Histories and Legends

The origins of the olive tree are lost in the mists of time. Its history is entwined with that of the civilisations that developed in the Mediterranean Basin and which have, for a long time, forged the destinies of men and left their mark on Western Culture.

Fossils of olive leaves have been found in the Pleiocene rock beds at Mongardino in Italy, and fossilized remains have been dug up in the late Paleolithic strata in North Africa.  Parts of olive trees and seeds have turned up in Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in Spain.

The origins of the wild olive can be located in Asia Minor, where it is very abundant, and actually grows to form woods of olive trees.  The only people not to have made use of the olive were the Assyrians and Babylonians.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century BCE, the olive tree spread across the Greek peninsula with the Phoenicians.  Here, its cultivation developed to such a degree that in the fourth century, Solon passed laws to regulate the planting of olive trees.

From the 6th Century BCE, the olive spread throughout the whole of the Mediterranean Basin passing through Tripoli, Tunis, Sicily, and from there to Southern Italy.  The Romans continued its expansion in the coastal regions of the Mediterranean, bearing the olive as a weapon of peace on their campaigns.

The Arabs introduced their own variety of olive to Southern Spain, and helped to spread its cultivation to such an extent that the Spanish words “aceituna” (olive) and “aceite” (oil) are derived from Arabic.

The fall of the Roman Empire meant crisis for olive cultivation, especially in Italy, which bore the brunt of the barbarian invasions.  It was thanks the monastic orders, and in particular to theBenedictines, that the cultivation of the olive was able to survive and flourish again.  From the twelfth century onwards, by means of defence, rural populations would concentrate themselves around monasteries in order to protect themselves from the invading forces.

With the discovery of America, olive cultivation left the Mediterranean Basin.  Nowadays, olives are grown in places far from its land of origin, such as South America, Australia, Japan and China, as well as throughout the whole of the American continent, from California to Argentina.

In almost every culture, the olive tree has been of great symbolic importance.  It is a symbol of longevity, fertility and maturity.  Throughout the whole of the Mediterranean, it is entwined with the origins of the people who live there, and who hold this tree as sacred, a gift from the Gods and worthy of their adoration and protection.  The royal sceptre was made from the wood of the olive tree, and kings and high priests were anointed with its oil.  Furthermore, olive branches were woven together with laurel in the making of the wreath of victory.

One legend recounts how Adam, as death grew near, sent his son, Seth, up a mountain to the Cherubim who guarded the Earthly Paradise, to beg for redemption, and for him and all mankind.  The Cherubim took three seeds from the Tree of Good and Evil and told Seth to put them into Adam’s mouth when he died.  When they buried Adam on Mount Tabor, the three seeds sprouted, and set out roots that transformed themselves: into an olive tree, a cedar, and a cypress, – the three trees of the Mediterranean.

Six thousand years ago, the Egyptians attributed Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris, for having taught mankind how to cultivate and make use of the olive tree.

Pallas Athena, goddess of peace and wisdom, who was born miraculously from the forehead of her father, Zeus, won the dispute with Poseidon by making a gift of the olive tree, and thus earned the right to give her name to the city, which, in her honour, bears the name of Athens.

The Greeks and Romans used the oil for medicinal purposes and as a fuel in their votive lamps.  Occasionally, it is still possible to see oil lamps lit in our churches today.

In the Bible, there are about 140 references to olive oil, and around 100 references made to the olive tree.  In Genesis, the dove set free by Noah returned to the Ark bearing an olive twig in its beak as a sign of the end of the Flood, and as a symbol of the peace re-established between God and man.

Jesus Christ, on the Mount of Olives in Gethsemany, wept and prayed just before His Passion and death.  Christians have always used olive oil in their most important ceremonies, such as the Baptism, Confirmation and the Final Unction. Classical literature is full of references to olive oil.  It is mentioned in the works of writers such as Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Cato and Pliny.