By David Dietle
Olive oil has played an important role in the development of what many of us would consider the most important cultures of the early western world. Just about every civilization that we think of as being responsible for, or influencing, Europe and the Americas came from around the Mediterranean Sea, and so did the olive. Olives first appeared in what is modern Turkey, on the Asian side. From there they spread around the Mediterranean basin.
Probably the culture most heavily influenced by olive oil was the Minoan culture of Crete. They used olive oil for nearly everything; cooking, soap, fuel, lubricant. Despite the fact that it was widely available, it was treated like gold by the Minoans (and most ancient cultures exposed to it) and afforded a level of respect they reserved only for gods and bulls. The Minoans were the ones that brought us the minotaur, so they had a certain affection/respect for bulls, and that intensity was reflected in their love of simple fruit oil. It is believed that the Minoans were the first to make olive oil, as opposed to simply eating olives, however some dispute this and and suggest that instead it was first pressed by the Canaanites, but more on the Biblical peoples in a bit.
The Minoans were far from the only Greeks to love olive oil. Take the Spartans. The chiseled, oiled look of the Spartan soldiers in the movie 300 was less of an exaggeration than you might think; they rubbed olive oil onto their skin before athletic events to accentuate the male form. We make fun of body builders for doing the same thing with baby oil these days, but they’re just taking a lead from the ancient warrior culture that wore sandals and underwear as winter gear.
The love of olive oil spread to places that didn’t have their own supply; the Egyptians imported olive oil until they managed to grow their own olive trees. Olive trees began to spread into Gaul and Celtic lands by the 7th century.
Back to the Biblical cultures, the Canaanites may have been pressing olive oil as far back as 4500 BC, which would predate the Minoans. Regardless of who started the whole thing, another Biblical group, the Philistines, were prodigious olive oil makers. In one city, Tel Minqe, they have found over 100 olive presses, which were believed to have produced between 1,000 and 3,000 tons of oil every season. From the Greek and Middle Eastern areas, olives spread into modern day Italy where it played no small role in Roman culture. The Roman gladiators used olive oil to bathe, then sold the used “bath oil” to wealthy women (personally, I’ll settle for drizzling it over Feta).
In addition to the more tangible influences on our world that olive oil has had, it may even be responsible for our use of the word “oil” entirely. It seems the Greek word for olive oil may have come from the Phoenician word for “superior”, which came about when comparing olive oil to animal fats and other vegetable oils, which is a hard point to argue against. That in turn influenced the Latin word, which of course was the hallmark of Roman culture, eventually leading to the Anglicized oil. It’s pretty interesting that the word that we use to describe the viscous substance that fuels our economy and comes from the Middle East got its name from a different one that fueled many previous economies, around the Middle East.
The world has a way of coming full circle.