Ancient Athenians associate the gods with the founding of their city. According to legend, the sea god Poseidon jabbed his trident into the earth and caused a spring of fresh water to pour forth to impress the mortals. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, planted an olive tree on the bank of the new stream. The people esteemed her gift of an olive tree above Poseidon's gift, so the city took Athena as its patron goddess. Olive branches were one of Athena's many symbols because of this legend.
Early Greek civilization relied heavily on the olive tree. People used its oil for cooking, shaped its wood into tools, and ate its brined fruits for nourishment. Because of its importance to the diet and economy of ancient Greece, the olive tree itself became an important symbol. Brides wore olive wreaths on their wedding day; athletes received olive branches to reward their victories. "Extending the olive branch" meant peace then as it does today.
Eirene, Goddess of Peace
Although not one of the major pantheon of gods and goddesses in ancient Greece, Eirene held sway over peace and springtime. Like Demeter, she was a harvest goddess, although her role as a seasonal goddess meant she had to share her renown with her two sisters. Eirene's image on coinage and statuary frequently shows her bearing an olive branch. As the goddess of peace bore an olive branch, the symbolism eventually extended to the gesture itself.
The modern symbol of medicine, the caduceus, arose from the staff of Hermes. The messenger god Hermes also ruled good health. The staff got its snakes from the healer Aesculapius, who was said to have a revived snake as his devoted companion. Before the caduceus became associated with snakes, though, it was an olive branch; the olive's connotation with health and healing also had peaceful implications. Extending an olive branch healed a metaphoric rift in the same way that Hermes' -- and later Aesculapius' -- olive staff represented physical healing.
The olive branch held the same connection with triumph that laurel wreaths later had for Roman athletes and generals. Olympic victors received an olive crown to commemorate their feats. While the crown was a prize, it also served as a reminder to the athlete to uphold the loftiest of Hellenic culture's ideals: modesty, humility and obeisance to the gods. An olive wreath symbolized both the pinnacle of achievement and the need for humility; instead of a golden crown, a wreath fashioned from humble branches reminded the victor to keep his feet on the ground.
- Photo Credit Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images