By Dylan Petley
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Vancouver
Getting Religious about Olive Oil
While most passionate foodies exhibit a fervor for food akin to religious zeal, olive oils enthusiasts actually have good reason.
This nectar of the gods has, after all, featured highly in numerous ancient rituals and most major religions. And since religion has always factored as a major contributor to human culture and society as we know it, consider the good work that belief systems have achieved on behalf of the holy olive.
Old Habits Die Hard
The ancient Minoans can be thanked for investing olive oil with its initial spiritual significance. When they weren’t leaping over bulls and sacrificing virgins, they were pulping olives, skimming the good stuff off the top and for lack of a better term… worshipping it. Olive oil was thought to represent wealth so showing up with a vat of it was like to rolling up to a nightclub in a Lexus.
If cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, the ancient Egyptians had it sorted. The almost 3,500 year-old Ebers papyrus makes mention of a soap-like substance most likely produced from the oils of several vegetables, including the olive. Trust the extravagance of the civilization that brought us pointy, over-sized tombs and old-world cosmetics to jazz things up with infusions like fennel, sesame, celery, watercress, mint, sage, rose and juniper.
Olive oil really found its legs when it won a popularity contest between two Greek gods, Poseidon and Athena. The duo were competing for the hearts of the people of Athens and the sea-god offered the citizens a nasty saltwater spring while Zeus’ niece hooked them up with some tasty olive oil. Naturally, the good folk of Athens choose the armour-clad beauty with the oil over the old seaweed-smelling dude with the pitchfork and the rest, as they say, is fake history. Myth aside, living, breathing athletes of the era were slathering themselves in olive oil while the populous was all over its medicinal benefits – two factors that contributed to its ability to remain immortal long after the gods of Olympus had died.
Vatican Varietals & Orthodox Olives
The Catholic Church might very well be the originator of the term, all-purpose. Olive oil features in the right of baptism, the sacrament of confirmation, anointing the sick, ordaining priests and bishops, consecrating altars, blessing churches and frying eggs.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, strict rules dictate the consumption of olive oil during feast days and Sundays… on a lighter note, it’s used for illumination in church lamps, home prayer corners and cemeteries.
Olive oil is so prevalent in Judaism, it is (metaphorically speaking) the lubricant that keeps the wheels of the faith spinning. Olive oil is the sole fuel permitted to be used in the Menorah and was obtained using the first drop squeezed from a single olive. This consecrated commodity used only by Temple priests, was the inspiration for the term, pure olive oil. During Hanukkah, a holiday celebrating the discovery of the last of this sacred oil during the 163 BC re-dedication of the Temple, it is used in lieu of candles, imitating the original Menorah.
Jewish tradition has also used olive oil as a means of anointing Israeli monarchs from King David (who slew Goliath) to King Tzidkiyahu (whose name is worth 30 points on the Scrabble board).
Foreheads and festivals aren’t the only places that olive oil shows up in Judaism. The Talmud touts it as good for one’s memory. That being said, if you’re prone to forget your double-mint gum it’s also allegedly a cure for bad breath.
Nowhere is olive oil celebrated quite so poetically as in the Koran. Used as a metaphor to describe the light of Allah, both burning and in its glowing liquid state, it’s no surprise that it is revered so highly. However, olive oil’s practical applications are not lost on the Muslim faith either. The prophet Muhammed espoused both its medicinal and therapeutic qualities, recommending it not only as something to be massaged into one’s skin but also as the cure for some 70 different diseases.
The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth
Religion still defines much of today’s world but science has emerged as a new belief system for those less inclined toward spiritual pursuits. But a lack of faith does not mean a lack of taste. Here’s the gospel truth about olive oil:
Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids and is high in antioxidative substances. By controlling LDL cholesterol levels and raising HDL cholesterol levels, it is instrumental in combating ulcers, gastritis, gallstones, heart disease, pancreatic cancer and colon cancer, among a myriad of other diseases.
And it’s ridiculously tasty.
Are you a believer yet?