The olive branch in the beak of the dove—an ancient icon of peace.
Small, chewy and inedible when first picked, the olive is one of nature’s miracles. Since ancient times, the olive tree has provided food, fuel, timber and medicine for many civilizations.
The majestic olive tree forms an intrinsic part of the Mediterranean landscape. It thrives on Israel’s terraced hillsides, despite harsh winters, burning summers, stony ground, and drought conditions. Its branches spread luxuriously despite harsh pruning, bearing fruit that nourishes and cures.
More than any other fruit, the evergreen olive is a symbol of continuity and peace. It is mentioned in the Bible, depicted in ancient Egyptian art, and features widely in Greek mythology. Today the olive has acquired worldwide recognition as beneficial to every diet.
“But I am like an ever-fresh olive tree in the House of God; I trust in the kindness of God forever and ever.” (Psalms 52:10)
History of the Olive
Olives were cultivated in the Land of Israel as early as the Neolithic period (8300-4500 BCE), and archeological evidence shows that olive oil was exported from this region as early as the third millennium BCE.
The olive played a central role in the economy of ancient Israel, as evidenced by the many settlements named after them. The best known are in Jerusalem—the Mount of Olives, and the Garden of Gethsemane, based on the Hebrew for oil vat.
Olive wood was used for implements and small decorative objects. Aside from serving as a local food staple, olives and olive oil were prime exports. Olive oil was a primary source of heat and light in homes and public areas—archeologists have discovered thousands of oil lamps all over Israel.
Olive oil also played a prominent role in ceremonies and rituals; it was used to anoint kings and honor guests, and for purification and sanctification in burial ceremonies. The ancients also highly valued olive oil as a beauty enhancer, and exploited its capability to smooth and nourish the skin.
“I am like a green olive tree in the House of God; I trust in the love of God for ever and ever.” (Psalms 52:10)
Symbolisms of the Olive
For a humble unappealing fruit, olives have made an indelible impression on the customs and writings of the Jewish people.
The olive leaf and olive oil are ancient biblical symbols of peace. In Genesis 8:11, a dove dispatched by Noah to search for dry land returns with an olive branch in its beak. Nowadays, two olive branches combined with the seven-branched menorah serve as the symbol of modern Israel and its hope for peace.
The tree and its fruit figure prominently in Greek legend. In one ritual, athletes massaged every part of their bodies with olive oil – prompting Homer to call it "liquid gold." Athens (capital city of Greece), is named for the Goddess Athena, who gave the Greek people the olive as a gift. The goddess later planted an olive tree on the Acropolis.
In the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, olive oil is used in the ordination of priests and bishops, the consecration of altars and churches, and for anointing at the coronation of monarchs. The Koran describes the olive as a sacred plant, while Mohammed the Prophet identified olive oil as the restorer of seventy diseases.
“I have found David, My servant; with My holy oil I have anointed him.” (Psalm 89:21)
Health & Nutrition
Olives first appear on the tree as green fruits that turn black as they age. Although olives have a high oil content, scientific evidence shows that olive oil actually contributes to weight loss. The Mediterraneans, the world’s highest consumers of olive oil, have healthier bodyweights than in other parts of the world.
Olive oil is the only vegetable oil that can be used just as it is—freshly pressed from the fruit, without processing. Natural olive oil retains the taste, aroma, vitamins, and properties of the olive fruit.
The beneficial effects of olive oil are due to its high content of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants. Studies have shown that olive oil offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels while raising HDL (the "good" cholesterol) levels. Scientists have also found that when olive oil is part of a regular diet, it can lower blood pressure. The fatty acids in olive oil are valuable in bolstering the immune system against external attacks from bacteria and viruses.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil in your daily diet may reduce the risk of heart disease. But instead of adding more oil to your diet, simply substitute olive oil for saturated fats.
“And wine that gladdens man’s heart, oil that makes the face glow, and bread that sustains man’s heart.” (Psalms 104:15)
There are 25 million acres of olive trees around the world.
Over 750 million olive trees are cultivated worldwide, 95% of which are in the Mediterranean.
Some olive trees are thought to be over 1,000 years old.
Olive oil is not only a healthy food—it can also enhance your skin, nails, and hair.
Olives cannot be eaten fresh off the tree; they require several stages of processing to reduce their bitterness.
Olives can be picked while still unripe and green, or allowed to fully ripen on the tree to black.
Remains of olive oil were found in jugs over 4,000 years old in a tomb on the island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea.
“A desirable treasure and oil endures in the abode of the wise, but the fool of a man swallows it up.” (Proverbs 21:20)