The Culture of the Olive Tree

The olive tree is a familiar feature of the Mediterranean landscape. Since ancient times, it has contributed, in practical and symbolic terms, to the culture, economy, health and cuisine of the inhabitants of the Mediterranean. Crete, the Peloponnese, the coastal regions of Greece, the islands of the Eastern Aegean, such as Lesbos, Samos and Thasos, and the Ionian islands all possess olive groves.
The significance of the olive tree rests upon the existence of these groves, or has done so over recent centuries. The culture of the olive tree has three aspects – the landscape itself, diet, consisting mainly of the use of oil, and the symbolic importance of the tree and its fruit. All these aspects have been the subject of intense discussion over recent decades.
The culture of the olive tree is manifested in many different ways, in material objects, in the arts and various customs. It is also manifested in religious behavior, magical rituals, medical prescriptions and cosmetics. Above all, the culture of the olive tree is manifested in a symbolism that transcends time and place.
The nutritional habits of a society are an expression of its cultural level and their study contributes to our understanding of that society. The changes in the nutritional code of a traditional agricultural society, such as Greece, occur very slowly. As a result, in Greece all nutritional habits remained for the most part unaltered and the changes in the nutrition were very few. New nutritional habits and traditional foods from the Greeks of the East appeared when the refugees came from Asia Minor in 1922. The nutritional attitude of the Greeks changed after the war. Mass consumption of industrial and commercial goods now increases day by day and foreign nutritional habits have invaded the country.
Olive oil, a basic element in Greek nutrition, holds a predominant position in the nutritional code of the areas that produce it, even if it is not an area’s main product. In addition, olives are nutritious, tasty and cheap and they can be easily preserved. Thus they are widely used in modern Greek cuisine, even in areas that do not produce them.
All aspects of our knowledge on the olive have been greatly enriched in recent years by regular conferences and publications. Enough material has been collected to allow us to have a sufficiently clear picture of the traditional means of cultivation, of oil pressing and production. We also have a clear picture of its use in nutrition, worship and symbolism.
This research has led to a more systematic recording of the traditional ways and methods of exploitation in order to incorporate the olives in today’s nutritional code.

•Hellenic Folklore  Research Center (Academy Of Athens)ODE TO THE OLIVE TREEISBN: 960-404-054-5