(…) Slight leaves, thin branches, hollow
trunk, twisted beards, little fruit,
here, and an ineffable numen shines
in its pallor! (…)
The Olive Tree
From Alcyone by Gabriele D’Annunzio
If a myth is a fairy tale with which men hand down the truth throughout millennia, then olive tree and its fruits are really among the protagonist of our history.
We are told about the appearance of this sacred plant at least six thousand years ago and of its “domestication” in the lands of the Central Asia, before it finds its diffusion in the Mediterranean world and invades the rituals and many symbologies of the cults that has always characterized this territory.
Magnificence, sacredness, fertility, chastity, rebirth, inviolability, and the ability to resist the offenses of time and strength are just some of the meanings that bind the olive tree to Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Christian cultures.
The sacred texts of the prophets are marked by them and the poems of the poets in these civilisations talk about them. The dove brings to Noah an olive branch to announce the end of the flood and to seal the new covenant between the God of the Hebrews and His people.
Christians give each other olive branches on Palm Sunday before Easter and as a witness of Peace, and still use oil to impart the sacrament of Confirmation, Priestly Ordination and Extreme Unction, while Orthodox Christian Church also uses it to celebrate Baptism.
Christ, the divine attribute with which Christians designate Jesus, means “anointed”.
Seth, Abraham’s son, put the three seeds received by the Angel of the Lord (a Cherub) in the mouth of his dead father and, thus, on Mount Tabor, where Adam had been buried, so that the cedar tree, the cypress and the olive tree were born.
Romans and Greeks gave crowns woven with olive branches to their most valiant compatriots. When Athena competed with Poseidon to decide which of them should become the protector of the city of Athens, he gave her the olive tree and its culture as a present. So, he won.
For the Egyptians it is Isis, Osiris’ bride, to teach men about the cultivation of olive trees and we can find olive branches depicted in the temple of Ramses II.
When sovereignty was still a manifestation of the divine will, the power of kings and its attribution almost always occurred in relation to some anointing and the sceptre itself, the most evident symbol of kingship, was made with olive tree wood.
Even Romulus and Remus had their geniture under the protection of this sacred plant.
Most of this symbolic history of the oil also has a popular magic with its rituals to get hold of extraordinary abilities that allow you to change into a beast or to fly or, more simply, to discover a hex.
When Egyptians, Phoenicians, and therefore Carthaginians had already made cultivation and olive oil trade one of the most consistent bases of economy for Mediterranean people, Greeks transferred to their Italian colonies the multiple uses of olive oil and especially its systematic cultivation.
What is certain is that the exchanges (and conflicts) between Etruscans and Greeks (in that incredible point of intersection that was the Valley of Tiber during the eighth century BC) could not disregard the olive oil, so much that at a certain point it became both a unit of measure and a real currency, as happened to salt.
So, we can easily have an idea of the comparisons between different types of olive oil and the inevitable and so familiar parochialism that are still part of our modern world.
The history of the olive tree in the first centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire saw extremely localized production and trade, because it was basically used for local consumption, this was true as long as the trauma of barbaric invasions and, probably, of the most devastating wars of Byzantine reconquest.
Then the possessions of feudal lords and those of the abbeys will stimulate a new cultivation organized on a larger scale. The trade routes reopened and kept alive by Genovesi, Pisani, and Venetians who will make the oil market flourish throughout the Mediterranean area. Because of the wars and pestilences and the increasingly invasive presence of the British power that moves the commercial axis from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, as well as the strategic impairment that affects the Republic of Venice with the loss of Cyprus, the cultivation of olive trees on the Peninsula slowed down in the seventeenth century, which is known to be the real Italian Middle Ages (except, perhaps, for Tuscany and Sardinia). However, during the eighteenth century, our olive oil is, once again, present throughout Europe and almost every State in which Italy is divided intensifies, promotes and protects the crops.
Today we can see how important this plant is for our regions: by traveling through the streets that cross our land connecting towns and villages characterised by precious diversities, by stopping to watch without haste, we will realise how much the Italian landscape has been affected by the cultivation and processing of olive trees.