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by H. Crosthwaite



OLIVE oil, as well as being valuable for food, light, medicine, and general cosmetics, could help a human to emulate the electrical radiance of a statue or god. Unlike ambrosia and nectar, it was available for mere mortals.

Our first reference is to the Odyssey, III: 464 ff. Telemachus is about to leave Pylos, where he has been asking for news of his father. A feast is prepared for his departure. Polykaste, Nestor's daughter, gives him a bath, anoints him with olive oil, and puts a tunic and cloak round him. He steps out of the bath looking like an immortal god.

Baths and oil are frequently mentioned in the Odyssey, and it is well known that athletes rubbed themselves with oil and scraped themselves with a strigil. Before looking at further quotations, it would be as well to look at some Greek words.

The olive tree, elaia, was sacred to Athene, who first planted it, either at Colonus (Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus, 701), or on the Acropolis. It is described as chrusea, Pindar 01. XI: 13, golden, or xanthe, like Vergil's flava oliva, yellow, but most often as glauke. (Athene is glaukopis, bright-eyed).

Moria, usually plural moriai, sc. elaiai, is the sacred olive in the Academy Aristophanes (Clouds, 1005); hence all olives growing in 'sekoi', or temple precincts, as opposed to 'idiai', privately owned. Zeus Morios is the guardian of the sacred olives, Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 705. Elaios is the wild olive, kotinos, Latin oleaster, used in making crowns for the Olympic games. Elaion is olive oil.


Iliad XIV: 170: Olive oil is 'tethyomenon', sweetly smelling. Hera cleanses herself with ambrosia, then anoints herself with olive oil, whose fragrance, when stirred in Zeus's palace, reaches heaven and earth. She combs her hair and plaits her shining locks. 'Tethyomenon' is also applied to 'alsos', a grove.

Iliad XXIII: 186: Achilles threatens to give the body of Hector to the dogs. Aphrodite wards off the dogs day and night, and anoints the body with rose-scented olive oil. Odyssey II: 339: Telemachus prepares to set off for Pylos for news of his father. He goes to the storeroom in his father's palace, where are gold, bronze, clothes, and fragrant olive oil. Odyssey XIII: 372: When Odysseus wakes up on the shore of Ithaca where the Phaeacians have brought him in their ship, Athene helps him. He hides his treasures, given him by the Phaeacians, in a cave, and the two of them sit down at the foot of a sacred olive tree and plan the destruction of the presumptuous suitors.

Odyssey VI: 79 ff.: Nausicaa, daughter of Alkinous, is to go with the maidservants to the river to wash the dirty clothes. Her mother gives her food and drink for the outing, and olive oil in a golden lekythos, oil flask.

Line 96: When the laundry work is over, they bathe, and rub themselves with olive oil, before eating their food on the river bank. Then Nausicaa begins the molpe --ritual song and dance --as they play with a ball.

Line 211 ff.: When Odysseus appears, Nausicaa orders her maids to give him clothes and olive oil.

Line 227 ff.: After he has washed and anointed himself with olive oil, Athene makes him look taller and sturdier, with hair like hyacinths hanging from his head. Just as when a skilled man, trained by Hephaestus and Pallas Athene, applies a layer of gold on a silver object, putting a beautiful finish on his work so Athene poured down beauty on his head and shoulders. Then he went and sat by the sea-shore, radiant with beauty and grace.

Stilbon, radiant, is a name for the planet Mercury. Odyssey VIII: 11 ff.: Athene, disguised as a herald of King Alkinous, urges the people to go to the assembly, where they will hear about the stranger who has arrived at the palace, looking like one of the immortals. Her words arouse universal excitement. The assembly ground and seats are quickly filled, and there are many who marvel when they see the wise son of Laertes. Athene has poured down grace from heaven on his head and shoulders, and made him taller and sturdier to behold, so that he should seem a respected and revered friend in the eyes of all the Phaeacians, and may perform the many trials that the Phaeacians may make of him.

Odyssey VIII: 450: As soon as Odysseus had fastened the coffer containing the presents given him by the Phaeacians, the housekeeper invited him to have a bath. When the maids had bathed him and anointed him with olive oil, they put a beautiful cloak and tunic on him. He left the bath, and went to join the men, who were drinking wine.

Odyssey X: 365 ff.: Circe baths and oils him, puts a fine cloak and tunic round him, leads him into the hall, and sets him on a beautiful chair decorated with silver, and puts a footstool under his feet. A maidservant brings water in a beautiful golden jug, and pours it, for him to rinse his hands, over a silver basin.

Odyssey VII: 105 ff.: In Alkinous's palace, the maids work at the loom, and sit turning the spindles, like leaves of a tall poplar. The liquid olive oil drips from the close-woven linen cloth.

