History and Tradition

The origin of the olive tree is lost in time, coinciding and mingling with the expansion of the Mediterranean civilisations which for centuries governed the destiny of mankind and left their imprint on Western culture.

The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor where it is extremely abundant and grows in thick forests. It appears to have spread from Syria to Greece via Anatolia (De Candolle, 1883) although other hypotheses point to lower Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, the Atlas Mountains or certain areas of Europe as its source area. Caruso for that reason believed it to be indigenous to the entire Mediterranean Basin and considers Asia Minor to have been the birthplace of the cultivated olive some six millennia ago. The Assyrians and Babylonians were the only ancient civilisations in the area who were not familiar with the olive tree.

The olive: a 4000 year-old myth

The olive tree: an evergreen, fruit-bearing tree. Its contribution was crucial to the social, cultural and biological development of the peoples of the Mediterranean region. Its name derives from the Greek word "elaia", but its origins are lost in the depths of time and myth. A powerful and primordial symbol inextricably linked to the culture of King Minos, the “golden Mycenae”, Homer, Plato and Aristotle, Alexander the Great, and Byzantium. It has been identified for thousands of years with the rural traditions and rituals of the three peninsulas of southern Europe, but did not leave unaffected the peoples of Asia Minor and North Africa, as it is considered a sacred tree in all the monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean.

A divine gift to the Greeks, according to myth, the olive was associated with the wisdom of the mystic, fair play, the humility of the supplicant, the brilliance of festive rites, sacred hospitality, mercy, strength, and abundance.

Olive oil, the precious juice of the fruit of the olive tree, which Homer, the father of epic poetry, described as "liquid gold" and Hippocrates as "a great medicine", still reigns to this day over all other fats and oils in quality diets and in the art of haute cuisine, thanks to its unique aroma, superb taste and health benefits.

The olive in Greece and the world in the 21st century

Today, in the Greece of the touristic Mediterranean, the European Union and the world economy, the olive continues to play the same important role as it did thousands of years ago. It nourishes, it beautifies, it cures, it adorns, it crowns Olympic victors, inspires poets and prose writers and dominates hillsides and plains with the unique colour of its leaves and its striking, sculpture-like trunk, making up what we call the "Greek landscape."

Odysseus Elytis, the Greek Nobel-prize-winning poet, wrote, "If you deconstruct Greece, in the end you will see that what remains is an olive, a vineyard and a boat. Which means: with more such things you could build it over again."

At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, 2550 olive wreaths were used, as tradition demanded, to crown the Olympic victors. Olive oil is Greece’s national product, as evidenced by the impressive statistics for Greek olive culture. The country has 160,000,000 olive trees, which annually produce about 420,000 tons of oil and 100,000 tons of table olives. At least 650,000 families have income derived from the product, as producers, as olive pressers in the country’s 2500 oil presses, and as olive oil processors in its 300 packing plants. Average annual per capita olive oil consumption in Greece is 20 kg, compared to 11 kg consumed by a resident of the next country on the list.

Greece holds third place in world olive oil and olive production, accounting for 16% of global oil production and 7.2% of global production of edible olives. 80% of Greek olive oil belongs to the top quality category of extra virgin oil, i.e. with acidity up to 0.8°, putting Greece in first place among olive oil producing countries.


The true origins of the olive tree are lost in time though archaeologists believe that there were trees growing in the Mediterranean area as long as 60,000 years ago. Even though wild olives must have been gathered in the past, no one has been able to agree on when and where the first trees were farmed. However, the oldest equipment for storing olive oil is dated back to 3,500BC and was found in Crete. The remnants of ampoules found on the island have led to the claim that it is the place where the first trees were actually cultivated.

Olive oil tradition

Every child hearing the story of Noah and the Ark for the first time will remember the Dove carrying the olive branch as a message of peace. Olive trees are intricately linked with the history of civilisations. Even in places where the olive tree does not grow, the fruit of olive trees has great significance.

Essential trees

Olive trees were not just prized for the nutritional value of their fruit. The oil was also used as fuel for lighting and the wood as firewood, as furniture material and for construction purposes. Crushed olives (after the oil pressing) were most likely fed to the domestic livestock and the oil was often used as an ointment or body rub (olive oil is still used in soap making).

Iconic status

The preciousness of the olive tree has made it a natural icon. The ancient civilisations made offerings of olives to the Gods, and the trees' beauty and meaning has been frequently symbolised in art, jewellery, literature and sport. Athletes competing in the Olymic Games were always presented with a wreath of olive twigs; they also used the oil as a lotion on their bodies. A charming aspect of the 2004 Athens Olympics was the sight of the winning athletes once again being crowned with an olive wreath as they received their medals.


The religious tradition of respect towards nature has led many different religious factions to worship the olive tree and its fruit. Olive oil is used in burial ceremonies, baptisms, harvest festivals. Sailors sprinkle it on stormy seas, believing it will bring calmness. Even today in Greece, a newborn baby is presented with the gift of a new olive tree.

Healing properties

Olive oil has always played a vital role in medicine. The early Christians believed it could heal wounds; it has been used to cure fever, treat poisoning, whiten teeth, heal skin diseases including leprosy - and even as an aphrodisiac. In Britain, before olive oil became a common cooking ingredient after 1960, many people associated olive oil as a cure for earache while british cooks who wished to prepare a recipe in the 1950’s using olive oil had to buy it from a chemist, not a grocery store!

Economic importance

Olive oil migrated with the help of the great seafaring nations. The Phonecians travelled with great ampoules of oil, perhaps even to Britain. The Romans, convinced of the health properties in olive oil, took the trouble to make sure it was widely distributed throughout its Empire. Since then the production of olive oil has never failed to be an essential factor in the economies of the main producing countries.

The identity of the Olive Tree

• It grows mainly along the Mediterranean coast. 98% of olive oil production comes from countries of the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia).
• It lives for thousands of years.
• For the first seven years, the olive tree does not produce olives.
• From 7 to 35 years it grows and becomes productive.
• From 35 to 150 years it is at full maturity and produces maximum yields.
• After 150 years its yield diminishes but it continues to flower each year.
• Only five out of 100 flowers produce olives.
• Each tree yields 20 to 30 kilos of olives.
• To produce one kilo of olive oil, 4 to 6 kilos of olives are required.