The olive branch is both a symbol of peace and victory from ancient times, which is still associated with peace in modern Europe, the Arab world and the United Nations. Where did this symbol originate and how is it connected to ancient beliefs and how did the usage spread among ancient cultures?
Most believe the use of the olive branch originates from ancient Greece. However, they are mistaken. In ancient Egypt it is recorded that Ramses III tried, but failed to grow olive trees. Olives, though, were well known in Egypt and were imported from Palestine and Syria. Products of the olive tree were placed in the tombs of the pharaohs. For example, in the tomb of Tutankhamun ornaments and wreaths were found made from olive branches. In hieroglyphs, drawings and statues of the Egyptians there are numerous references to the olive tree, its branches or fruit.
In ancient Greece, there is the story of the challenge set by Zeus between Athena and Poseidon for possession of Athens. Poseidon thrust his trident into the Acropolis, the citadel fortress of Athens, and a well spring gushed out. Athena, though, planted the first olive tree besides the well. The court of gods and goddesses gathered on Mount Olympus and ruled that Athena had the right to Athens, since the Athenians chose the olive tree as the better gift. A centuries old sacred olive tree still stands sacred to the Greeks in the same spot today. The olive tree became revered as a symbol of victory and were awarded to Olympic winners. They were worn by Greek brides and holding out the olive branch after victory was used to declare a truce, reconciliation and peace.
The Roman poet Vigil in the 1st century BC associated the olive with Pax, the Roman goddess of peace. She was the equivalent of the Greek goddess Eirene. Unlike Ares, the Greek god of war, the Roman god Mars was both a god of war and peace. As Mars Pacifier (Mars the bringer of Peace) he was shown on coins of the later Roman Empire, bearing an olive branch. The olive branch was used as a gesture of peace towards Roman general Scipio Aemilianus held out by his enemies. Early Christian art adopted the use of the olive branch, held by a dove. Tertullian compared Noah’s dove in the Hebrew Bible that was sent out of the Ark to return with an olive branch, with the Holy Spirit in baptism bringing the peace of God, sent from the heavens.
In modern times, an olive branch held by a dove was used as a peace symbol in 18th century Britain and America. The Olive Branch Petition was adopted by the American Continental Congress in July 1775 in the hope of avoiding a full-blown war with Great Britain. On 4 July 1776, a resolution was passed that allowing the creation of the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal shows an eagle grasping an olive branch in its right talon.
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