History & Culture
The Olive Tree, a divine gift
According to Greek mythology, the olive tree was a divine gift and in particular from the goddess Athena to the citizens of Athens, as a result of a contest held between Athena and Poseidon for the guardianship of the newly founded city on the land of Attica.
The myth says that Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and crafts, competed for the patronage of the new city. It was then agreed that the city would be named after the one who offered the most valuable gift to the citizens.
The mythical dispute for the claim of the city of Athens between Athena and Poseidon took place on the hill of the Acropolis in the presence of the other ten gods of Olympus, with Cecrops, founder and first king of Athens, as the judge of the contest. First Poseidon struck the earth with his trident and a saltwater spring emerged. Water began to flow and created a sea, now called Erektheis, whereas from the spring a white horse appeared–a symbol of strength and power and an invaluable aid in war. Then Athena threw her spear into the ground, and it turned into the first olive tree–a symbol of peace and a provider of food, fuel and wood. Cecrops, who was summoned by the gods to express his opinion, acknowledged in olive tree the eternal promise of glory and prosperity for the city. Hence the Olympian gods decided that the olive tree was more valuable to the residents of Attica, thus was Athena declared the winner, who became the new city’s patron deity, and the city was named Athens in her honour. The olive tree also became a sacred symbol for the Athenians, so much that their currency depicted Athena with an olive wreath on her helmet and an amphora with oil or an olive branch.
According to the myth, the first olive tree the goddess Athena caused to grow on the Acropolis was called “Moria Elea”. From the original sacred olive tree planted on the rock of the Acropolis twelve new trees (called Moriai) were transplanted in the Academy, marking its twelve gated entries, and furthermore, the sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena was believed to have developed from cuttings of these trees. A curse hung over anyone who dared cut down the sacred olive trees, a crime punishable by death or banishment. Oil from the olives of these trees filled the prize amphorae given to winning athletes at the games of the Great Panathenaia, the greatest and most important festival of ancient Athens in honour of the goddess Athena. Zeus was believed to be the protector of the sacred olive trees, and therefore he received the surname “Morios Zeus”. According to ancient sources, the sacred olive tree of Athena was burned during the Persian attack on Athens in 480 BC, but a shoot sprung from the dry and burnt trunk the very next day. The Athenians saw this as a symbol that Athena still had her mark on the city and as a foretelling that Athens would once again be a great city.
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