Olive branch

Olive branch
An olive branch

The olive branch in Western culture, derived from the customs of Ancient Greece, symbolizes peace or victory and was worn by brides.


Ancient Greece and Rome

Mars Pacifer bearing an olive branch, on the reverse of a coin struck under Aemilianus.

In Greek mythology, Athene competed with Poseidon for possession of Athens. Poseidon claimed possession by thrusting his trident into the Acropolis, where a well of sea-water gushed out. Athene took possession by planting the first olive tree beside the well. The court of gods and goddesses ruled that Athene had the better right to the land because she had given it the better gift.[1] Olive wreaths were worn by brides[2] and awarded to olympic victors.[3]

The use of the olive as a symbol of peace dates at least to the fifth century BCE. It was mentioned by the Greek playwright Aristophanes in Peace (Eirene), where he refers to "greatest of all goddesses, Eirene, goddess of peace, her to whom the olive is so dear".[4] The olive branch was one of the attributes of Eirene[5][4] on Roman Imperial coins.[6] For example, the reverse of a tetradrachm of Vespasian from Alexandria, 70-71 CE, shows Eirene standing holding a branch upward in her right hand.[7]

The Roman poet Virgil (70-10 BCE) associated "the plump olive"[8] with the goddess Pax (the Roman Eirene[4]) and he used the olive branch as a symbol of peace in his Aeneid:[9]

"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."

For the Romans, there was an intimate relationship between war and peace, and Mars, the god of war, had another aspect, Mars Pacifer, Mars the bringer of Peace, who is shown on coins of the later Roman Empire bearing an olive branch.[10][11] Appian describes the use of the olive-branch as a gesture of peace by the enemies of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus in the Numantine War[12] and by Hasdrubal the Boeotarch of Carthage.[13]

Early Christianity

The olive branch appears with a dove in early Christian art. The dove derives from the simile of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels and the olive branch from classical symbolism. The early Christians, according to Winckelmann, often allegorised peace on their sepulchres by the figure of a dove bearing an olive branch in its beak.[11] For example, in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome (2nd – 5th centuries CE) there is a depiction of three men (traditionally taken to be Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego of the Book of Daniel[14]) over whom hovers a dove with a branch; and in another of the Roman catacombs there is a shallow relief sculpture showing a dove with a branch flying to a figure marked in Greek ΕΙΡΗΝΗ (Eirene, or Peace).[15]

Tertullian (c.160 - c.220) compared Noah's dove in the Hebrew Bible, who "announced to the world the assaugement of divine wrath, when she had been sent out of the ark and returned with the olive branch". with the Holy Spirit in baptism "bringing us the peace of God, sent out from the heavens".[16] In his 4th century Latin translation of the story of Noah, St Jerome rendered "leaf of olive" (Hebrew alay zayit) in Genesis 8:11 as "branch of olive" (Latin ramum olivae). In the 5th century, by which time a dove with an olive branch had become established as a Christian symbol of peace, St Augustine wrote in On Christian Doctrine that, "perpetual peace is indicated by the olive branch (oleae ramusculo) which the dove brought with it when it returned to the ark." However, in Jewish tradition there is no reference to an olive branch in the story of the Flood and no association of the olive leaf with peace.[9][17][18][19]

Modern usage

An olive branch held by a dove was used as a peace symbol in 18th century Britain and America. A £2 note of North Carolina (1771) depicted the dove and olive with a motto meaning: "Peace restored". Georgia's $40 note of 1778 portrayed the dove and olive and a hand holding a dagger, with a motto meaning "Either war or peace, prepared for both."[9] The olive branch appeared as a peace symbol in other 18th century prints. In January 1775, the frontispiece of the London Magazine published an engraving: "Peace descends on a cloud from the Temple of Commerce," in which the Goddess of Peace brings an olive branch to America and Britannia. A petition adopted by the American Continental Congress in July 1775 in the hope of avoiding a full-blown war with Great Britain was called the Olive Branch Petition.[9]

The eagle on the Great Seal of the United States grasps with its right talon an olive branch bearing thirteen olives and leaves.[20] The flags of many nations and the seal of the United Nations feature olive branches in their designs.

The flag of Cyprus and coat of arms of Cyprus both use olive branches as symbols of peace and reflections of the country's ancient Greek heritage. Olive branches also appear in many police patches and badges across the world to signify peace.

Other uses


See also


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