The olive tree was first cultivated in the northeastern Levant, yet due to its versatility as a source of wood, food and oil, it played a fundamental role in the culture of ancient Greece. In their mythology, the Greeks depict the olive branch variously as a symbol of peace, wisdom, strength and healing.
Branch of Peace
The goddess Irene was one of the Horae, goddesses who represented the three different seasons the Greeks recognized. Irene stood for the springtime, a season when the Greek city-states often threatened war. Despite this, she was the goddess of plenty and peace. Artists typically rendered Irene as carrying a cornucopia to signify plenty and an olive branch to signify peace. The association between olive branches and peace continues to the present, as the term "extend the olive branch" refers conflict resolution and the resumption of peaceful relations.
The Tree of Wisdom
Athena, goddess of wisdom and Poseidon, god of the sea, both laid claim to the city of Attica. Poseidon staked his claim by striking the Acropolis with his trident, creating a salty, undrinkable ocean. Conversely, Athena called on Cecrops, the half-serpent King of Attica, to watch her plant an olive tree that would provide citizens with food, oil and wood. Cecrops testified that Athena has planted the tree first, so Athena became the patron goddess of Attica, which was renamed "Athens" to honor the goddess.
The Club of Heracles
The hero Heracles was well-known for his strength, using it to defeat his enemies and, in some cases, to procure weapons. He tore an entire olive tree out of the ground at Helicon. Leaving the bark and roots intact, he used turned the tree into a makeshift club. In fighting the Nemean Lion, Heracles brandished his club, driving it down on the mythical beast's brow with all his might. The force of the blow snapped his olive club in half, but it also incapacitated the Nemean Lion, allowing Heracles to defeat it once and for all.
Staff of Healing
The infant god Hermes, god of thieves, stole and hid Apollo's cattle. He sacrificed two of the cattle, using strings made from their remains and a tortoise shell to create the first lyre. Apollo interrogated Hermes about the theft. Yet, amused by Hermes' shameless lies, Apollo took the matter before their father, Zeus. Zeus ordered Hermes to return the cattle. Apollo grew angry that Hermes had slaughtered two cows, so Hermes played his new lyre. Charmed, Apollo asked for the lyre in return for his cattle. He gave Hermes his caduceus, an olive branch with healing properties, as a peace offering.
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