References to oil in the Iliad are fewer than in the Odyssey, but the following are noteworthy: Iliad XIX: 126: Agamemnon ends the feud with Achilles, blaming Ate, eldest daughter of Zeus, for blinding his judgement. He tells the story of Hera's deception of Zeus. When Zeus realised that he had been deceived, he expelled from Olympus Ate of the glossy hair --liparoplokamos. Liparos means sleek, glossy, oiled. 'Lip elaio' means 'with olive oil'. Plokamos is a lock of hair.

XXIV: 587: Hector's body is to be washed, anointed with oil, then wrapped in a fine pharos and tunic.

It is an interesting coincidence that pharos (pronounced slightly differently) is also the name of an island off Alexandria famous for its lighthouse, and that pharos comes to mean a lighthouse.

The Latin for olive oil is oleum, and occurs in the phrase 'oleum addere camino, ' to put oil on the fire; Horace, Satires II: 3: 321. Greek has the phrase 'to put a fire out with pitch and olive oil'.

Oleum is the word used in the Vulgate to imply spirit, joy, in Old Testament, Isaiah LXI: 3, and New Testament Hebrews I: 9.


It is the food of the gods. In the poems of Sappho and Alkman, it is a drink. It is an unguent in Iliad XIV: 170. Hera began her toilet by removing all dirt from her beautiful skin with ambrosia, and then anointing herself with olive oil.

Odyssey IV: Menelaus gives Telemachus an account of Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, and what he told Menelaus.

When becalmed and short of provisions, Menelaus and his crew were helped by Eidothea, daughter of Proteus. She dressed Menelaus and his men in the skins of freshly flayed seals, and applied ambrosia under each man's nose (line 445) to counteract the smell of the seals. The word for seal is ketos. It is used to mean a sea monster, and also a whale. There is a possibility of confusion over the words ambrosios and ambrosia. The Sanskrit 'a mrita' means not dying. Semitic 'anbar', ambergris, is a magic perfume. Ambrosia may originally have been an adjective, with food or fodder as its noun. Ambrotos, a-brotos, means not mortal. Ambrosios is rarely used of persons, but is applied to night and to sleep.

It is applied to all property of the gods, e. g. hair. Iliad 1: 529: Zeus nodded with his dark brows; the ambrosial locks fell forward from the Lord's immortal head; he shook great Olympus.

Dress. Iliad V: 338: Diomedes attacks Aphrodite. He strikes her hand through the ambrosial garment that the Graces had worked for her. Ichor, the immortal (ambrotos) blood of the goddess, came out.

Sandals. Iliad XXIV: 341: Hermes puts on his beautiful sandals, golden and ambrosial, and flies down to Troy and the Hellespont to guide Priam.

Voice and Song. Homeric Hymn to Artemis, line 18: At Delphi she leads the beautiful dance of the Graces and Muses. They sing hymns to Leto with their ambrosial voice.

Fodder. Iliad V: 369: Iris puts ambrosial fodder beside the horses that draw the chariot of Ares.

Beauty. Odyssey XVIII: 193: Athene causes Penelope to fall asleep, then, so that the suitors shall admire her, she gives her immortal (ambrota) gifts. She first cleanses her lovely face with ambrosial beauty (kallos) such as Kythereia of the beautiful crown (stephanos) uses for anointing when she enters the delightful dance of the Graces. (Himeroeis, delightful, implies 'arousing desire').

Pindar uses ambrosios of verses. Iliad XV: 153 ff.: Zeus sits on Mount Ida in a perfumed mist. BRONZE

Not only people, but buildings, could be radiant. Odyssey VII: 81 ff.: Homer gives a description of the palace and gardens of King Alkinous.

Odysseus was full of hesitation before he went up to the bronze threshold, for a radiance like that of the sun or moon was in the lofty palace of the great king. Walls of bronze (chalkeoi) were built on each side from the door to the back, with a coping of blue enamel (kuanoio). Golden doors enclosed the strong building, and silver posts stood on the bronze threshold, with a silver lintel, and a golden door handle. There were golden and silver dogs on each side, made with great cunning by Hephaestus to guard Alkinous's palace, immortal and ageless for ever .... Golden boys on strong pedestals (bomon, also = altars) stood holding blazing torches to light the banqueters in the palace at night.

Aeneid I: 447: When Aeneas and the Trojans reached Carthage, they found that Dido's people were building a temple, rich in gifts and in the presence (numen) of the goddess, with a brazen threshold rising by steps. The beams were joined by bronze, and bronze doors groaned on their hinges.

Pausanias X: 5: 11: Pausanias writes that the third temple to be built at Delphi was of bronze, not remarkable since Akrisios made a bronze room for his daughter. He does not believe the story that it was built by Hephaestus, or Pindar's ode about the golden Sirens over the pediment.

The story was that this temple dropped into a chasm, or was consumed by fire.

The Iliad is full of references to flashing bronze armour.

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