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Olive Tree Symbolism: Ultimate Guide to Olive Tree Meaning

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For thousands of years, the olive tree and olive branch have symbolized peace and goodwill. Olive trees, known for their twisted trunks and silvery green leaves, were revered as sacred in ancient cultures. 

The Greeks associated olive trees with Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who is said to have given humanity the first olive tree. 

Meanwhile, in the Bible, the olive branch brought hope to Noah and his family and signaled the end of the great flood. 

Today, olive trees continue to have a deep meaning. Their branches are a symbol of peace, as seen in various peace treaties and international symbols. 

In addition, olive oil extracted from its fruits is of cultural and culinary importance worldwide. 

Let’s explore the symbolism of olive trees, their rich history, mythology and cultural heritage.

Mediterranean Olive Tree Characteristics

Table of Contents

  1. Mediterranean Olive Tree Characteristics
  2. The Symbolism of the Olive Tree: What is the meaning of the Olive Tree? 
  3. Symbol of Peace and Friendship
  4. Olive tree as a symbol of Longevity 
  5. Olive tree is a symbol of Strength and Endurance.
  6. Symbol of Wisdom and Prosperity
  7. Greek Mythology and cultural significance of the olive tree
  8. Olive branches as a national emblem of several countries
  9. Uses of Olive tree, extra virgin olive oil and Olives

Mediterranean Olive Tree Characteristics

Olive trees are evergreen, heat-loving small trees or shrubs with stiff, pointed gray-green leaves that are silver-green on the reverse. 

They reach a height of 5-10m. The flowers are small, creamy white, and pleasantly fragrant. The olive tree can be recognized at first glance thanks to its low, very wrinkled trunk and densely branched crown. 

Over 40 species of olive trees are spread from Africa and southern Europe through Asia to Australia. The most famous is the European olive tree, native to the Mediterranean basin and cultivated for its fruits called olives. Olive trees stand out for their Longevity. 

The olive tree, an extremely slow-growing plant, reaches full fruitfulness only after 20 years of growth and can easily bear fruit for another 150 years or more.

Olive Tree Symbolism

The Symbolism of the Olive Tree: What is the meaning of the Olive Tree?

The symbolism of the olive branch and the olive tree is very strongly traced back to ancient Greek times.

Symbol of Peace and Friendship

The olive tree is mentioned frequently in the Bible as a sign of peace and hope.

In the story of Noah’s Ark, Noah spent forty days and forty nights in his ark following terrible floods. As the water became calmer, Noah sent out a dove. He returned to the ark carrying an olive branch in its beak, signaling that there was a land again. The floods had ended, and there was peace and reconciliation with God and with humanity.

Another tree mentioned in the Bible is in Revelation 11:4, where the two witnesses are represented as two olive trees.

The ancient Romans grappled with the choice between war and peace. When Mars, the Roman God of war, was seen as the bringer of peace when he held an olive branch.

Mediterranean cultures later adopted this symbol of peace. Offering an olive branch as a gesture of peace has been a common practice in diplomacy and conflict resolution for centuries. Olive branches have also been incorporated into flags and emblems associated with peace and friendship.

Symbol of Peace and Friendship
Symbol of peace

Olive tree as a symbol of Longevity

The olive tree is renowned for its remarkable Longevity, often for hundreds or thousands of years.

The olive tree’s enduring significance as a symbol of Longevity was underscored during the invasion of Greece by King Xerxes’ Persian armies. In 480 BC, despite the destruction of buildings housing olive trees on the Acropolis, these remarkable trees miraculously sprouted to a height of two cubits (about 1 meter) on the same day.

Additionally, seeds from these sacred trees were replanted across Attica, ensuring that all olive groves surrounding Athens carried the legacy of Athena’s original tree, thus perpetuating its enduring Longevity and resilience.

Three of the Sisters Olive Trees of Noah.jpg
Three of the Sisters Olive Trees of Noah.jpg by karenkaram, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
According to local folklore, the trees are at least 5,000 years old

Olive tree is a symbol of Strength and Endurance.

Alongside its Longevity, the olive tree, like the cypress, symbolises strength and endurance. With its sturdy trunk, resilient branches, and deep roots, the olive tree can withstand drought, disease, and extreme weather conditions. This symbolism of strength and endurance is evident in its historical significance as a sacred tree.

In ancient writings, people showed great admiration and affection for the olive tree. In the Bible itself, it is designated as the king of trees, and even the Roman naturalist Columella praised it as Prima omnium arborum = First of all trees.

Symbol of Wisdom and Prosperity

In ancient Greek mythology, the olive tree was a gift from the goddess Athena, symbolizing wisdom and prosperity.

Despite requiring little nutrition, olive trees have evolved over the centuries to thrive in poor soil, stony soils. Wherever they grew, they brought health and prosperity to people.

Cedar tree has similar attributes.

Greek Mythology and cultural significance of the olive tree

The Olive tree is one of the most beloved, sacred trees and its place is firmly rooted in Ancient Greek tradition and mythology. 

According to Greek mythology,  Zeus challenged Poseidon, the God of the Sea, and Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, to win the favor of a major city. Poseidon struck his trident against a rock. A salty spring appeared, showing his power. Athena then created an olive tree from another rock. The Athenians chose the olive tree because it provided food, shade, and fuel. As a result, the city was named Athens. Athena’s victory was celebrated by crowning Olympians with olive leaves as a sign of triumph.

When King Xerxes’ Persian armies invaded Greece, the olive tree was evidently incredibly significant. Despite the destruction of buildings on the Acropolis in 480 BC that housed olive trees, these trees miraculously grew back to a height of one meter on the same day. Moreover, seeds from these sacred trees were replanted across Attica, ensuring that all the olive groves surrounding Athens carried a touch of Athena’s original tree.

In ancient Greece, olive oil wasn’t used for cooking, grooming, and staying healthy. Kings and athletes were anointed with olive oil, and it was burned in temple lamps as a sacred flame, even lighting the original Olympic Games. Winners at these games were crowned with olive leaves. 

Olive tree as a symbol of Longevity 

Olive branches as a national emblem of several countries

  • Olive and laurel branches were woven into wreaths to honor and crown deserving and honorable citizens or winners of the Olympic Games.
  • Olive branch appears in national emblem for countries such as Greece, Cyprus, and Palestine.
  • The official emblem of the State of Israel is a seven-branched candelabra decorated on both sides with olive branches. The candelabra and the olive branches are taken from the vision of Zechariah: “And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I have seen, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with its bowl on the top of it, and its seven lamps thereon; there are seven pipes to each of the lamps, which are on the top of it; and two olive trees by it, one on the right side of the bowl, and the other on the left side of it” (Zechariah 4:2-4).
  • The Flag of the United Nations adopted in 1946, features a depiction of a world map accompanied by two olive branches.
Uses of Olive tree, extra virgin olive oil and Olives

Uses of Olive tree, extra virgin olive oil and Olives

Olive oil, extracted from the fruit of the olive tree, played a vital role in ancient societies beyond just cooking. It was used for lighting lamps, as a beauty treatment in cosmetics, and even as a form of currency. The ancient Romans classified olive oil into different grades based on quality, and used it as a valuable commodity for trade.

Today, olive trees are mainly cultivated for their olives, which are used in food, medicine, and cosmetics.

Olive wood is only harvested from old trees or no longer produce fruit. This wood is then used to craft kitchen tools, utensils, and decorative items.

Olive Tree Symbolism
Vladka Merva on March 20th, 2024

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