OLIVE OIL HISTORY, ORIGINS AND USES
With its long life span, up to 3,000 years, its hardy survival, able to thrive in semi-arid climates and shallow soil, and even to survive death with its shoots, which begin growing from its base, and its ancient origins, it’s no wonder the olive tree is called “the tree of civilization.” The olive tree has been the symbol of wisdom, and olive oil and the olive tree are notably referenced and symbolically used in the three major religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and was sacred to Christ, Moses and Mohammed. The bible mentions oil 191 times, specifically speaking of olive oil seven times, but 147 of the mentions are believed to infer olive oil. In Genesis, a dove carrying an olive branch returns to Noah’s ark, signifying the end of the flood, and is now a symbol of peace.
One of the tree’s main products, its oil, has been used for its physical and mental benefits for 6,000 years, and for this reason, has been known as “liquid gold,” a term first penned by the ancient Greek poet, Homer. It’s believed that ancient civilizations anointed their kings with olive oil and used it on the dead bodies of heroes and saints. Throughout history olive oil has been used for its outer and inner benefits, representing strength and vitality.
The olive tree is believed to have originated in Asia Minor, but the possible ancestor of the modern olive tree, Oleaster olea sylvestris, which stills grows in parts of Europe and Northern Africa, is thought to have originated from the Sahara, when the area was fertile. As far back as 6,000 years ago, populations living on the coasts of modern day Syria and Palestine cultivated olive trees. During Early Minoan times, around 3500 B.C., olive tree groves existed, with the tree playing a significant role in the area’s economy about 1,500 years later. Olive cultivation spread to mainland Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt, and with Greek colonial expansion, to Northern Africa and Southern Italy, where the Romans, through colonization and trading, helped to further spread its cultivation and products throughout the Mediterranean and the rest of its empire.
Although the olive tree and its oil is popularly linked to the ancient cultures of the Greeks and Romans, it also played a significant role in ancient Egyptian civilization. In fact, one of the most baffling feats of the Egyptians has been tied to olive oil. Modern scholars still continue to debate how the Egyptians built the pyramids, but one theory suggests that olive oil may have been used as a lubricant to help move stones when erecting the structures. The Egyptians, who saw olive oil as a gift from the gods, also used it inside the tombs of pharaohs. It was mixed with pistachio and sesame oils and applied to the linen wrapping of mummies. Crowns of olive branches have also been found inside Ancient Egyptian tombs. The Egyptians, believing that olive oil would give love, power and beauty to its users, also used it for medicine and cosmetics. In fact, when Mark Anthony gave Cleopatra a perfume factory as a gift, she used olive oil as a base in many of her fragrances. She even authored a book of perfume recipes called "Cleopatra gynaeciarum libri."
Their laws governing olive trees may best demonstrate the importance and love for olive oil in Ancient Greece. Most notably, in Solon’s Laws, the cutting down of olive trees was prohibited, and anyone who destroyed or uprooted a tree would be judged by a court and sentenced to death if found guilty. The olive trees were even considered so scared that only virgins and chaste men were allowed to cultivate them. Although it was a sacred tree, its olive oil was a daily part of Greek life, especially in its athletic pursuits. Users of their gymnasiums, which functioned as a school where competitors in public games received their training as well as social and intellectual centers, may have used up to 55 liters (14.3 gallons) of oil each year. They used the oil for personal hygiene and diet, and ritual and medical reasons. Ancient Greek athletes in the Olympic games rubbed olive oil over their bodies before competing and winners received an olive branch. Mythically, the olive tree is linked to the founding of Athens. The god Zeus decided to give the city to the god or goddess who gave the most useful gift to the city. Athena, who gave the olive tree, won and that is how the city was given its name.
Like in Ancient Greece, the olive tree and its oil played a major part in Rome’s economy, myths and physical pursuits. The Ancient Romans associated the olive tree with the goddess of wisdom, Minerva, who according to myth gave the gift of the olive tree to the Romans, and to the god Hercules, who in another legend, gave birth to the olive tree when he struck the ground with his club. Also, according to legend, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were born under an olive tree.
Olive oil was an important part of gladiators’ diets. They would also rub the oil all over their bodies when they competed and use it as a salve for their wounds. The Ancient Romans’ olive oil consumption was so great that they taxed the people that they conquered in olive oil. They also traded their olive oil, transporting it throughout their empire, which they divided according to olive oil markets.
After the invasions of the barbarians and the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the once flourishing olive groves died. As a result, during the Middle Ages olive oil was very rare and valuable. Olive trees were mostly cultivated within monasteries and olive oil was used mainly for religious purposes. The trees started to grow back around 1100 A.D. and by 1400 Italy, particularly Tuscany, was once again one of the world’s top olive oil producers. The medieval period did see, however, some unique uses for olive oil. It’s believed to have been used against castle attacks; the defenders would boil olive oil and pour it over the castle walls to stop attackers. During the plague, robbers who stole the belongings of plague victims would wash themselves in olive oil mixed with herbs such as sage, rosemary, garlic and lemon to protect themselves against the disease.
The New World
Just as with the Ancient Greeks and Romans, colonization further spread olive oil throughout the world when Europeans started exploring the New World. Columbus may have even given olive oil to his team of explorers. Olive oil was noted as first being brought to the New World by Spanish explorers during the 1500s, first to Mexico, then to the Caribbean, mainland South America and later to America where Franciscan missionaries carried olive oils to California for the first time during the 18th century. By the early 19th century 21 outposts in California had established olive groves. Olive trees were first cultivated in California for their oil, and by the mid-19th century the area’s olive oil industry was booming. The growth of olive oil use and the demand for imported products in the United States grew with the influx of European immigrants from countries where olive oil was a dietary staple, particularly Greece and Italy. Olive oil eventually became a mainstream part of American kitchens, particularly with scientific research in the late 20th century celebrating olive oil’s health benefits.