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The golden juice of the olive oil, between legend and reality

Chemistry and culture. An entire chapter of the book by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson is dedicated to oleic acid, blood of the societies arose around the Mediterranean Sea and the oil. Paola Cerana tells us about the molecules that changed history

I read an interesting book – titled Napoleon's buttons: 17 molecules that changed history – that masterly crosses chemistry and culture. It is written by two chemists (, Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson, which demonstrated them as two experienced historians and writers, besides scientists.

An entire chapter of their book is dedicated to the oleic acid. As a matter of fact, this precious molecule represented the blood of the societies arose around the Mediterranean Sea; their prosperity depended also on olive trees and their golden juice.

In ancient Greece the abundance of olive oil for food or lamps was a pivotal resource, missing in war times. Then, olive tree became a symbol of peace. For the very same reason, olives were considered as crucial targets to hit during wars and their distruption represented both an economical and psychological hurt for the enemies. All the same from the olives destroyed by the human hate and ignorance new sprouts arose, miraculous promises of future fruits. Then, across centuries, oil became also a symbol of wisdom and renovation, strength and sacrifice, virginity and fertility, and for this reason it was worth of protection and reverence.

These two good chemists and writers, in few pages, bring us from ancient Greece and Middle ages. Then, walking across legends, myths and reality, they finally invite us to sit around a table for discovering the role and the goodness of a substance that influenced history and gladdened mankind.

Myths and legends about the olive tree and its origin abound. Isis, goddess of the ancient Egyptians, allegedly introduced the olive and its bountiful harvest to humanity. Roman mythology credits Hercules with bringing the olive tree from North Africa; the Roman goddess Minerva supposedly taught the art of cultivation of the olive tree and extraction of its oil. Another legend claims the olive goes back to the first man; the first olive tree is said to have grown out of the ground on Adam’s tomb.
The ancient Greeks told of a contest between Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena, goddess of peace and wisdom. The victor would be the one who produced the most useful gift for the people of the newly built city in the region known as Attica. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and a spring appeared.

Water began to flow, and from the spring the horse appeared—a symbol of strength and power and an invaluable aid in war. When Athena’s turn came, she threw her spear into the ground, and it turned into the olive tree—a symbol of peace and a provider of food and fuel. Athena’s gift was considered the greater, and the new city, Athens, was named in her honor. The olive is still considered a divine gift. An olive tree still grows atop the Acropolis in Athens.

The importance of olive oil to the people of the Mediterranean is reflected in their writings and even their laws. The Greek poet Homer called it “liquid gold.” The Greek philosopher Democritus believed a diet of honey and olive oil could allow a man to live to be a hundred, an extremely old age in a time where life expectancy hovered around forty years. In the sixth century B.C. the Athenian legislator Solon introduced laws protecting olive trees. In a grove only two trees could be removed each year. Breaking this law incurred severe penalties, including execution. There are more than a hundred references in the Bible to olives and olive oil.

The Roman historian Pliny, in the first century A.D., in the Naturalis historia, referred to Italy having the best olive oil in the Mediterranean. Virgil praised the olive—“Thus you shall cultivate the rich olive, beloved of Peace.”

By concluding, from this nice walk around the history of chemistry we can conclude that the glorious values of Greece, nowadays considered as the basis of democratic societies, would perhaps not be possible without the precious triglycerides of the oleic acid.

by Paola Cerana
05 july 2010, Food Notes > Miscellanea