Mythical Origins of The Olive Tree

 The Olive Trees by Vincent Van Gough

The Olive Trees by Vincent Van Gough

 Greek vase

Greek vase

The Olive Tree’s origin is first credited to the goddess Athena, daughter of supreme god Zeus, who brought it to the city of Athens.  The gift came by way of a contest in which the gods were challenged to give the people of Greece a gift.  The god who gave the most valuable gift would be rewarded with esteem and the right to name the most important city. The two most well received gifts came from Poseidon and Athena:  Poseidon, the god of the seas, created a waterway through the city that provided fresh drinking water and easy access to the Mediterranean, and Athena gave them The Olive Tree. Although the citizens were grateful to Poseidon for his amazing gift, they treasured Athena’s even more. The olives were delicious, easy to preserve and produced very useful oil and wood. And so, the city of Athens was named, The Parthenon (the temple that overlooks Athens) was built in Athena’s honor.

 Painting of Egyptian Carving

Painting of Egyptian Carving

Many religions continued to place great significance on Olive Trees throughout the centuries, and priests from ancient Egypt to Greece and Rome used olive oil in their sacrifices and offerings to the gods.  Its fruits and its branches are represented in statues, drawings and hieroglyphs across cultures; even the famous grave of Tutankhamun was adorned by crowns and the jewelry made out of olive tree branches.

Olive oil is one of the four most important symbols in Christianity (alongside bread, wine and water)  And references to olive oil abound as a holy anointment.  The olive tree itself came to symbolize peace and reconciliation, probably by way of the dove who brought an olive branch back to Noah as a sign that the flood was over, and Jesus Christ prayed in a garden of olives at Gethsemani before he was crucified.   In Hebrew the word “gethsemani” literally means “olive press”, and early Christians were so taken by this relationship that they began to decorate their tombs with olive branches as a sign of the victory of life over death.

 Christ on the Mount of Olives by Albrecht Dürer

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Albrecht Dürer


The Quran and Hadith both mention the olive tree numerous times as a blessed fruit and a good source of nutrition:

“God’s light is like the light of an oil lamp in a niche … is switched on thanks to the blessed tree of olive, to the tree which is neither eastern, nor western; the oil shines without touching the fire: it is the light of light”

 

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Today we still find this symbolism in logos for The United Nations, Unicef and the Olympics.  We find it in the Eagle’s grasp on the Dollar bill, at the foot of the Free Mason’s tool kit and in the Pope’s coat of arms.  I wonder what other meanings and connotations lie hidden, and what the tree has to teach us.  

Do you have a special relationship to the olive tree to share?  If so please tell us about it in the comments below.  

 

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