The Olive Tree and the Rise of Athens

The story of the divine competition for Athens reflects the ancient Greeks' reverence for wisdom, strategy and life's practical needs.

View of the Acropolis of Athens
By Simon Roots
Jan. 16, 2024 17:52 UTC
View of the Acropolis of Athens

Throughout the Mediterranean, the olive tree has long been impor­tant in soci­ety. Its fruit and oil form the foun­da­tion of the Mediterranean diet, and its branches rep­re­sent peace in Judaism, Christianity and Islam; its iconic sil­hou­ette is asso­ci­ated the world over with the Mediterranean land­scape from Cyprus to Tuscany to the Algarve.

Perhaps the story that best shows how cen­tral the olive is to the region’s cul­ture is how Athena became the patron god­dess of the city of Athens.

In ancient Greek mythol­ogy, the city of Athens became the stage for a remark­able con­test between two Olympian deities, Poseidon and Athena. The tale unfolds against the back­drop of ever-present divine rival­ries and the ever-watch­ful gaze of Zeus, ruler of Mount Olympus.

See Also:Greek Painter Dedicates Athens Mural to the History of Olive Oil Production

Legend has it that the con­flict between Athena, the god­dess of wis­dom, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, emerged from their desire to claim domin­ion over the flour­ish­ing city of Athens.

The city had drawn the gods’ atten­tion with its strate­gic loca­tion and bur­geon­ing civ­i­liza­tion. Athena and Poseidon, each seek­ing to become the patron deity, engaged in a fierce rivalry that would for­ever shape the des­tiny of the Athenians.

The drama com­menced when news of the rivalry reached Zeus’s ears. To set­tle the dis­pute and deter­mine the right­ful guardian of Athens, Zeus pro­posed a con­test between Athena and Poseidon. In his wis­dom, he declared that the city would be the prize, a bea­con of pros­per­ity and power for the deity who could offer the most valu­able gift to its inhab­i­tants.

The stage for the con­test was set on the sacred hill of the Acropolis, where the gods often con­vened to bear wit­ness to sig­nif­i­cant events. The news of the impend­ing events spread like wild­fire among the Olympian deities, and soon, the gods and god­desses had gath­ered above the city.

Athena and Poseidon took their posi­tions on the hal­lowed ground as the divine assem­bly looked on. The air crack­led with antic­i­pa­tion as Zeus, the ulti­mate arbiter, pre­pared to judge the out­come of their com­pe­ti­tion.

The peo­ple of Athens also flocked to the site, their mor­tal hearts filled with awe and trep­i­da­tion, eager to wit­ness the spec­ta­cle that would deter­mine the fate of their beloved polis.

Poseidon, tri­dent in hand, stepped for­ward first to show­case his prowess. With a mighty swing, he struck the hard rock of the Acropolis, unleash­ing a pow­er­ful tremor that rever­ber­ated through the earth.

The ground quiv­ered, and to the amaze­ment of onlook­ers, an under­ground sea emerged, accom­pa­nied by a salt­wa­ter spring. The dis­play of Poseidon’s mas­tery over the waters was awe-inspir­ing, and for a moment, it seemed as though the god of the seas had secured vic­tory.

However, the peo­ple of Athens, despite their admi­ra­tion for Poseidon’s dis­play of power, faced a dilemma.

Athens was already blessed with abun­dant access to rivers and prox­im­ity to the sea. As Plato famously said, the Greeks lived like frogs around a pond. Poseidon’s gift, though for­mi­da­ble, did not address the prac­ti­cal needs of the city, leav­ing the inhab­i­tants in con­tem­pla­tion.

With the crowd’s mur­murs still echo­ing through the Acropolis, Athena, the wise and strate­gic god­dess, stepped for­ward to present her offer­ing.

Deliberately and grace­fully, she knelt upon the sacred ground and planted a seed. To the aston­ish­ment of all present, within moments, a mag­nif­i­cent olive tree emerged from the earth, its branches laden with rich, swollen fruit.


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

The beauty of Athena’s gift was not just in its imme­di­ate visual appeal but in its mul­ti­fac­eted sig­nif­i­cance.

The olive tree, with its high-qual­ity tim­ber, pro­vided a valu­able resource for con­struc­tion and crafts­man­ship. Moreover, the olives were a source of nutri­tion for the peo­ple, and the oil extracted from them had diverse appli­ca­tions, from light­ing lamps to heal­ing wounds.


The sym­bol­ism of Athena’s gift went beyond the mate­r­ial realm, though. The olive tree rep­re­sented peace, pros­per­ity and wis­dom, attrib­utes that res­onated deeply with the aspi­ra­tions of the Athenian peo­ple.

The com­bined prac­ti­cal and sym­bolic aspects of Athena’s offer­ing show­cased her divine wis­dom and under­stand­ing of the true needs and desires of the city she aspired to pro­tect.

Zeus, observ­ing the unfold­ing events with his all-see­ing gaze, rec­og­nized the pro­found nature of Athena’s gift. With the wis­dom befit­ting the king of the gods, he declared Athena the vic­tor, and in recog­ni­tion of its new patron god­dess, the city was named in her honor.

Athena’s vic­tory began a har­mo­nious and pros­per­ous era for Athens. The olive tree, a liv­ing tes­ta­ment to the god­dess’ benev­o­lence, became a revered sym­bol within the city.

The peo­ple of Athens embraced the wis­dom and guid­ance of Athena, and under her watch­ful eye, the city flour­ished in the arts, phi­los­o­phy and gov­er­nance.

The tale of Athena and Poseidon’s com­pe­ti­tion for Athens is more than a myth; it reflects the ancient Greeks’ rev­er­ence for wis­dom, strat­egy and the prac­ti­cal aspects of life.

The endur­ing legacy of Athena’s gift and the city’s sub­se­quent pros­per­ity is a tes­ta­ment to the belief that true wis­dom encom­passes power and might and a pro­found under­stand­ing of the needs and aspi­ra­tions of those under one’s pro­tec­tion.

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