The history of olive oil is rich and olive oil has long been considered one of the greatest natural resources of the ancient world (and often considered worth its weight in gold). It has consistently offered humanity the gifts of health and wealth, and it flavors and aromas are as complex and delicious as wine. Since antiquity, olive branches have been a symbol of peace. Wherever they exist, olive trees were lauded for their myriad everyday uses, from the culinary to the corporal.
Cecrops, Athena, and Poseidon
Cecrops, a strange creature, half-man half-snake, was the founder of a city which would develop to be very beautiful and important in Greek history. Cecrops chose to name his city after himself — Cecropia. However, the gods of Olympus saw this glorious piece of land and wanted to name it after themselves and become its patron.
The most persistent rivals for this distinction were Poseidon, the sea god, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom. To settle their dispute, Zeus decided that each would make a gift to the city and king Cecrops would then decide which gift was the best and therefore which god would be the patron of the city.
One sunny day, Cecrops, along with the residents of Cecropia, went up to the highest hill to watch the gods make their offerings. Poseidon was the first to present his gift. He brought his mighty trident down on the rock which brought forth a spring of water gushing forth from the ground. This signified that he was assuring the citizens with water and therefore they would never face a time of drought. The people, however, were less than enchanted with his gift because the water from the spring tasted salty, just like the waters of the sea over which Poseidon ruled.
Next was the turn of goddess Athena. She gently planted a seed in the ground, which quickly grew up to become a beautiful olive tree. The citizens of Cecropia liked this gift much better because they realized it would give them food, oil and firewood for eternity. With one voice they loudly acclaimed Athena as their benefactress. This is how the goddess Athena was afforded the everlasting honor of having the city named for her. Indeed, the residents of Athens built numerous glorious temples dedicated to Athena, organized festivals to honor their patroness and, when money was invented, they depicted the goddess Athens and her sacred bird, the owl, symbol of wisdom, on both sides of their coins. We shouldn’t feel too bad for Poseidon, however. Numerous temples were constructed to honor him, as well, including a glorious temple high on a hill in Sounio.
Greek Olive Oil
As far as we know, the exact place where the olive tree sprung for the first time is the greater Mediterranean Basin — Crete, to be exact around 3500 BC. Very soon, the cultivation of the olive tree passed to mainland Greece and the tree, and its blessed product olive oil, became synonymous with Greek culture nutrition throughout the centuries. From then on, the olive tree, and its precious oil, became a backbone of the ancient Greek economy.
It is hardly surprising that the Greeks believed in the divine origins of the olive tree and olive oil in ancient times. The beautiful tree provides needed and welcome shade in the summer, its leaves are said to have medicinal properties, and its wood can be burned to generate heat and warmth as well as striking and beneficial carvings. Most important, its edible fruit are rich in flavor, energy, and a wonderful oil with life-giving properties. From a symbolic perspective, the olive tree has always been associated with peace, prosperity, fertility, wisdom, hope, victory, glory and divinity.
Olive oil was a considered luxury commodity in the ancient world and a source of great wealth, particularly valued for its inherent and unique characteristics of immiscibility (it cannot be mixed easily with other liquids), liquidity, and luminosity. It was highly sought after and widely exported throughout the Mediterranean basin, from Egypt to the shores of the Black Sea. So highly prized was it that Olympic victors were often rewarded with vats of olive oil as a gift in honor of their triumphs.
The Greek Olympic Games
It is characteristic that when the first Olympic Games took place in Olympia in 776 BC an olive-tree branch was awarded to the winners as a symbol for an armistice of any hostility and, most significant, for the peace. This symbolic award was given to every winner until the end of the ancient Olympic Games! It is interesting to note, however, that not only an olive branch was the award in games, but of even greater value, olive oil!
