The olive tree figures large in the Greek myths and in essence is at the very foundations of western civilization. According to legend, Athens got its name after the goddess Athena and the god Poseidon competed to deliver the most useful gift to mankind. Poseidon donated a splendid war horse. Athens bestowed an olive tree on the city, whose fruit was nourishment and whose oil could be used as food, medicine, unguent and fuel. Athena won, and so Athens took her name. On a deeper level, the legend is really the manifestation of a turning point in human history, where aggression is supplanted for a life closely bound to the ardent cultivation of the land, for a peaceful existence rooted in domesticity and intellectual wisdom.
So revered was the olive tree in Classical Greece, that Solon, one of the city’s wise men and lawmaker, enacted the first legislation to protect it. Anyone caught cutting or uprooting an olive tree was liable to death. While all olive trees were considered sacred, some were considered more so. These were called Moria. They were protected by short fences and harming them in any way was considered a capital offense. To this day, the Greek word for punishment, timoria, comes from the name of these religiously significant trees.
The sanctity of the olive tree was so deeply embedded in the ancient Greek psyche that to this day olive oil plays a seminal role in the sacraments of he Greek Orthodox Church. Its reverence is rooted as much in the spiritual as in the practical. In antiquity, the olive tree was valued because of its resistance to the droughts that kill off cereal crops and because of its ability to flourish on barren mountain slopes where little else could thrive. It provided nourishment. It was used to preserve foods. It was used to light lamps, to cleanse the body, and to flatter the appearance, as olive oil was often mixed with other ingredients to make cosmetics and perfumes.
Last but not least, olive oil was crucial in the ancient Greek pharmacopoeia. The founder of medicine, Hippocrates, called it the cure-all. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle recommended it as a contraceptive to be applied “to that part of the womb where the seed falls.”
Between 1200 and 800 B.C., population and trade in the Greek city-states began to grow, spawning Greek migrations around the entire Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Colonists always took two things with them: fire from the hearths of their home cities and olive trees. Thus the cultivation of the sacred tree spread from Massalia (Marseilles) to Syracuse (Sicily), to Byzantium (Istanbul), to Panticapeon (Kerts, in Russia), to Neapolis (Naples), to Nafkratis (Egyptian Nebil), and to Neapolis (Tunisian Nabel), among many other places.