“Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background” by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Archeological evidence shows that olives were turned into olive oil by 6000 BC. People believed that both the ingestion and topical application of olive oil to be good for skin and health. Taken internally, olive oil stimulates metabolism, promotes digestion and lubricates mucous membranes

Legend says that the olive tree was the result of a contest between Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, God of the Sea, to find the most precious, useful and divine gift to humankind. Poseidon offered man the horse, while Athena provided the olive tree. Because of its many uses (food, medicine, heat, and perfume), the olive tree was chosen as the most valuable gift and Athena forever became the patroness of the most powerful city in Greece named after her.

“La Dispute de Minerve et de Neptune” by Halle Noël

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches use olive oil for the Oil of Catechumens – the oil used in some traditional Christian churches during baptism; it is believed to strengthen the one being baptized to turn away from evil, temptation and sin. Olive oil mixed with a perfuming agent such as balsam is consecrated by bishops as Sacred Chrism, which is used to confer the sacrament of Confirmation.

“Seven Sacraments Altarpiece. Baptism Confirmation” by Rogier van der Weyden

According to the Old Testament, the dove that was sent out by Noah after the flood came back to the Ark carrying an olive branch, which indicated that the waters had begun to subside. It is believed that the notion of an olive branch as a symbol of peace and goodwill originated from this story.

Olives and Culture

Noah’s Ark, illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In Jewish observance, olive oil is the only fuel allowed to be used in the seven-branched Menorah during the Exodus of the tribes of Israel from Egypt, and later in the permanent Temple in Jerusalem.


Olives and Culture

A reconstruction of the Menorah of the Temple created by the Temple Institute

Olives and Culture

“Angel with an Olive Branch, Emblem of Divine Peace” by Hans Memling

Olives and Culture

“Table with Orange, Olives and Pie” by Clara Peeters, probably 1611

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