Besides everyday diet, the olive tree and its oil had a number of other and often symbolic meanings for Byzantines. First of all, scented oil was a luxury good packed in small vessels, called alipta, and often sent to important persons as a valuable gift. Oil was also used as a miraculous medicine, mainly by saints or holy men or women who used it to treat illnesses that doctors failed to cure. There are many examples, found, for example, in the Lives of St Luke of Styra, St Petr of Latros, St Nikon the Penitent and St Peter the Bishop of Argos.
Due to a false etymology, olive oil is also connected to mercy. There are many references on the relation between oil and mercy, especially in hagiographic texts. So, for example, in the biography of St Peter of Atroa there is the Phrase “his body was cured with oil, his soul was blessed with prayer” which combines the curing of the body with oil with the link between oil and mercy.
There are similar examples in the biographies of St Sampson and St Ioannikios. In the biography of St John the Merciful, an olive branch on a woman’s head symbolises mercy. The same symbolism is evident in the hymns of Minaia. Finally, in the same Life of St John the Merciful another unusual symbolic aspect of the olive tree is mentioned: if in a vision someone appears wearing an olive branch wreath, then this is interpreted as a prophesy of death. In another part of the biography, after John’s death someone dreams of a crowd consisting of women and orphans “carrying olive branches, while Patriarch John walked ahead leading them to the church”. Some people believe than this symbolism has its roots in the chthonic dimension of the olive tree in ancient times when its leaves were used in adornment and burial of the dead.
•Hellenic Folklore Research Center (Academy Of Athens)ODE TO THE OLIVE TREEISBN: 960-404-054-5