When humans got rid of their prehistoric mindset and built the first civilizations, olive oil was there. When believers started constructing mythology and worshiping divine beings, olive oil was there. When global trade took shape and the world became more and more connected, olive oil was spread around the globe. And when the Internet was born and people were more concerned about good food, olive oil became viral foodie trend. Let’s take a look at how olive oil has shaped human history, then and now.
The birth of olive oil: Mythology and fact
There is one origin story of olive tree that fans of Greek mythology probably hear about. Athena and Poseidon competed with each other for the patronage of a large city. Poseidon offered a salt spring as his gift while Athena gave people an olive tree. The tree was held as more valuable, so Athena won and the city was named after her: Athens. Greek legends also credited the minor god Aristaeus, one of Apollo’s sons, with inventing olive oil the press used to extract it.
In reality, it is likely that approximately 6,000 years ago olives were first domesticated in the Mediterranean Basin. The oil extracted from the fruits was first used lamp fuel and in religious or special ceremonies. But it was until 2500 BCE, roughly 4,500 years ago, that olive tree cultivation and olive oil extraction were carried out in earnest.
Symbolism and significance of olive oil
During the Ancient Olympic Games, athletes were often messaged with olive oil before and after the competition in the hope that Athena’s wisdom and stamina would be bestowed upon them (or to simply reduce their opponent's grip on them). The custom persisted for nearly a thousand years despite its high cost.
Olive oil was also involved in many religious rituals. The term “messiah” means "the anointed one”, possibly highlighting the oil-based feature of the rituals. In Judaism, olive oil plays an important role. It is the only fuel allowed to be used in the seven-branched menorah during the Exodus. Nowadays, the oil is still the preferred fuel for modern menorahs. In the past, olive oil was also used to prepare the holy anointing oil for priests and prophets as well as kings/ queens in their coronation. One notable instance is the anointing of King David by the prophet Samuel with sacred olive oil.
Sharing the same Abrahamic root, Christianity has several elements in common with Judaism, among them the use of olive oil as the holy anointing oil. Olive oil is considered one of the four most important symbols in Christianity along with bread, wine and water. The pious have great taste too: only virgin olive oil is accepted for the sacred anointment.
But it’s wrong to think that olive oil wasn’t used for religious rituals before the rise of Abrahamic religions. Offerings and sacrifices to Greek and Roman deities wouldn’t be complete without olive oil. To the blazing south, priests in Ancient Egypt cleansed and purified representation statue of God with olive oil.
The global rise of olive oil
A long, long time ago, even before its culinary properties were discovered, olive oil was already a valuable commodity for trade. The “liquid gold” was a major export of several Bronze Age civilizations across what’s now Greece. For example, the Minoan civilization and Mycenaean Greece. Through trade, olive oil was a familiar sight across the Mediterranean Basin.
After millenniums of being used predominantly as fuel and anointing oil, olive oil entered widespread use as a cooking oil around 5th–4th century BCE. Now olive oil was mass-produced at multiple sites in Roman territory, Andalucía, North Africa and Asia Minor. Plutarch, a renowned Roman philosopher and historian, reports that Caesar forced the people of Tripolitania (nowadays Libya) to pay a tribute of 1 million liters of olive oil in 46 BCE. As the Roman Empire grew relentlessly, so did it thirst for olive oil. Its own production, despite being of an impressive scale, was still insufficient. The Empire had to look for other sources. Archaeological evidence recovered from Monte Testaccio, which was near a gigantic Roman reserve of olive oil, suggested that Rome imported approximately 6.5 billion liters of olive oil over the span of nearly three centuries.
After the big leap since Roman times, the making of olive oil stayed relatively unchanged for centuries. Olive oil was popular in the West and Middle East while the rest of the world didn’t know about it. That changed when Joseph Graham developed the hydraulic pressing in 1795, an invention that greatly increased productivity. The emergence of new transport options made it easier to serve customers worldwide with olive oil. At the present, olive oil is a healthy cooking choice for foodies in all continents.