Referred to as ‘liquid gold’ by Homer in the Greek mythology epic the Iliad, olive oil and the olive plant have a rich and fascinating history dating back thousands of years. According to legend, the city of Athens was named after the goddess Athena because her gift of an olive tree to the city was so significant.
While olive oil is a beloved addition to dishes around the world today, its place in history is marked as a significant part of religious ceremonies, trade, the economy, and social practices that might be considered odd today. Here are some interesting uses of olive oil in history:
Revered for its many uses and properties, olive oil had great value in a time where it wasn’t readily available on every supermarket shelf. Used as a form of currency for bartering or even for paying taxes, if you had a stash of olive oil at the ready you would be well-positioned in Ancient Greece, and including olive oil in your diet, wearing it in your hair or using it as a perfume was a sign of status.
Olive oil was the original sponsor of the Olympics
Back in ancient Greece the Olympic Games were the ultimate athletic demonstration in Athens, and the Olympic Flame would be lit using a small portion of olive oil, today the flame tradition still persists after being resurrected in 1928. Olives were a pretty consistent theme in the original Olympic Games and before the age of medals, winners would be gifted olive leaf crowns and sometimes olive oil itself to show their success, which happened again as recently as the 2004 games.
Medicinal and health properties
Largely considered a period where healthcare practices were fairly worrying by today’s modern standards, oils were a go-to for medicinal needs in the ancient world. In fact, doctors in Babylon were called ASU, which means ‘the person who knows about oils’. Dubbed ‘the great healer’ by Hippocrates, a famed Greek physician, olive oil was used for everything from pain relief to skin remedies and fertility practices when Aristotle proclaimed it could help prevent pregnancy. In a more modern context, there’s an ongoing interest in the benefits of a Mediterranean diet due to the fact that Mediterranean populations tend to live longer and suffer less from heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes than other groups, and there are several studies observing the benefits of olive oil over other lipids.
Turkish oil wrestling, or Ottoman oil wrestling as it’s also known, is a practice still popular today and honoured annually at the Kirkpinar Wrestling Festival, which is recognised by The Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest continuously practiced sports tournament in the world. Oil wrestling, as the name suggests, involves wrestlers dousing their bodies and attire with a mixture of olive oil and water to make themselves difficult to grip for their competitors. The practice of dousing oneself in oil was fairly common at the time, and the Spartans and Greeks used oil to rub themselves while exercising in the gymnasia, often training completely in the nude.
With a rich history, plentiful health benefits and incredible taste to boot, it’s no surprise olive oil is an international treasure.