Those who are interested in Greek mythology are probably familiar with the everlasting rivalry between the residents of Olympia and the consequences of these divine contests, shaping the course of humanity. The gift of the olive tree to humankind was no exception.
Upon settling the polis of Attica, King Cecrops, who was one of the first people to believe in Zeus, wanted to name a patron deity who would protect and bring prosperity to Attica. Athena, daughter of mighty Zeus, the goddess of wisdom and war, found herself against the mighty and bad tempered, god of the sea Poseidon in a contest to present a gift to the people of Attica and whose gift was deemed to be the most valuable was to be named the patron deity have the city of Attica named in their honor.
Appearing before the King Cecrops and the people of Attica in Acropolis, Poseidon went first striking the earth powerfully with his trident and creating a well of sea water later to be called Erechtheis.
Athena was next to present her gift and as she stepped forward she struck her spear into the ground of Acropolis, kneeled and planted an olive branch into the hole which quickly grew to be the first Moria in ancient Greece, with its rich fruits hanging from its branches.
King Cecrops and the people of Attica debated on the value of the gifts. Poseidon’s strike which created the salt water well was not useful for drinking or much else, yet Athena’s precious gift of Moria could prove to be useful in many different ways for all of its profound qualities. The people of Attica chose Moria as the most valuable gift and Athena was crowned as the patron goddess of the city which was then renamed as Athens in her honor.
It is believed that from the Moria gifted by Athena twelve new trees were planted to create a sacred grove in the sanctuary of the Attican hero Akademos. These olive trees were called moriai. In Ancient Greece these trees were considered to be the property of state and sacred due to their mythological and historical significance. They were visited once a month by Inspectors to maintain their health and once a year by special commissioners. Uprooting or damaging the moriai was strictly forbidden and the punishment for such actions was banishment or confiscation of one’s goods.
The ancient Greeks proved to be right about the uses of the olive tree. Moria quickly became and remained, as an integral part of Greek life and culture. The wood from the tree was used to build houses, boats and even weapons in some cases. The fruits and the oil/juice obtained from the olives became a staple of the Mediterranean diet as they were added to nearly all food dishes. The oil was also used to fuel lamps and were widely used by athletes ritually to tone their muscles before fights. The olive oil was also used as a remedy for skin irritations and complaints. Even the leaves from the tree were used as a symbol to crown victorious generals, kings and athletes.
Over the thousands of years that passed from these mythological events, the olive tree and it’s fruits and oil are still an integral part of the Mediterranean culture and have been increasing its popularity worldwide. We now know thanks to the scientific discoveries regarding the origin of the olive tree that the plant first originated from the Middle-East, specifically from the Southeast borders of modern Turkey and what remains of Syria after the devastating war that havocked the country but the historical origins of the plant is a topic for another short story. What I love about this mythological story from Ancient Greece is the amount of respect and appreciation that was paid to, what still seems to be one of the most valuable and culturally important plants in human history, the olive tree.