has it standing gracefully and elegantly in an evergreen field all its own.
Kind of strange considering that it is not a tree that produces a fruit one can reach out, pull off the branch and eat, like peaches, plums and cherries. An olive eaten fresh from the tree tastes terrible, makes a person spit it out instantly thinking they must have eaten something poisonous.
And yet, this bitter drupe, an inch or less in size, is the direct opposite of lethal. It is actually one of the most valuable foods and had a huge social, economical, medicinal, and religious role to play in the rise and maintenance of several classical Mediterranean civilizations.
One such civilization is Ancient Greece.
The astounding effect this fruit, which writers often refer to as “liquid gold” or “green gold,” had on the ancient world was astronomical. Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that Ancient Greece, as we know it today, might never have been if not for the humble olive.

Geological and Written Records

Santorini (Thera), Greece, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of the many gorgeous Greek Islands. Still an active volcano, it is believed by some to be the fabled Lost Atlantis. Sheer cliffs encircle its blue Aegean Sea filled 7 x 12 kilometer caldera on three sides and hold many clues about the world before humans left written records.

One such clue is fossilized leaves of multi-millennium old olive trees that were found in modern times only because of the earth having heaved its guts, and a bit of its geological and botanical history, numerous times over. Those fossilized leaves were part of living trees upon the windy island more than 37,000 years ago.

Santorini, Greece (Fossilized Olive Leaves from Time before Time) via Greek Reporter (Museum of Prehistoric Thira)

But perhaps the most concrete evidence for historians concerning the importance of olive trees at a very early date within Greece is a written record.
When the Linear B Tablets found in both Crete and on mainland Greece were finally deciphered by the architect and layman linguist and historian, Michael Ventris, in 1953, “oil” was among the words now understood. Although the clay tablets were not of great artistic significance—no Homer, Plato or Plutarch wrote them. In fact, they are often disparagingly called ancient man’s “grocery list” or “laundry list.” But they clearly inform that around 3,500 years ago (anywhere from 1,450 to 1,200 B.C.) olive oil was such an important economic commodity with both political and religious ramification that the government required written invoices.

Pylos, Greece (Linear B script: A 3,423 Year-old Invoice!) Gorgeous photo by photographer Sharon Mollerus.

Athena, Aristaeus and Unknown Farmers

The Greek goddess, Athena, was, among other things, attributed as being the goddess of olives, olive oil, and the pressing of olives.
But it was her nephew, Aristaeus, a lesser god, who is credited by Greek mythology as being the one who tamed and cultivated the wild olive and, most importantly, taught the people how to take the bitter drupe, press it and make the all-precious oil.
Aristaeus, who was also a bee keeper and maker of cheese, gets the glory, but it was probably unknown farmers who, seeing the properties of the olive tree—how greatly its wood burned, how oil emanated from the olive when squeezed, etc.— figured out the steps to coaxing oil from the fruit by applying pressure. The 8th century B.C. writer, Hesiod, in “Works and Days” substantiates both these suppositions as he describes the olive tree as a “gift of the gods” while giving instructions for cultivating and harvesting the fruit.
When an olive fell close to an open fire, heat might have been the first way farmers noticed the all-important oil emerging from the drupe. But as with agriculturists today, they would have also realized that the quality of the oil was bad when heat was used to extract it. Contrarily, when oil was patiently pressed out of the fruit, it became a substance that changed the quality of their lives for the better, that of their society, and eventually, that of their descendants for eons to come.
It is generally supposed that the origin of the olive tree is from the Eastern Mediterranean, Phoenicia or modern-day Syria. But the Greek world didn’t just cultivate it, but marketed it and made it into a product that contributed to building the far-reaching society that became the cornerstone of the western world.

Stay tuned for 'Part 2' coming soon on OliveOil.com

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