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Greek Olive Oil History

Greek Olive Oil History

Traditional Village and Olive Trees in Crete

Why specifically an article on the Greek Olive Oil history?  Well, Greek Olive Oil is the original Olive Oil…

Olives have been long considered one of the most prolific assets to the Mediterranean basin throughout history, propelling trade and economic gain.  Human use of the olive tree dates all the way back to the Neolithic period in Asia Minor.  People of the region cultivated this plant for its natural health benefits, cooking uses, cosmetic benefits,and use within religious rituals.  Few other crops in history have been treated with such admiration and reverence than that of the olive.  It is not fully understood exactly when the domestication of the olive tree actually occurred. However, experts have traced the use and trade of the crop to the island of Crete or possibly along the Levantine coast in the neighboring country of Turkey as far back as 6,000 BC.

 The fruit of the olive trees were pressed to create what we now know as olive oil.  The use of olive oil, or specifically greek olive oil, spread like wild fire throughout the Mediterranean.  Traces of production and trade can be found in the ancient city state of Ebla, Syria, dating back to 2,600 BC.  During the time, Ebla was a powerful kingdom that ruled the outlier countries of Mesopotamia, and reportedly imported olive oil in massive quantities.  Shortly after, the influence of olive oil even reached all the way up north to the countries of Gual (France, Belgium, and Switzerland).

Greek Olive Oil history goes back a long long way…

Volcano Santorini

Volcano Santorini

Greek Olive Oil history is really ancient history – Olives have been part of the Greek landscape for literally tens of thousands of years.  Scientists have found fossilized branches at the base of the volcano Santorini, dating back 50,000 – 60,000 years.

According to Greek legend, the olive trees (and olive oil) were passed down from Olympus by the Goddess of strength and Wisdom, Athena.  The story claims that both Athena and the god of the ocean, Poseidon were competing for the affection of the Greeks.  They both presented offerings to the people.  Whomever offered the most valuable gift would win the prayers of Greeks everywhere.  Poseidon offered the gift of a saltwater well.  In response, Athena, gave an olive tree.  The Greeks were enamored with the plant as it offered refuge from the harsh sun, fruit that was delicious, and an oil that had a variety of valuable uses.  Needless to say, Athena was crowned the winner.

Greek Goddess Athena

Greek Goddess Athena

Ownership of an olive tree was not to be taken lightly.  It was considered so sacred that cutting a single tree down was met by penalty of death.  Famous Greek athletes at the Pantheon would regularly rub olive oil across their skin in hopes of preventing abrasions.  According to the father of medicine, Hippocrates, olive oil had the ability to heal various ailments, including mental illness.  Though the use of olive oil for curing mental illness may not be 100 percent factual, scientific data has linked olive oil usage to a number of genuine health benefits, including improvement of heart health by lowering cholesterol.  The Greek philosopher, Sophocles, held olives in such high regard that he once said, “The olive tree, the tree that feeds the children.”

Olive oil was used liberally in many capacities.  Many used it for religious rituals as a sacrifice to the Gods or given as a gift to be taken to the afterlife for the dead, while others used it in the production of medicine, perfumes, for lighting, heating, and most of all notably eaten as part of a daily nutritional regimen.

The Romans Adopt Olive Oil

As the rise of the Roman Empire spread, they assimilated the culture, technology, and food of the surrounding countries.  Olives had arrived within Italy and they absolutely loved it!

The Roman Empire had immeasurable resources at their disposal; much more than the Greeks ever had.   The Romans were able to devote a large portion of these resources to cultivating olive trees and turning them into a cash crop that could be sold all over the known world.  The production of olive oil was at a level never seen before as the vast reaches of the Empire utilizes countries such as Spain and the Iberian Peninsula to grow olive trees in cast quantities.  This continued for the next 2,000 years until the fall of the Roman Empire all but caused production of olive oil to discontinue.

Since Then……

For the next 1,000 years, the use of olive oil had decreased considerably until the later stages of the Middle Ages.  Priests within the Roman Catholic Church began using the oil to anoint new priests.

Fast forward to the Renaissance……

During the 16th century, Spanish explorers and travelers brought the olive to the new world, in areas of Mexico, California, and Argentina.  To this day, these areas still provide crops of lush olives and olive oil although nearly 99% of all olive oil production still remains in the olive’s natural habitat, in the rocky fields of the Mediterranean countries.

Photo Credits

Volcano Santorini by Charles Pence