Olives in mythology and religion

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The olive tree is revered in Greek mythology, which credits the goddess Athena, daughter of supreme god Zeus, for bringing it to the city of Athens.

According to legend — recounted in Segan’s book — whichever god gave the people of Greece the most esteemed gift would earn the right to name their most important city. Poseidon, brother of Zeus and god of the seas but a seeker of earthly kingdoms, gave Attica a waterway through the city that provided fresh drinking water and easy access to the Mediterranean. Athena gave them olive trees.

Although the citizens were grateful to Poseidon, Segan wrote, they preferred Athena’s gift. Not only were the olives long-lasting and delicious on their own, but they also produced a useful oil. In return for the gift of olives, Athena was granted the right to name the city after herself. The Parthenon, a temple that overlooks Athens, was built in Athena’s honor.

Other mythological figures are associated with the olive tree. When Hercules was very young, for example, he killed a lion with a wooden stake from a wild olive tree, thus associating the tree with strength and resistance. He also used a club from an olive tree in one of his twelve labors.

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Olives in religion

Some of the world’s most widely followed religions place great significance on olives and olive trees. Even so, the use of olive oil in religious rituals has its origins in pagan ceremonies. Priests in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome used olive oil in their sacrifices and offering to the gods.

Olive oil — along with bread, wine and water — is one of the four most important symbols in Christianity. References to olive oil are almost as old as the religion itself, with God telling Moses that olive oil is a holy anointing oil (Exodus, 30:22-33). This tradition of anointing with oil has continued throughout history by leaders of churches and nations.

The olive tree also came to symbolize peace and God’s reconciliation with man. A dove brought an olive branch back to Noah as a sign that the flood was over. Jesus was praying in the Garden of Olives, or Gethsemani, when he was taken prisoner. In Hebrew, “gethsemani” means “olive press.” Early Christians decorated their tombs with olive branches as a sign of the victory of life over death.

The Quran and hadith mention the olive and the olive tree numerous times. Islam considers the olive a blessed fruit and a health food that is a good source of nutrition. A parable refers to Allah, olive oil and light (Surah al-Noor 24:35). Another reference speaks to olives and nutrition (Surah al-Anaam, 6:141). The hadith refers to the olive tree as “blessed” (Reported by al-Tirmidhi, 1775).

Olive oil and health

Olive oil — along with all the other vegetable oils — is high in fat, which means it is high in calories. It’s also considered to be a healthy food. This sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

That’s because the main fat in olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. MUFAS have been found to lower total cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. As a result, MUFAs may decrease the risk of heart disease in some people. They may also normalize blood clotting. MUFAs may even benefit people with Type 2 diabetes because they affect insulin levels and blood sugar in healthful ways.

As with many good things, olive oil has a “but.” In this case, it’s that olive oil should be used in moderation because even healthful fats are high in calories. It’s also a good idea to use MUFAs instead of, rather than in addition to, other fatty foods such as butter.

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Production and consumption of olives

The world’s top four producers of olives are Spain, Italy, Turkey and Greece, according to the IOC’s executive secretariat. The four main producers of olive oil are Spain (1.27 million tons), Italy (408,100 tons), Greece (284,200 tons) and Turkey (178,800 tons). The four leading producers of table olives are Spain (533,700 tons), Egypt (407,800 tons), Turkey (399,700 tons) and Algeria (178,800 tons). These figures are an average of the past six crops, according the IOC.

One of the trends in olive consumption, the secretariat said, is the rise of olive popularity in the Persian Gulf countries of Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. That, it seems, is fitting. Just as olive farming has moved around the world, the consumption of one of the world’s most important foods has come full circle, back to the part of the world where it originated so many millennia ago.

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On the featured picture: A mosaic depicts the prayer in the Garden of Olives at St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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