Since ancient times the olive tree was regarded as a symbol of prosperity, peace, fertility and euphoria and played an important role in the history and culture of the ancient Greeks, because of its sacredness, its economic significance and the variety of uses of its products in daily and religious life.
Chronologically, the origins of olive cultivation are placed in the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium B.C.) according to the findings of excavations of Minoan Crete as well as Mycenaean civilization (1600-1100 B.C).
In the Iliad (8th c. B.C.) it is reported that Hera anoints her body with scented olive oil as well as Odysseus along with Diomedes wash first with warm water and immediately after anoint their bodies with olive oil. In the Odyssey, we read about the bath of Telemachus in Sparta, where, after being washed, his body was anointed with olive oil. Olive oil was therefore widely used for smearing the body as a cosmetic, before and after the Games in Gymnasia, as well as in Baths (Valaneia), but also for the smearing of the body of the dead.
The Goddesses of Olympus used a kind of “ointment” from olive oil which was believed to have miraculous properties for the body.
According to Solon (639-559 B.C): “the fruit of the olive tree is a great boon for everything needed in life”. In those times, in fact, olive oil was cultivated systematically, so that relevant laws were legislated concerning its circulation.
Sophocles (496-406 B.C) in “Oedipus at Colonus” writes “in this land the green olive which feeds the children, is thriving, a plant that was born from the earth, which hands did not create, an object of fear to the enemies, never until now have I heard it grows in Asia nor in the Peloponnese, this tree no Lord neither old nor young will destroy because the eye of fatal Zeus, which is always watchful, and Athena protect it”.
Democritus (460-370 B.C) said that one can be healthy by soaking the inside with honey and outer with oil.
The olive oil is both food and medicine according to Hippocrates.
Within the Hippocrates code, more than sixty pharmaceutical uses of olive oil can be found; the most common uses are mainly for healing dermatological diseases, during pregnancy, childbirth and also as a means of contraception. It was also used for the treatment of chronic fever, small wounds and as an antidote in cases of minor poisoning.
Odors Other pharmaceutical uses were drops for irritated eyes but also for the stomach ulcer.
In his book “Diaititiki kai Therapeutiki”(Diet and Therapeutics), Hippocrates wrote about olive oil: “Rubbing with oil and water softens the body and it does not let it become too hot.”
In “The Ecclesiazusae”, (372-287 B.C) of Aristophanes, a young woman asks another woman to approach and smell her hair which had just been anointed with scented olive oil.
Furthermore, Theophrastus (372-287 B.C) in his work “Peri Osmon” (Concerning) and Dioskourides (40-90 A.D.) have saved information about the ingredients and recipes of producing scented oil. Dioskourides used to recommend the use of olive oil (green olive oil) for toothaches headaches just like we use today the Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) in “Athenaion Politeia” (The Athenian Constitution) mentions the symbolism of the oil as a prize to the winners of horse racing and of gymnastic competitions and how legislatively the death penalty could even be imposed to whoever uprooted an olive tree.
Moreover, the winners of the Olympic Games received olive oil as a gift and were crowned with an olive wreath.
General Hannibal (247-183 B.C) knew that olive oil relaxes the whole body, therefore, in winter, on the banks of the Trebbia River; he ordered his soldiers, before the battle and after they had eaten well; to then rub themselves with olive oil.
The smearing of the body with olive oil helped in melee close combat as a means for one to escape the grips of the opponent. Also, the use of it on overcoats made them waterproof.
The ancient Greeks and Romans are probably the first who used olive oil for smearing muscles in order to keep them flexible. The athletes and those having upper social position used the oil for cleaning their body. At times when there were neither soaps nor materials for cleanliness and body hygiene, oil seems to have played a primary role in this area. In a recent study, it was estimated that the oil needed annually in the rich homes of ancient Athens was 200 -300 kilos, considerable amount if one takes into account the efficiency of the olive trees but also the technological potentials of exporting olive oil.
In other sources, we read that the Greeks not only smeared the manes of horses with oil but also their own hair, mainly the women, and often their own clothes too.
In the inscriptions of the famous Asclepius (3rd century B.C.) it is reported that the oil was used to prepare special ointments and remedies.
Plutarch (45-120 A.D.) in “Ethics” refers to the treatment of mastitis with water and oil “ydrelaio”.
The Athenians on their coins portrayed Goddess Athena with an olive wreath on her helmet and an amphora with oil or an olive twig.
The gold and ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia, a work of Phidias, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world was crowned with olive twigs.
Regarding the economy, the oil was a product of attraction but also a reason for war. Its exports were done by land and by sea.
The Spartans by invading Attica during the Peloponnesian War destroyed the olive groves, but the Athenians with Pericles also had cut down trees of the plains of Kynourias and Argolis. Ancient sources mention several similar cases, where the hostile army, by destroying olive trees, damaged the local economy for many years, until the olive grove is again grown.
Other uses of oil besides the basic food: it was needed as a fuel source for lighting since the lamps burned oil. This use survives today with the vigil candles.
Oil was also used as a lubricant, e.g. on metallic mechanisms or wooden parts and for the maintenance of ivory, leather and metals