What is the symbolism of the olive tree?
There are many meanings of the olive tree. It is a symbol of friendship and reconciliation, cleansing and healing, light, victory and richness and, above all, a sign of peace. It is a plant which should be treated with reverence as it holds many spiritual gifts.
The first Olive tree in Greek Mythology
Greek mythology holds that in Ancient Greece there was a competition for the hearts and minds of the major city between Poseidon (God of the Sea) and Athena (Goddess of Wisdom). Poseidon struck his trident on the rock and a salty spring burst forth symbolising power. Athena did the same and an Olive tree immediately grew. The citizens chose the olive tree as it represented a food source, a shade giver and a fuel provider. From that time on their city was called Athens. Her victory was reflected in the Olympians who were crowned champions with olive leaves.
Olive trees today
I was lucky enough to travel to Crete this summer and was astounded at how prolific the olive trees were. They were growing on sparse, bare hillsides with poor soil, in dry conditions and full sun. Our hosts told us about how the tree was integral to their society; How many families on the island had their own olive grove and how everyone on the island is involved in the annual harvest. It seemed that the Athenians had chosen wisely. We were told that, even now, they believe that all these olive trees are descended from that first tree that Athena created.
Olives mean longevity.
Olive trees themselves are renowned for living for thousands of years. Eating their fruits was meant to be a sure way for humans to live a long, healthy life too. This is borne out today when, after years of research, we are still encouraged to eat the most historic of fruits and its oil. Olive oil has been proven to contain ‘healthy fats’ which reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease.
The meaning of Olive oil in the Bible
There are numerous references to olive oil being used for cleansing and healing at times of need. Feet were washed, heads were anointed and, as the disciples were sent out to preach to the world about Jesus, they were told to use olive oil to heal the sick (Mark 6:13). Of greater symbolism is the fact that the oil was used in lamps as a fuel, soaking wicks. Hence the oil was being used to give light. Olive oil kept alight the lamps in the Tabernacle. This was the ‘dwelling place of God’, transported by the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt and journey through the wilderness with Moses. In the New Testament, Jesus is known as the ‘light of the world’ and so the Olive is integral to this metaphor. In fact, olive in Greek means ‘to shine’.
The Olive as a symbol of Peace
The most famous story is from Noah’s ark. Noah spent forty days and forty nights in his ark following terrible floods. As the water became calmer, he sent out a dove and it returned with an olive branch. By this sign he knew that there was land again. The dove and olive branch became a symbol of hope. It gave the chance for a new beginning for mankind. This is where our expression of ‘extending an olive branch’ originates from. It is often used in terms of people attempting to make peace with one another.
The lesson of the Olive – A personal perspective
I was brought up in a Christian background and I am called to remember Psalm 121 “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who has made heaven and earth.” If we are to lift our eyes to the inhospitable hillsides that have given us the Olive tree there are several religions living in close proximity here who are often at war. Yet Christians, Muslims and Jews all have a shared culture of the olive. It has provided examples of ways to live healthily, make peace and give light to the world. In the same way that the Olive gives us illumination so we can do that for those around us. As we tune into the plants around us and their gifts, so we perceive the radiance of our own souls and share it with others. Perhaps, in our current climate, we should take a moment and learn the lessons of the olive.
If you want to explore why and how to connect to flowers then I have written this Ebook guide all about it.
I hope you enjoy it!
Ruth Goudy – The Flower Writer