olive oil in Ancient Greece

The olive tree and olive oil are strongly connected to the history of Greece and in particular, the history of Messinia. Since ancient times Messinia has been one of the richest oil producing areas in Greece. The famous Greek poet, Homer, referred to olive oil as "liquid gold".

During the Mycenaean period, olive oil was important to both the diet and the economy of the area. At that time, the financial and administrative center was Nestor's palace, at the hill of Eglianos (check here, a few km NE of the village Korufasion and NW of Chora). Surrounding the palace were vast and lush olive groves where the olive oil was produced. There is much evidence that points to the importance of olive oil in Mycenaean Messinia and the crucial role it played in the prosperity of Nestor's region. More specifically, many tablets in Linear B, the syllabic script used for writing Mycenaean Greek (second in number after Knossos palace), indicate that the economy of this region was based primarily on the production, storage and trade of olive oil. These tablets, made from clay and dried in the sun, were the logistic books of this period and were archived for a whole year. From these tablets and other findings we can collect information about the use and trade of olive oil.

The uses of olive oil were many. Foremost was its use as a dietary staple; it served as a basic in the cuisine of that period. It also played a crucial role in medicine, used for healing by applying it to the body or drinking it. Hippocrates, the renowned doctor of that era, wrote that olive oil was therapeutic for chronic fever, wounds, hygiene of the mouth and eyes, advanced pregnancy and other ailments. Furthermore, according to mythology, the Olympian goddesses applied it to their bodies because they believed it had beautification as well as miraculous powers. The olive oil that was intended for personal care was of good quality and often flavoured with herbs and aromatic spices. Because of the absence of soap and other cleansers and personal hygiene, olive oil seems to have played a major role in this area. Also, athletes applied it to their bodies before competitions, not only to increase the elasticity of muscles but, also, to alleviate injuries (e.g. sprains). Equally important was the inclusion of olive oil in religious ceremonies. And, finally, not to be omitted, was the use of olive oil as fuel for lamps.

It is quite obvious that olive oil enjoyed great prestige in ancient times. But, even today, olive oil continues to confirm the term "liquid gold" which Homer conferred to it. It continues to be a dietary staple for the people of Messinia and the most important product for the economy of the area.


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