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Awesome Olives in Mythology, Medicine and Cooking

Updated on September 23, 2014

An olive branch...


Mythology and Medicine

The olive has always been with us, in mythology and ritual, medicine and cooking. In ancient Greece, olive wreaths were worn by Olympic champions, and by brides as part of their wedding attire. In mythology, the goddess Athena is credited with the discovery of olive oil. She was in dispute with Poseidon over the sovereignty of Attica. In an endeavour to win the territory, both deities entered a contest to give the best present that they could. Poseidon cast his trident into the ground of the Acropolis, causing salt water to spring up within the Erechtheum, while Athena planted an olive tree and demanded possession of the land. A tribunal led by Zeus decided that Athena’s was the greater gift. Eventually, the area became dedicated to both deities. In Roman times, the poet Virgil used the olive branch as a symbol of peace in his Aeneid and slowly, the olive worked its way into Christian iconography. When Noah wanted to know if the waters had receded after the Great Flood, he set a dove free and it returned with a branch of fresh olive leaves in its beak. Over time, that same image has come to symbolise world peace.

Super squalene

The ancient Egyptians used olive oil for cleansing and moisturizing the skin. In fact, they had been aware of its antibacterial properties for thousands of years. In classical Greece, athletes had the oil massaged into their muscles to relieve aching and to prevent injury. Squalene is an organic compound that is needed for the synthesis of hormones in the body. Today, researchers have discovered that squalene, a component of the oil, is showing promising results in the treatment of acne, psoriasis and dermatitis. The existing debates surrounding the oil’s efficacy in treating other skin conditions will no doubt be clarified by further research. In the meantime, olive oil skincare products abound on the marketplace, sweetly scented and combined with beeswax, honey and ingredients of less certain origin. However, my taut, dry skin responds brilliantly to a fistful of the stuff poured “neat” from my bottle in the kitchen and massaged in, leaving it heavenly soft and clear. And a spray of a favourite scent afterwards prevents the body smelling like a tossed salad.

Fats good and bad

Olive oil is a fat, and fat is vital in the diet, serving both metabolic and structural functions. Fats serve as an energy source and as an energy store. Fats are hydrophobic, that is, insoluble in water, but they are soluble in organic compounds. The body can only digest fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K within the medium of oil or fat.

Essentially, there are three kinds of fat; unsaturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Long chain fats are usually solid in texture, typically animal fats like butter and lard. Short chain fats are usually liquid at room temperature, like vegetable oils. In the body, fats are broken down to release their constituents; glycerol and fatty acids. Glycerol is converted to glucose in the liver and becomes a source of energy. Fat is vital for healthy skin and hair, for maintaining body temperature and healthy cell function. Fat acts as a buffer against the antibodies that cause disease by corralling them and eventually excreting them from the body. Subcutaneous fat, found just underneath the skin, is “healthy” while an excess of visceral fat on the abdomen is linked to diseases like diabetes.

For head and heart

Taken separately, many components of olive oil have curative properties; together, they are phenomenal. Olive oil is a short-chain fat, composed of 50%-80% oleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid. It contains palmitic acid, along with squalene and sterols. It also contains alpha-linolenic or omega-3 fatty acid, and linoleic or omega-6 fatty acid, and vitamins E and K. Olive oil is a source of at least 30 phenolic compounds, most notably oleocanthal, an antioxidant compound that has anti-inflammatory properties. Antioxidants are chemicals that have the property of binding with free radicals, oxygen-based compounds that circulate freely in our blood and can attach to our DNA, causing degenerative diseases like strokes, heart problems and cancers. Experts cite that the low incidence of heart disease among Mediterranean populations may be due to the consumption of small quantities of olive oil, over a long period. New studies reveal that olive oil may be useful in delaying the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

A great salad....

Olives and nutrition

Because olive oil is a fat, we would expect it to have a few calories. In fact, one tablespoon of the oil contains about 120 calories, about the amount I use in a tossed salad. Considering that we need dietary fat anyway, an oil-tossed salad a day is a small price to pay for lessened exposure to this raft of degenerative diseases. To make a simple salad, mix about fifty grams of lettuce or other green leaf with two or three chopped tomatoes, half a chopped cucumber and a tablespoon of chopped onion. Toss in a dressing of olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar and black pepper. Some people substitute lemon juice for the vinegar. Whatever, decorate the salad with shavings of parmesan cheese. It can be eaten with hunks of fresh bread, or served as an accompaniment to meat, fish and egg dishes. Either way, it is delicious.


Encyclopedia Britannica


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