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Myths and Legends

What did the Greek Gods consider to be the greatest gift to mankind?

Start by imagining you are one of the gods on Mount Olympus. What would you choose as the “greatest gift to mankind”? That ultimate gift turned out to be the olive tree – lauded for its wood, leaves, fruit and oil that produced food, fuel, and shade for the Greeks. And, because it was known to last hundreds of years, it was cherished as a symbol of peace, wisdom and prosperity. Yes, the olive tree has inspired myths and legends and has enjoyed an unrivaled degree of fame. In Greece, the history of olive oil is as old as the myths of the gods of Olympus. 

The Gift-Giving Contest 

According to Greek mythology, the creation of the olive tree was the result of a contest between Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, God of the Sea, as to who would become the protector of a newly built city in Attica (the historical region of Greece). The city would then be named after the god or goddess who gave the citizens the most precious, useful and divine gift. With his trident, Poseidon struck a rock. Water rushed out of the rock, creating a spring of salty water, symbolizing his gift of sea power. Athena followed by striking a rock with her spear and produced the olive tree, an offering signifying fruitfulness and peace. The citizens (wisely) chose the gift of Athena and she forever became the patroness of the city named after her. The story of her precious gift and the recognition of its value have been carried down through the millennia. Even today, the olive tree still stands at the location where the story of this legendary competition is said to have taken place. The myth continues as a “living legend” as it is said that all the olive trees in Athens were descended from that first olive tree offered by Athena. 

Olympic Games and Zeus, the King of the Gods

The olive tree was associated with athletic competitions held throughout Greece in ancient times. At the Olympic Games, first held in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, athletes were massaged with olive oil in the belief that the wisdom, power and strength of Athena would be bestowed upon them. The winners were awarded olive leaf crowns and olive oil. But it wasn’t just athletes who benefited. It was also believed that if you polished a statue of Zeus with olive oil, Zeus would be so honored that he would grant you a long and happy life. 

More Myths and Legends 

The well-known mythological hero Hercules is reported to have killed the terrifying Lion of Cithaeron with his own hands using a wooden stake made from an olive tree. In several of his Twelve Labors, Hercules also used clubs made of olive wood to corner an enemy. Once cornered, he would then strangle or kill the enemy with his bare hands. Because these stories were so popular, the olive tree became associated with strength, resistance and power. 

Another myth recounts that Theseus, the son of an Athenian king, was sent as a part of a yearly human sacrifice to Knossos on Crete to be fed into a gigantic labyrinth and killed by the dreaded Minotaur. Prior to leaving, Theseus begged Apollo for protection and was given a sacred olive branch from the Acropolis of Athens. Theseus killed the Minotaur and according to one myth, was able to escape from the labyrinth because of a string he had tied around the branch of an olive tree. 

Even Homer, in his epic poems, coined the term “liquid gold” and repeatedly mentioned olive oil in The Iliad and The Odyssey. 

Homer claimed in his writings that the ancient olive tree growing in Athens was already 10,000 years old. He also stated that destroying an olive tree was prohibited and any such action would be viewed as capital punishment by the Greek court.

In 775 BC Olympia, Greece, at the site of the ancient Olympic stadium, athletes trained and competed in their respective sports with the winners triumphantly acclaimed and crowned with a wreath made of olive twigs.

The Greeks began olive cultivation in 700 BC. The sacred lamp that was used in ancient Greek culture for lighting dark rooms at night was fueled by olive oil. Aged olive oil was also used in sacred anointing rituals of the church at weddings and at baptisms, a ritual still continued today.

Solon an Athenian reformer and poet, in his economic reforms encouraged the cultivation of olives and prohibited any other produce to be exported.
Since 566 BC, the famous Panathenaic Games were held every four years in Athens, ancient Greece, celebrating the honor of the goddess Athena. During the games, religious festivals, ceremonies, cultural events and competitions were held. For the winners, the prize consisted of an amphora filled with olive oil produced by olives from the sacred olive fields of Attica.

Herodotus wrote in 500 BC, that the growing and exporting of olives and olive oil were so sacred that only virgins and eunuchs were allowed to cultivate olive trees.
The first documented plantings of olive trees predate the discovered Mycenae olive fossils by about 1100 years and are believed to have occurred on the island of Crete by the Minoan civilization.

The ancient Greeks mastered the art of pressing the precious oil from the fruit of the olive tree. Archaeological studies prove that Greece has been producing high quality olive oil for more than 4000 years.

The Greatest Gift – Even Today 

While the olive tree and olive oil made their greatest cultural impact in ancient and classical Greece, their influence is still strong. The ancient Greeks had a tradition of offering small phials of olive oil to foreigners as a symbol of their great civilization. That tradition continues even now in the form of bottles of olive oil given as hostess gifts. The “greatest gift to mankind”.