A sacred, miraculous tree

The olive tree is considered to be sacred and, thus, miraculous. Believers afflicted with an illness would place a piece of their clothing– usually the one touching the ailing part of the body – on an olive tree and believed that this would cleanse their body and remove their illness.

Olive oil has always had a special place in funereal ceremonies. Egyptians would spread olive oil on the heads of mummies. Romans and ancient Greeks would anoint their dead with scented olive oil. Ancient Greeks would place olive branches on the deceased and would often place the stones of edible olives next to bodies about to be buried.

In early 20th century Greece, variants of the following funereal ceremony still existed: the relatives of the deceased would stuff the casket pillow with olive leaves , while in the Messara Valley on Crete, even to this day, priests deposit 3 olive branches in the grave during burial as a symbol of eternity and immortality. Throughout Crete, relatives keep a small votive lamp with olive oil lit at the graves of the deceased.

The symbolisms of the olive tree and olive oil are countless; they serve as symbols of peace, knowledge, wisdom, prosperity and hope. The creators of folk stories and traditions condense all these properties of the olive tree in a single myth, thus explaining its sanctity .
[When Christ was born, it was very cold and the cave was frozen. The Virgin Mary and Joseph did not know what to do to keep baby Jesus warm and searched for wood to light a fire. There was no wood to be found and Joseph spotted some hay in a corner.

“When the Virgin Mary saw the hay, she wept and said:
- May they have my blessing and always remain golden, as their soul, too, is surely golden.
Since then, hay has had a golden colour. However, soon after the hay was lit, the fire went out and the cave grew cold once more. Joseph went out and his foot got tangled in a branch: it was rosemary and it cried out (as on that night, everything had a voice, including plants and animals) and begged Joseph to cut it from the root and burn it to warm baby Jesus. And so it happened. The Virgin Mary wept again and said:
- May it have my blessing and always smell delightful, may it be placed on the icons of my son and decorate the icons of the Saints.
However, this wasn’t enougheither, and soon after the fire died again and the cave started to grow cold once more. As time went by, the weather grew wilder. It was past midnight when a rustle was heard coming from Joseph’s sack. It was a handful of olives that he had stored in a piece of bread for emergencies.
«Joseph, go to the terrace above the cave. There you will find an olive tree, our mother; she will grow so sad that she will wither if she finds out that Christ was in danger and we didn’t tell her».
Joseph went to the terrace and found the old olive tree, which lowered its branches; the tree broke off its dried bark and tossed it all the way to the cave entrance. They lit a fire that burned all night, driving out the cold and warming baby Jesus. As time passed, more wood was flung to the cave entrance! By morning, all that was left of the tree was a stump of a root – there was no olive tree left. The Virgin Mary wept when she saw it. She knelt down, stroked the stump that had not a single leaf left.
«May you have my blessing and never wither. May you flower from your root and never grow old. And may your fruit be blessed, may it feed people, may it grow and yield oil so that people can light up the night and light Christ’s votive lamp».

As soon as she uttered these words, the stump of the root blossomed from where the Virgin Mary had touched it and grew to a man’s height in an instant. By night-time, the olive tree had grown to the size it had had the previous day, before Christ was born. It had no more dry bark. It had grown young again, by the blessing of the Virgin Mary.

Since then, olive trees have not grown old. They may wither, but their dry roots blossom and they become young once more".

However, it wasn’t just the olive tree and olive oil that created a culture. It was the productive process itself, particularly the olive harvest, which requires the cooperation and simultaneous presence of numerous people for many days; it is associated with passions, weakness, friction, as well as love and romances that fed the imagination and creativity of folk singers and mantinada writers :
“May olives be damned, may they wither and dry
For ’til the harvest is complete many a love does die!”

When someone wanted to tease a beautiful girl or make fun of her new riches, he’d sing:
“You think you’re high and mighty now that you own two olive trees
and stick your nose high in the air, you dirty little tease”

Even dowries were often given in olive oil or olive trees:
 “Why wed her, son, this girl of disrepute?
she barely owns a single olive root! ”.

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