(Olea europaea) Olive oil is mentioned so frequently in the Bible that it must have been important to the ancient Hebrews. We know that it was used in holy ointments for kings and priests, and for anointing the sick (Zohary), as well as for sacrificial purposes, and as fuel for lamps, as a tonic for hair and skin, and medicinally in surgical operations. It formed the base of the perfumed ointments sold in classical Greece and Rome (Moldenke & Moldenke), for it was equally prominent in classical times. The ancient Greeks used the oil for cooking, washing, and for lighting. Even today, in Greece, few people eat butter; bread and olives is the usual. Oil was used in practically every dish. The Greeks used no soap, but rubbed themselves with oil.
Among the Greeks, the olive was the symbol of wisdom, abundance and peace (Dyer. 1889). It is still the symbol of peace and friendship, possibly because, in the Noah's Ark story, the dove is said to have brought back an olive leaf as an indication that God's wrath, in the form of the Flood, was abating (the dove, too, carries this symbolism) (Moldenke & Moldenke), and the olive branch is still a symbolic demand for peace. A
garland of olive was given to Judith when she restored peace to the Israelites by the death of Holofernes (Judith. xv. 13, in the Apocrypha). Conversely, in ancient Rome, if an olive was struck by lightning, it was taken to be an augury of breaking the peace (Rambosson). It was, too, the emblem of Athena, or Minerva, goddess of medicine and health. In some parts of Greece to this day, an olive branch is always put on the New Year table as a symbol of health, together with coins, for happiness, etc., (Megas). To dream of gathering olives denotes peace and happiness, and dreams of eating olives means you will rise above your station (Raphael).
It was sacred to Athena, and was the gift of the goddess (Haig). As such it was judged greater than Poseidon's gift of the horse (Moldenke & Moldenke). Every sanctuary and temple to Athena had its olive tree (Philpot). In modern Greece, a method of protecting the household from the evil eye is by fumigation with burning branches of dry olive blessed during Holy Week (Rodd). In modern Italy, an olive branch hung over a door is supposed to keep out witches and evil spirits (Moldenke & Moldenke). Similarly, olive leaves blessed on Palm Sunday are still hung in a corner of a Maltese house, or occasionally burned to purify the house and ward off evil (Boissevan). On the Greek island of Chios, it is said to be a holy tree, for Christ blessed it (Argenti & Rose). After the birth of a boy, a prophylactic wreath of olive branches was hung outside the house as an amulet (a girl got a fillet of wool) (Halliday). An olive stick is believed in Morocco to be a charm against the juun (Westermarck). An olive crown was the prize at the Olympic Games, and in Rome, newly-married couples carried olive garlands; the dead were also crowned with olives (Rambosson).
It is a sacred tree among the Palestinians. Legend says that at the death of Mohamed most of the trees went into mourning by shedding their leaves as they do in winter. When the others were asked why they did not do the same, the olive, as their elder and spokesman, replied: "you show your sorrow by external signs, but our grief ... is no less sincere, though inward. Should you cleave my trunk open, for instance, you will find that at its core it has become black with grief" (Hanauer). It is sacred in Morocco, too, because the name of God is supposed to be written on its leaves (Legey).
In medieval times, it was said that the Cross was made of four sorts of wood - cedar, palm, cypress, and "the tablet above his head . on which the title was written, of olive". The oil is reckoned effective in treating skin diseases (F J Anderson), and the leaf tea is prescribed by herbalists for hypertension (Thomson. 1978).
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