Mythology 101: The Greatest Gift

By Carol Firenze
November 01, 2011

As we get ready to embark on yet another gift-giving season, exploring new ways to show your appreciation for friends and family can be found through a fascinating history lesson. So, this month’s tip takes you back in time – way back to the time of Greek mythology to learn what they revered most when it came to that thorny issue of what to get the person who seems to have everything.

What did the Greek Gods consider to be the greatest gift to mankind?Start by imagining you are one of the gods on Mount Olympus. What would you choose as the “greatest gift to mankind”? That ultimate gift turned out to be the olive tree – lauded for its wood, leaves, fruit and oil that produced food, fuel, and shade for the Greeks. And, because it was known to last hundreds of years, it was cherished as a symbol of peace, wisdom and prosperity. Yes, the olive tree has inspired myths and legends and has enjoyed an unrivaled degree of fame (well, perhaps with the possible exception of the grapevine!). It was especially revered during the ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman eras. In Greece, the history of olive oil is as old as the myths of the gods of Olympus.

>The Gift-Giving Contest

According to Greek mythology, the creation of the olive tree was the result of a contest between Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, God of the Sea, as to who would become the protector of a newly built city in Attica (the historical region of Greece). The city would then be named after the god or goddess who gave the citizens the most precious, useful and divine gift. With his trident, Poseidon struck a rock. Water rushed out of the rock, creating a spring of salty water, symbolizing his gift of sea power. Athena followed by striking a rock with her spear and produced the olive tree, an offering signifying fruitfulness and peace. The citizens (wisely) chose the gift of Athena and she forever became the patroness of the city named after her. The story of her precious gift and the recognition of its value have been carried down through the millennia. Even today, an olive tree stands where the story of this legendary competition is said to have taken place. The myth continues as a “living legend” as it is said that all the olive trees in Athens were descended from that first olive tree offered by Athena.

Olympic Games and Zeus, the King of the Gods

The olive tree was associated with athletic competitions held throughout Greece in ancient times. At the Olympic Games, first held in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, athletes were massaged with olive oil in the belief that the wisdom, power and strength of Athena would be bestowed upon them. The winners were awarded olive leaf crowns and olive oil. But it wasn’t just athletes who benefited. It was also believed that if you polished a statue of Zeus with olive oil, Zeus would be so honored that he would grant you a long and happy life.

More Myths and Legends

The well-known mythological hero Hercules is reported to have killed the terrifying Lion of Cithaeron with his own hands using a wooden stake made from an olive tree. In several of his Twelve Labors, Hercules also used clubs made of olive wood to corner an enemy. Once cornered, he would then strangle or kill the enemy with his bare hands. Because these stories were so popular, the olive tree became associated with strength, resistance and power.

Another myth recounts that Theseus, the son of an Athenian king, was sent as a part of a yearly human sacrifice to Knossos on Crete to be fed into a gigantic labyrinth and killed by the dreaded Minotaur. Prior to leaving, Theseus begged Apollo for protection and was given a sacred olive branch from the Acropolis of Athens. Theseus killed the Minotaur and according to one myth, was able to escape from the labyrinth because of a string he had tied around the branch of an olive tree.

Even Homer, in his epic poems, coined the term “liquid gold” and repeatedly mentioned olive oil in The Iliad and The Odyssey.

The Greatest Gift – Even Today

While the olive tree and olive oil made their greatest cultural impact in ancient and classical Greece, their influence is still strong. The ancient Greeks had a tradition of offering small phials of olive oil to foreigners as a symbol of their great civilization. That tradition continues even now in the form of bottles of olive oil given as hostess gifts. Today the “greatest gift to mankind” is available in forms that the ancient Greeks never imagined – from an olive tree to extra virgin olive oil to a myriad of skin products and tableware made of beautiful olive wood! So, as we begin the season of gift giving, be as wise as the goddess Athena and continue to share the blessings of the olive tree with everyone you love.