Olive oil has been a part of human life for centuries, but what were the ancient uses of olive oil? Many of its purposes today have been passed down from one generation to the next. Thousands of years ago, just like today, this element was used in everyday life.
The 15 most important ancient uses of olive oil in historyAlthough we have found proof that olive trees began to be grown during the Neolithic period, the earliest written description of their use and sale only dates back to 3000 BC, in Syria. Our story begins here:
- Archaeological studies have revealed that prior to the existence of these first merchants, Egyptians used this oil as a perfume in sacrifices and funeral rites. The Egyptian goddess Isis taught humans how to grow olive trees.
- In Ancient Babylonia, the word for physician was Asu, which means oil expert. In fact, this liquid gold was originally used for medical purposes, among other functions.
- The earliest amphorae—ancient oil containers—to be found are from the palace of Knossos, the most important in the city on Crete (1600 BC). Not only were these containers used to store olive oil (a custom that remains intact to date), but they also served as a valuable currency throughout the Mediterranean.
- One of the Roman relics on display at the British Museum is an amphora depicting a group of farmers hitting olive trees with rods so the olives fall on tarps laid out on the ground. In present day, there are many places where olives continue to be harvested in the same manner.
- The Greeks were pioneers in using olive oil to prepare concoctions and ointments to relieve cramps, to treat wounds and burns, and even to prevent hair loss. In extreme situations, a patient’s entire body was sometimes immersed in olive oil to soothe pain.
- Early Greek cooks passed down recipes that confirm the ancient use of olive oil, but they did not give it the same importance we do today. Although Olive Oil was used to prepare a number of dishes due to its known qualities, it did not always appear as a main ingredient.
- The Greeks considered olive trees to be so important that these plants appeared in literature and in their religious beliefs. In fact, they have formed part of historic legends, such as how Athens came to be.
- If we think about all the mentions of ancient Greek oil in texts such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, we will come across some common olive oil uses that have been inherited from the Greeks, from preserving fabrics to anointing warriors at their funerals.
- Due to the value of ancient olive oil in commerce, it slowly became a way to distinguish between social classes. Those of a higher social status had more access to this liquid gold and therefore consumed and used it as part of their routine more frequently.
- Pliny the Elder, a famous soldier and writer from ancient Rome, is one of the main reasons why today we are able to understand the importance of olive oil in the Empire. His writings describe it as follows: “There are two liquids that are especially agreeable to the human body, wine inside and oil outside, both of them the most excellent of all the products of the tree class, but oil an absolute necessity.”
- Ancient Roman oil was used to clean the body as well as for massages and cosmetics. It could be easily found in baths, to be used as a natural balm. This is all fairly similar to how olive oil today is used for its multiple nutrients, right?
- Before training or competing, many Roman athletes would coat their bodies with olive oil (sometimes mixed with ash and other components) to protect from the heat and falls, and for greater flexibility.
- Oil was also extremely valuable for the main monotheistic religions. For example, the Jews used olive oil lamps to light their rooms. In fact, olive oil fueled the Jewish menorah and its eight branches.
- As far as the Christians, there are biblical references to this oil in the Old and New Testaments, and it appears in liturgies, from baptisms to anointing the ill and in priestly ordinations.
- In the Koran, the sacred book of the Muslims, oil is always linked to light.