The most impressive example of the value and importance placed on olive oil during this period was its use at the Panathenaic Games. These games, though not as prestigious as the Olympic Games, took place every four years during the sixth century at the celebration called the Panathenea, in honor of the goddess Athena. The winners of these games were given an award of olive oil in a vessel known as the “Panathenaic Amphorae”. The quantities of the precious olive oil awarded to the winners were vast and very lucrative. Depending on the importance of the event, the winner could take as award a quantity in excess of 5 tons! More to the point, such an enormous quantity could not be consumed by the winner alone. During this period, legislation in Athens, in an attempt to protect their precious resource and the power that came with it, prohibited the export of olive oil but a concession was made to winners of the Panathenaic Games as part of their new-found prestige as a victor. It is easily to imagine how wealthy a winner receiving such an award could become!
The History of Olive Oil
During Classical period, when Athens reached the glory and zenith of its power, Greek olive oil was exported throughout the known world. Further, it is easy to understand that the greatest olive oil merchants were the Athenian winners of the Panathenaic Games. The production of olive oil in Greek territories was significant because of the massive size of the empire which included almost half of the olive oil productive areas in world. A large part of this total production was the work of monks due to considerable holdings of areas possessed by monasteries.
When Turks conquered Greece, the production of olive oil was not significantly affected. The product itself kept the traditional way of life in Greece and was used regularly for religious purposes. Undoubtedly, a large part of the total production belonged to the Turkish government during this occupation, but the rest remained in Greek hands as well as the knowledge of how to produce and exploit this divine gift. After the liberation, olive tree areas were separated by law into two categories: the private properties (those areas which belonged to Greeks during the Turkish occupation), and the national areas (those areas which belonged to the Turks respectively). From this time forward, Greece became one of the largest producers and exporters of olive oil throughout the world!
Today, Greece produces about 300,000 tons per year and despite its small size possesses the third position among olive oil producers in the world using the most advanced methods and the most sophisticated technologies. In addition, over 70% of the total Greek production is extra virgin olive oil half of which is exported to other olive oil productive countries raising their official production levels even higher! Given this, it is fair to say that Greece is the world’s largest exporter of extra virgin olive oil. Little Angel Greek Olive Oil is proud to be a part of this amazing gift to the world.
The beloved olive tree (olea europea), “the tree that feeds the children” according to Sophocles, is at the center of the Greek nature and history as is olive oil to the Greek diet. This amazing tree is one of the few that can produce fruits even in rocky and unproductive land. Its main characteristic is its longevity and the preservation of its productivity. Olive trees are hearty and drought, disease, and fire-resistant. It’s the reason for their longevity and widespread use in Greece and the rest of the world. While there are many olive tree types, we love those that produce the Koroneiki olives that are used to make Little Angel Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
The magnificent ancient olive tree of Vouves is considered to be one of the oldest known olive trees in existence. This amazing specimen has huge hollow roots that have grown right up out of the earth and are an unbelievable 12m at the perimeter! Thought to be between 3,500-5,000 years old, it is actually listed on Wikipedia as the world’s oldest olive tree. It lives on still bearing olives in the heart of the small, picturesque, very rural village of Ano Vouves which is an idyllic setting for such a stunningly majestic tree. This ancient olive tree is located on the Greek island of Crete and is one of seven olive trees in the Mediterranean believed to be at least 2,000 to 3,000 years old. The olive tree museum housed right next to the tree has free admission and is usually open all day throughout the summer months. Everything is beautifully displayed and presented. It still produces olives, and they are highly prized.
The love and high esteem the Greek people hold for the olive tree is passed on from generation to generation and from family to family. With the birth of a child, an olive tree is planted which will grow and develop as the child grows. When the child starts school at the age of six, the olive tree will be ready to begin its odyssey of producing its bountiful gift of fruit. The blessed tree grows up with the family and will still be around to be tended by the next generations.
Each year, the olive trees of Greece, whether family or commercially owned, advance the rich history of olive oil and yield their gift of olives in return for the labor and love expended on them.