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Sacred Olives: Athena's Tree on the Acropolis

Mar. 10, 2015
Laura Aitken-Burt

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Atop the Acropolis of Athens stands an olive tree that is a sym­bol of hun­dreds of years of ded­i­ca­tion and rev­er­ence. Although this is not the orig­i­nal’ tree hon­oured by pious Athenians over 2,500 years ago, it nonethe­less stands in roughly the same spot as the orig­i­nal. The tree was an impor­tant foun­da­tion myth for Athens as it estab­lished the pri­macy of the god­dess Athena within the city that would take her name.

Legend has it that Zeus offered a con­test between Athena and Poseidon for the pos­ses­sion of Athens. Poseidon raised up his three-pronged tri­dent, smashed it upon the hard rock of the Acropolis and out a salt spring sprang. Athena on the other hand pro­duced an olive tree, its rich fruits boun­ti­fully dan­gling from the branches. This dra­matic show­down between the two pow­er­ful Olympians was immor­tal­ized in stone, depicted on the West ped­i­ment sculp­tures of the Parthenon.

The Athenians chose Athena’s gift and the olive tree has remained a cen­tral part of Greek life ever since for all of its pro­found qual­i­ties. The leaves have been used to crown the heads of vic­to­ri­ous ath­letes, gen­er­als and kings, the wood used to con­struct houses and boats, the oil used to give fuel to lamps, rubbed into the toned, mus­cled bod­ies of lithe ath­letes, added to all food dishes and the olives them­selves — a sta­ple in the Mediterranean diet and a valu­able export through­out antiq­uity and today. Even the iconic Athenian tetradrachm coins had the leaves of the olive branch peep­ing to the left of Athena’s owl.

Atop the Acropolis of Athens stands an olive tree that is a symbol of hundreds of years of dedication and reverence.

But the olive tree on the Athenian Acropolis held extra impor­tance com­pared to all oth­ers due to its divine prove­nance. A Temple to Athena Polias (‘of the city’) was built c.525BC hous­ing a xoanon cult statue inside — itself made from olive wood — and a precinct cre­ated for Athena’s sacred olive tree. When the Great King Xerxes’ Persian armies swept through Greece and sacked Athens in 480BC, the build­ings on the Acropolis were set on fire and destroyed. Yet Herodotus tells us that the olive tree sprouted the same day to a height of two cubits’ (3 ft.). Seeds from the rem­nants of this tree were replanted across Attica and in this way, all the olive groves sur­round­ing Athens have a touch of Athena’s orig­i­nal tree in them.

Later in 421BC, when the Oath of Platea which had been sworn in 479BC to leave the ruins of the Persian destruc­tion as memo­ri­als to the war had lapsed, the Erechtheion was built on the most sacred areas of the Acropolis. Not only were tombs to the myth­i­cal kings Kekrops and Erechtheus here but also the spot where Poseidon’s tri­dent struck the ground and of course Athena’s sacred olive tree. Once again, the olive tree regained grand mon­u­ments in its vicin­ity and con­tin­ued to be hon­oured and remain a cen­tral part of the Athenian reli­gious and cul­tural land­scape for cen­turies to come.

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