The olive tree is one of the most revered plants in the Mediterranean basin and has significant symbolistic in Greek mythology. As the symbol of the goddess Athena, the plant was revered in ancient Greece and it still bears importance today as the source of the oil that plays such an important role in the Mediterranean diet in general, and the Cretan diet in particular.
Olive Trees and Olive Oil in Myth and Religion
Perhaps it is important to note here why the olive tree is the symbol of Pallas Athena.
The goddess and the god of the sea, Poseidon, appear in the founding myth of Athens in a contest in front of Kekrops I, the mythical king who built the city. Athena and Poseidon were each invited on the Acropolis to bestow a gift to benefit the community. The best gift would determine which was better suited to become the patron deity of the city. This paragraph by Apollodorus (3.14.1) describes the incident in detail:
“Kekrops, a man born of the earth, whose body was a combination of man and snake, was the first king of Attica. He renamed the land, formerly called Akte, Kekropia after himself It is said that in his time the gods decided to take possession of cities to establish their own cults. Poseidon came to Attica first and struck his trident on the Acropolis producing a salt spring now called the sea of Erechtheus. Athena came after him calling Kekrops as witness of her taking possession; she planted an olive tree, which is still to be seen in the sanctuary of Pandrosos. And when the two gods fought for possession of the country, Zeus parted them appointing as judges, not as some say Kekropsand Kranaos, nor Erisychthon, but the twelve gods. Their verdict gave Athena the land thanks to Kekrops’ testimony that she planted the olive tree first. Athena then gave her name to the city, Athens, while Poseidon in his rage flooded the plain of Eleusis and turned Athens into an island.”
Since she gave the city such a precious gift, Athena because its patron and changed its name. Then, during the Panathenaea annual celebrations honoring the birthday of the goddess, winners of the games would receive Panathenaic amphoras filled with holy olive oil.
That olive oil was sacred to ancient Greeks is undisputed. It later continued to be cherished by Christians as anointing oil. Exodus 30:22-25:
22 Then the Lord said to Moses, 23 “Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 24 500 shekels of cassia—all according to the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil. 25 Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil.
Beyond myth and religion, olive oil has clear value for consumers. It is used in cookery but also in cosmetics, which, by numerous accounts, are highly beneficial for health.
Benefits of Olive Oil
The list of olive oil benefits would take volumes. It is an aliment full of powerful antioxidants that aid in the prevention of chronic disease.
“The possible beneficial effects of the main phenolic compounds, hydroxytyrosol, and oleuropein, are due to their antioxidant activity, which is related to the development of atherosclerosis and cancer, and to anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activity,” – Tripoli, E., Giammanco, M., Tabacchi, G., Di Majo, D., Giammanco, S., & La Guardia, M. (2005). The phenolic compounds of olive oil: Structure, biological activity and beneficial effects on human health. Nutrition Research Reviews, 18(1), 98-112. doi:10.1079/NRR200495
Research has also demonstrated that components in olive oil in the Mediterranean diet can also contribute to a lower incidence of coronary heart disease. Olive oil contains around 30 phenolic compounds, which could also reduce the incidence of prostate and colon cancers. Consumption of EVOO Cretan oil also lowers both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
The oleocanthal in newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil is a natural anti-inflammatory compound with effects similar to ibuprofen.
Olive oil consumption may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, the top causes of death worldwide.
Because it seems to help reduced body weight gain, a diet rich in olive oil may be useful in combating obesity:
“Mediterranean diet, especially rich in virgin olive oil, is associated with higher levels of plasma antioxidant capacity. Plasma total antioxidant capacity (TAC) is related to a reduction in body weight after three years of intervention in a high cardiovascular risk population with a Mediterranean-style diet rich in virgin olive oil,” – according to researchers.
There’s also evidence that oleocanthal in olive oil may act as a potential neuroprotective mechanism against Alzheimer’s disease.
These are just some of the benefits of the consumption of olive oil. The liquid gold is a wonderful moisturizer, with many other benefits for hair and skin.
The quality of the oil is also a major factor in enjoying its beneficial effects.
Olive Oil in Cretan Diet
The olive oil is the king of the Cretan diet. Although this diet is rooted in the Mediterranean diet, it is different. Some have claimed that the Cretan diet is the original Mediterranean diet. This claim is based on the Seven Countries Study conceived by Ancel Keys, a Minnesota physiologist, in the 1960s. Of note, among all Greek destinations, Crete is best known for the longevity of its inhabitants and their eating habits involve a large intake of olive oil.
It is also important to note that the island is self-sufficient and counts mostly on local produce – like vegetables, grains, pulses, fruit, fish, and meat, cooked in olive oil, and flavored with natural herbs. Cretans know how to forage for wild greens, and they eat them cooked or raw, always with a generous drizzle of oil.
Cretans love to share their food. The typical table sees a spread of mezze, little portions of homecooked dishes that respect ages of tradition: dolmades, fava, savory pies like Hortopita and Spanakopita, seasonal salads, fried snails, dakos, Sarikopitakia, chaniotiko boureki zucchini and potato pies, Apaki cured pork meat, lamb with stamnagathi, horta greens, fresh fish, grilled octopus, and the list goes on. Whatever you choose, you will notice that olive oil is ever-present. Cretans use it for everything, including to make sweets.
In essence, the Cretan diet is a way of life that cherishes nature and tradition.