THE OLIVE TREE, AN ARCHETYPE OF ETERNITY IN THE GAME OF TIME

- Dr. Αikaterini Polymerou-Kamilaki

Dr. Αikaterini Polymerou-Kamilaki PhD, former Director, Αcademic Αssociate of the Hellenic Folklore Research Centre of the Academy of Athens

In this land, where the Gods once had their orchard, their vineyard, their fields, their apiary, their forest and their temple, and tresspassers would be severely punished, luckily enough “memory does not age, even for a second in a millenium” (Jacques Lacarriere, in the introductory note for the paper The Culture of the Olive Tree by M. Verdi).

This is due to “the rather astounding variability of the olive tree, a tree cultivated in the same manner as in the old times, which remains sacred until today.. A tree-concept, a tree – notion of the brain; a tree that for the Greek people from yore until today.. the fastest and greenest path that connects the wishes of Gods with those of humans..”

Engraver and painter Dimitra Gounari focuses on the slow play of time on the shapes forming on the perennial olive tree, the only tree that is able to produce such realistic dramatic transformations as it ages. She is not driven by the lack of a model, but rather by an innermost sense of infinity, that transcends the human existence and confines the relentless “game of time” on the human form. She is motivated by tree roots that come in our sleep from the past, according to the poet G. Seferis, the olive trees with the wrinkles of our fathers, these anthropomorphic antique olive trees that weep. She experimented thus on the everlasting integrated symbiotic theme time-olive-man and has delivered an aesthtic artistic product with a high regard to their classical perpetuity.

The natural landscape is the setting within which an entire culture is born and developed, and the vista of the olive grove speaks for the memories and labor of many generations, for man’s benign intervention in nature, for the balance between the ephemeral, which is man and the eternal, which is nature and life. It stretches from the coast to the furthest point the sea breeze can reach, an example of domesticated – cultivated land, which has suffered many rapid changes in the last decades, yet still retains elements and features of times past. It constitutes therefore a significant vehicle for information on symbolic iconography, social forms, techniques and on all the purposes it has served through the years, at least in the last centuries. The most prominent myth about the cultivation of the olive tree revolves around the duel between the ancient gods Poseidon and Athena for the patronage of the city of Athens. The olive (the tree, the fruit, the symbol) with its biological and thereby symbolic vigor is linked tightly in the mediterranean region with man’s ideal existence.

Because of its unique reproductive ability, its amazing longevity, its nutritional value and therefore great significance in our diet, along with oil’s remarkable capacity to preserve organic matter, the olive tree is regarded as the essence of Mother Earth, an inexhaustible life source and nurturer. Born in the idyllic, mythical land of the Hyperboreans and symbolizing the vast reproductive abilities of Mother Earth, the olive tree was connected to the actual notion of immortality, because of its ability to constantly rejuvenate and its unfading nurturing and life giving power. According to tradition, it is associated with almost all of the female dieties of fertitlity and vegetation, since the cultivation of olive trees allowed people to coexist peacefully, thus ensuring the renewal of life and the smooth succession of generations on a the same land. The ancient Greeks honored their dead heroes by organizing athletic events, where the prize was a wreath made of twigs of sacred trees (olive tree, laurel), an ultimate expression of tree worship. At the same time, death, which is connected to the earth and processes involving the ground and its fertilization, is transformed into a celebration of life and a triumph of health, immortality and peace.

The religious, magical and medicinal use of the olive tree and and its oil is quite widespread in the Greek world. In Christian religious ceremonies or in contemporary magic – religious rituals, such as the unction, olive oil plays a very important role, as an element of initiation, purification or simply apotropaic, from the moment a Christian enters the Orthodox church with the sacrament of Baptism and until his passing. The special care taken to keep the candle burning before the icons in the church or at home, at the cemetary or the informal icon stands built by the side of the road, is connected closely with the daily observance and the preservation of memory. Olive leaves and olive oil also have special significance and use in the human life cycle, from childbirth and baptism to wedding and fertility rituals, or rituals to ensure the birth of mail offspring, and from practices to ward off the ‘evil eye’ to funerary rites.

Dr.Αikaterini Polymerou-Kamilaki PhD,
Former Director, Αcademic Αssociate of the Hellenic
Folklore Research Centre of the Academy of Athens

Dimitra Gounari

Painter - Engraver

Graduated on painting and engraving at the Athens School of Fine Arts - at the Abbaye de la Cambre, Brussels - Engraving diploma at the Athens School of Fine Arts.

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