Venerable Olive Helps Oil Health, Food, Mythology

By Preet, Edythe | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

Venerable Olive Helps Oil Health, Food, Mythology


Preet, Edythe, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


There seem to be only two kinds of olive people: lovers and haters. Because I am a fan of olives any way they appear - shriveled black Sicilians, itsy-bitsy Nicoise, plump green Manzanillas stuffed with pimentos or anchovy bits, deep purple Greek globes - I don't understand olive haters at all.

I'm so olive mad that I've concocted my own cocktail: vodka, ice and four kalamatas. Call it an "Editini."

Coming from an Italian family, I discovered olives shortly after being weaned. We bought olive oil by the gallon. It was used to saute everything and went into every salad dressing. My grandmother couldn't have cooked without it.

Her daily salad consisted of lettuce, olive oil, a splash of wine vinegar and a shake of salt. Some children ate peanut butter and jelly. I ate thick slabs of Italian bread spread with cream cheese and dotted with sliced olives.

Found in almost every country that borders the Mediterranean, the olive has a history as old as civilization. Olive-leaf fossils have been discovered in Pliocene-period deposits in Italy. An olive seed found in Spain has been carbon-dated at 8,000 years of age.

Although it is impossible to determine exactly where olives were cultivated first, they were being grown by a Semitic tribe in Syria about 5,000 years ago.

Olives are mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. In the book of Genesis, Noah was led to land when he sent out a dove and it returned bearing an olive branch. In Exodus 30:22, we are told, "The Lord spake unto Moses, saying, `Take thou also unto thee principal spices and olive oil . . . and thou shall make it an oil of holy ointment.' " Being anointed with olive oil is still a part of coronation ceremonies, baptisms and last rites for the dying.

Though olive oil is now valued as a beneficial and nutritional food, its nonedible uses were most prized in ancient times. It was a primary ingredient in cosmetics, unguents and medicines. It was used as a lubricant and a preservative. Most important, it fueled terra-cotta lamps and provided a source of light. It was so vital that it became a principal trade item all through the Mediterranean region. When shipwrecks dating from the classical period are discovered, their holds invariably contain huge amphora jars used to transport olive oil.

With olives playing such a key part in early civilization, it's no wonder that they also had starring roles in mythology. The Egyptians believed that the goddess Isis taught humans how to cultivate olives. Paintings of olive trees appear on the walls of tombs. Jars of cured olives were part of Egyptian funerary offerings. Golden olive branches adorn the heads of mummified pharaohs.

Though olives were important to all early civilizations, they were revered in Greece. One day, Zeus decided to award the Attica region to the deity who could devise the most useful invention. Poseidon submitted the horse. Athena offered the tiny olive.

The horse could haul, carry and even be used as an instrument of war. The olive provided food, fuel and medicine and was a symbol of peace. The horse had to be fed and cared for and then lived but a few decades. The olive thrived in poor soil, with little water and bore fruit for more than a century. Athena won the contest hands down.

The goddess planted an olive tree in her new territory, and a settlement sprang up around it. People called the place "Athens." Where the first olive tree grew, they built a shrine: the Acropolis. Athens became the center of Greek olive cultivation, and olive branches became the symbol of all things Greek. Olive oil and olive cuttings were two of the country's major exports. Olive wreaths adorned the heads of leaders. Only virgins and chaste men could tend or harvest the trees. Anyone who dared cut down a sacred olive tree was executed.

As Rome's legions conquered the known world, olive cultivation spread throughout the empire. …

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