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Friday, July 22, 2011

The symbolism of olive tree in ancient Greece


Olive tree appears very frequently in Greek Mythology. The most popular tradition concerns the establishment the city of Athens . Goddess Athena and Posidon faced a challenge whose name was going to be given to the city. Each god had to offer a gift in order to compliment the citizens.  Then, Athenians had to choose whose name will be given to the city, by choosing the most valuable gift for the city. Goddess Athena offered an olive tree by planting an olive at the foothill of city’s Acropolis, while Posidon offered huge amounts of salt (salt was also a precious good at that time). The citizens chose the olive tree and the city took the name of goddess Athena (Athens) who became the official protector of the city. For that olive symbolises wisdom and fertility, which was the principal characteristics of Goddess Athena.
 
Olive tree was regarded the tree of peace, euphoria and life. Irini (means peace in Greek), daughter of Zeus and Thetidas, was being represented with a branch of olive in her hands. During war time, the messengers who were being sent to carry the message of peace, should hold on their hands an olive branch. Another tradition reports that Hercules, while he was coming back to Greece after had completed of the twelve deeds, he planted an olive tree to Olympia.

Olive branch (kotinos) was the symbol of immortality and Olympic ideals. During the first Olympic games, held in Olympia (776 BC), an olive wreath was being given as a prize to winners, symbolising the truce, but also the general peace. Besides, during the Panathenian games a respectful amount of olive oil, was given as an award for the winners of the games, symbolising the victory.  Since that time olive oil had a considerable commercial value thus this prize had also a high monetary value.

Olive tree was symbolising also both prosperity and protection.  The importance of this tree is highly illustrated by special laws made to protect it. In fact, the protection of olive trees was included to the legislation of Solon, the most famous lawmaker of the 6th century BC. The Athenian state cared so much about olive trees that the punishment for those who destroyed the trees was defined to be death.

Maria Turiakidou | Historian



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