Olive Oil and the Ancient Greeks
While olives and olive oil may not originate in Greece, it still has a rich history there. The ancient Greeks used olive oil not only in their cooking, but in many other facets of their lives -their sports, health, in rituals, and as a status symbol. The olive tree and its fruit were considered sacred. According to an ancient myth, which tells the story of Poseidon (god of the sea) and Athena (goddess of wisdom) competing to become patron of the city Attica. In the story, Poseidon slammed his trident into the ground and up came flowing salt springs (or horses, depending on which version you read). Athena then planted the first ever olive tree as a symbol of prosperity and peace. Since the olive tree had more uses - it could provide food, medicine, and wood- it was decided that Athena was the winner and the city was renamed Athens to honour her and is now the capital city of Greece. This tree was guarded day and night and anyone who was caught cutting down an olive tree was sentenced to death.
Sports, such as chariot racing, running, jumping, and wrestling were a huge part of life in ancient Greece. One big difference between today’s athletes and theirs was that the athletes -which were only men- were naked. Because they had no clothes, their bodies needed protection against the sun and so what did they use? Olive oil! Before exercising at the local gymnasia, they would anoint their bodies -and abs, probably- in olive oil.
If olive oil couldn’t be bought, it was won. At the Panathenaic games, which took place every four years, the winners’ prizes, in addition to the olive wreaths they wore on their heads, were olive oil. The best runner won about 70 amphoras (ancient Greek vessels with two handles on either side, below, right), which was about 2500 kilos of oil, while the fastest chariot-racer won double that, 5,000 kilos. This oil wasn’t like the oil anyone could buy. This oil came from the sacred grove of Athena. Fun fact: the earliest surviving amphorae dates back to 3500 BC. These amphorae would be used after to store olive oil or wine, and then sold or buried with the winner. The Panathenaic prize amphora (below, left) on one side depicted Athena and on the other side, a depiction of whatever sport the prize was for. In addition, the oil was used to light the torches at the olympic games, “the eternal flame.”
Hippocrates, a prominent ancient Greek physician, listed about 60 conditions that could be healed or treated with olive oil, from skin conditions to ear infections. Aristotle suggested a combination of olive oil and either oil of cedar, lead ointment, or frankincense ointment as a method of birth control, to be applied to the cervix to prevent pregnancy. Your general practitioner may not approve of this method of contraception and we don't either.
When a person died, their body was washed by a woman and anointed in olive oil before the burial, where they would make offerings of honey, oil, and whatever else.
If you're wondering who was responsible for the world's first monopoly, that would be Thales, a mathematician turned philosopher. He was living in poverty and wanted to teach those who were making fun of his situation a lesson. He predicted when it would be a good year for the harvests and when the time came, he leased all of the olive presses on Miletus and Chios, so that no one would have any choice but to pay him to use the presses. His predictions were correct and he no longer had to live in poverty. Talk about liquid gold.
Only the wealthy could afford to use olive oil in their cooking and to cleanse their bodies, and light their lamps. They could also use them as a perfume.
While we don't recommend using olive oil for any medicinal purposes, we do recomment using it in your cooking. Our Greek Kalamata extra virgin olive oil is so rich and fruity, even Athena would be proud.