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High on the stern Aeneas his stand,

And held a branch of olive in his hand,

While thus he spoke: “The Phrygians’ arms you see,

Expelled from Troy, provoked in Italy

By Latian foes, with war unjustly made;

At first affianced, and at last betrayed.

This message bear: The Trojans and their chief

Bring holy peace, and beg the king’s relief.”

So did Virgil poetically write of long sought-after holy peace in the  Æneid. In both the literature and spirituality of the mediterranean world is a constant thematic image repeated in timeless tales and classical mythologies of man’s reconciliation with man, and with God. So constant is it that we might, through haste and familiarity, pass over its significance as a deeply rich measure of tranquil accord. Since the graceful return of Noah’s dove bearing a sign of God’s amity in her beak, the olive branch has become the most beautiful allegory for that which humanity most desires – life, love, and holy peace.

When the lands of Greece were still fraught with territorial wars of gods, the great lord of the sea, whose fearsome wrath caused earthquakes and violent sea storms, sought control of what would become Athens. In the divine competition against Athena for possession of this prize, Poseidon thrust his trident into the Acropolis, producing a well-spring of floods. With this gift, made by force and might, a confident Poseidon claimed the territory for himself. Undaunted, Athena, goddess of wisdom, civilization, and justice; of arts and skill, strength and strategy, claimed possession through a subtler means. She planted, beside the gushing well of Poseidon, the first olive tree. Thus did the court of the gods award the disputed land to Athena as she had given the better gift.

Athena’s fruitful claim continued to shape cultural traditions throughout the ancient world as Greek brides adorned themselves with bouquets of olive garlands and such wreaths were awarded to victors of the Olympian games. Roman inheritors of the Greco civilization minted olive branches on imperial coins as symbols of peace, and parley seekers ceremoniously sent them to generals. It was in the olive garden, the place of the oil press, where Christ’s passion for the sake of humanity’s return to the peace of God, was begun. The olive branch remains a symbol of life affirming peace in Arab cultures, and western societies keep it still; a lasting symbol of inheritance from a Greco-Roman foundation. From classical antiquity to the present, the branch of the olive tree is the most universally recognized symbol of peace.

In Christian tradition, the olive continues its allegorical imagery beyond the harmonious branch. The entire tree is symbolic of spiritual roots and richness, tradition and virtue; sanctification and life, martyrdom and triumph. Suffering is poignantly expressed as being put through the press (the presses of both wine and oil), and references Christ’s passion sanctuary at Gethsemane. In Islamic tradition, the olive is “the blessed tree.” The precious oil of the olive has been, and is, used in rituals even beyond the Mediterranean world; from Judaism to alchemy, Christianity to the occult, this fruit is uniquely reserved for such purpose. And it all began with a dove, a branch and a peace.

There is, notably, one people of the mediterranean world, though they share the sacred identity of the oil, for whom the olive branch has no such meaning. The Jewish tradition alone lacks this representative symbol of peace. In the rabbinical exegesis, the dove’s return to Noah with an olive leaf in her beak is not an image of peace or of God’s amity, but of divine right; of Jewish settlement. The olive branch, in Judaism, is interpreted as a symbol of “the young shoots of the land of Israel.”

I find myself mesmerized by that subtle, yet explosive difference that may, in itself, be an allegory for Palestinian struggles in an occupied land of encroaching settlements. It becomes more poignant when viewed against a landscape dotted with olive trees yet rooted in violence inflicted upon a population which escalates during the autumn months; the season of the harvest. For here is when and where the people are most fragile, most intertwined with the shattering of peace that is juxtaposed against crushed olives in the press. It is in their beloved groves, the cherished sanctuaries of their existence and the source of a meager sustenance, they are most likely to die at the hands of illegal settlers who ruthlessly call such assaults “the price tag”. Such a price for olives. Such a price for peace.

The Parable of the Olive Tree

There was in the land of milk and honey and dates and oranges, a peasant who cultivated a beautiful olive grove. The grove had passed from generation to generation for longer than any could say, and long enough that the trees were tenderly cared for as if they were his family. Each year, from this grove, the fruits of such love were abundant and sweet.

There came a stranger to the village. Having no roots and no home, the peasant took in the stranger, sharing all he had. Even the olive trees he shared, teaching him to tend and press the fruits into the richest, sweetest oil. “The most important thing,” said the peasant, “is that you love these trees like your children.”

In time, news came of a king wishing to reward whoever produced the sweetest oil, for the king believed such oil to be worth more than gold, and knew this village produced the best. When the stranger heard this he plotted to take the grove for himself and this he did, even calling from afar his brothers to join him. The peasant begged and wept for his beloved trees, but the stranger was not moved. He built a stone wall around the grove, leaving only a small twisted tree outside it. “This is now your grove,” said he. With sorrow and a broken heart, the peasant nurtured the little tree every day and loved it fully. But the stranger did not tend with love. He was impatient and neglectful, as were his brothers.

Harvest time came and, so too, did the king. He visited the groves of the village and marveled at the beauty of those that once belonged to the peasant. The stranger was confident his trees, which had for so long produced the finest oils, would win the reward. After the olives were harvested they were brought to the press. “Here,” said the king, “we will judge the tree by its fruit.” The stranger boasted of his great yield produced with such little labor, but the peasant said nothing, for he had come with his tiny harvest seeking only the fruit of his labor – only the oil.

Grove by grove, the olives were pressed and the oils sampled. When it came the stranger’s turn he was horrified to find nothing but an odorous trickle weeping from the press. The king was aghast. He tasted a tiny drop, declaring it to be the most wretched bitter thing he’d ever known. But the peasant’s tiny yield from his tiny tree produced an unstoppable flow of the sweetest oil. “Did you not know the olive tree is like a child and its fruit will bring forth either the bitter weeping of tears or the sweetness of love?” With that, the king awarded each according to his fruit, the reward of justice. And thus did the peasant reunite with his olive grove; his children.

©RCiuffo 2012

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