One of the aims of this blog is to investigate myths, not just as fascinating stories, but for what they can tell us about ancient religions and ancient life in general. This will be my space to speculate and build theories.
Olive Tree on the Acropolis in Athens
Many people will be familiar with the myth of Athene giving the olive tree to Athens. The story of the founding of Athens recounts how Poseidon and Athene were competing to become the patron deity of the new city, by giving gifts. Poseidon created the horse as his gift but Athene stuck her barren staff into the ground and lo, it put forth leaves and become an olive tree. The gift of olives was so valued by the people that Athene won the competition and was accepted as the patron of the new city.
When I first heard this myth with my modern sensibilities I looked upon the sprouting of the staff into an olive tree as a ‘miracle’, a supernatural act which by its very unlikelihood proves the divinity of the performer. Then I was reading about the domestication and spread of the olive through the Mediterranean. This is a story that we don’t fully understand but probably involves the spread by humans of reliably fruiting and tasty cultivars of the original Wild Olive.
Now how are new olive orchards established? You can of course grow olives from seed, but this is a very lengthy process and introduces variability, while vegetative reproduction is much more reliable. This can be achieved in various ways, but one of the most effective, especially if the cuttings have to travel any distance, is to cut a billet. This is a piece of living branch, typically a couple of foot long and trimmed of all leaves and side shoots, which can then be kept a while. When planted in suitable ground it is able to grow roots, sprout leaves and establish a new tree!
There are, I think, two possible reactions to putting the myth of Athene and the reality of propagating olives together. One is “Aha, the miracle was a trick, I see how it was done.” The other reaction, my reaction, is “Wow, isn’t reality awesome!” I mean that adjective, awesome. quite literally. While others may feel awe at the idea of the divine or the supernatural, I find the reality of the world awesome. Certain things, like the ability of a shorn stump of olive wood to sprout into a tree, are especially resonant exemplars of that awesomeness.
This is not to say that the ancient pagans felt exactly the same way as I do. Rather, I think, they expected their gods and goddesses to act directly on reality and so made no distinction between natural and supernatural miracles. After all, although the first striking of an olive tree from a billet or staff might have been presented as a miraculous or magical occurrence, it must have been followed by many other plantings and propagations. It would soon have become apparent to the farmers that this was just part of the way olives behave. Everybody would potentially have been able to ‘see through’ the first miracle. There is no indication that this anyway affected the credibility or prestige of the goddess. After all, a repeatable miracle is so much more useful than a one-off.