National Geographic : 1944 Mar
Athena's Gift to Greece Was the PreciousOlive BESIDES decorating their vases with scenes from my thology, Greek artists delighted in showing events of everyday life. On some of the vases which have survived, especially those from the latter part of the sixth century B.C., are scenes having to do with one of the major industries of ancient Greece-the picking and pressing of olives and the marketing of olive oil. To the ancient Greek, olive oil was really indispensable. He served it in many ways as food and used it to rub him self down. All athletes massaged their bodies with olive oil before entering the contests of the gymnasium. When ever an ancient site is excavated in Greece, diggers find scores of the shallow clay lamps for which the fuel was olive oil poured from a specially shaped clay cup. We are told that oil was even used for preserving fabrics, and read that Alexander, when he visited the Persian capital, Susa, in 331 B.C., saw some textiles, nearly two centuries old, which had been kept supple by being dipped in a mixture of olive oil and honey. Attica was especially renowned for its olives. Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, who forbade the exportation of other crops, allowed oil to be exported freely. Athenian oil in clay jars found its way all over the Mediterranean. Quite properly, Athens, as the center of oil cultivation, attributed the invention of the olive to her patron goddess, Athena, and a special enclosure was built on the Acropolis to protect the supposedly first, sacred olive tree. The olives were usually picked in the winter months, and in the picture we can see men beating the branches with pliant rods to shake down thefruit. The olives arethen collected in baskets andbruised inamill. Next they are placed in woven containers and piled up onamarble or stone press block with agroove around itand aspout at one side. Numerous presses havebeen found inexcavations. Some early paintings and reliefs show different types, but the simplest, and probably the first, was along beam, wedged into some rocks and weighted with anetfullofstones. The man in the foreground ispulling down onthelever, and his assistant has added his own weight. The mash was often pressed several times over, butthe quality of the oil became poorer ateach pressing. Occa sionally "summer oil" was made from green olives, butsince this called for hand picking, thequantity was limited and the price correspondingly high. Aristotle says that ameasure of ordinary oil, equalingabout three and ahalf quarts, sold for three drachmai, about 32cents aquart. At the left of the picture arecustomers sampling oilor haggling over the price. Aman with hunting boots issmell ing some which he hasrubbed ontheback ofhishand. Farther off another pours some into alittle vase through a pottery funnel. Near thesmall storage shed isacart loaded with oil jars to be takeninto town. The curious type of wheel appears onearly vases and in terra-cotta models of wagons. One vase shows two men, seated, sampling olive oil, with theprayer inscribed onthe scene: "0 Zeus, would that Imight become rich." Onthe other side is the fulfillment ofthis pious wish.