The trees have always played a very big role in every old religion, myth and fairytale and are still sacred to the Greeks.
The oak tree (velanidia)
In very old religions, we notice that the old oaks were honoured as holy trees. The oak is much more struck by lighting then any other tree. The old Greeks used to think that it was Zeus talking to them, they thought Zeus sat on the clouds throwing thunder and lightning towards them. All over the world, they used to plant the oak trees close to the houses, because its long and thick roots worked very well as a lightning distracter. Their belief in the oak tree was so strong, that in the end, the churches mixed it in a way with Christianity. For this reason a lot of little churches and shrines are placed next to the oak trees. For centuries the wood of the oaks has been used for boats and houses but also starch was made from oak. The leaves from oaks have been used to cure wounds and skin problems.
The olive tree (elia)
Greek mythology: The beloved olive tree took its existence from Athena the goddess of wisdom (She was once upon a time born out of her father Zeus’s head). With the founding of Attika, all the gods were fighting with each other to become the leading deity of the area. Zeus decided to invite Athena and Poseidon (the god of the sea) to participate in a competition for the most useful gift to the area. The villagers gathered in an open field and saw in the distance the recognisable figure of Poseidon, tall and lean, walking with his famous trident, while his long beard was dancing in the wind. Athena also joined them and they could start the competition. Poseidon put his trident to the ground, and there appeared a lake and out of it a horse raised on its hind hoofs. A more useful present was not imaginable because this beautiful animal could help them in time of war. Then it was the turn of Athena, she stamped her feet a few times down on the ground and then an olive tree started to sprout. All the villagers had to laugh because what could they do with this odd looking tree. Athena started to explain the use of the tree of peace-hope-and victory. You could use it for its wood but most of all for its fruit, that can figure as food but also could be pressed to oil, for the bodies of the athlete, and also as fuel in the oil lamps. Athena won the contest and that is how Athens got its name.
In the Old Testament its the tree of hope. It was a twig of the olive tree that was brought to the Ark of Noah as a sign that the deluge flood had finished. In Greek mythology you can find another deluge flood. There the main characters were Deucalion (son of Prometheus), his wife Pyrrha and their daughter, Epimetheus. Zeus saw them, the only survivors floating with their Ark. He decided to give them a chance. The water started to go down and he said to them: “throw the bones of your mother behind you”. They understood that with mother he meant mother earth and both of them started to throw the rocks behind them. Like a big miracle out of the stones of Deucalion appeared male figures and out of the stones of Pyrrha female. (This is also why some of us still have a stone and cold character) They had a son, with the name Hellen, the ancestor of the Greeks. The original name for the Greeks is Helene and Greece is called Hellas. This all happened in Delphi, the famous secret place also called the navel of the earth.
The goddess of peace Irini always holds an olive twig in her hand as a sign of peace.
The winners of the Olympic games were always honoured with a crown of olive leaves, the honour was their biggest price. They thought that the victory goddess Nike who helps you to get your victory, got demanded by Zeus to help specified athletes.
By excavations in Crete, we know that in Minoan times (around 3000 BC) the olive tree and its oil were of much of importance to the Greeks. Its medical use is best for: cholesterol, triglyceride, and cancer stomach problems, osteoporoses, rheumatic problems and diabetes.
Zante is very well known for its first’s class olive oil. We also have the lado = olive oil, tiri = feta cheese, that is typical for Zante. They put this cheese in little hand woven reed baskets, which are then put into filled to the top with olive oil Pytharies. The cheese sucks in the oil and that is how the olive oil cheese is created.
Pytharies are big ceramic jugs that Zante was famous for together with the tiles for roofs and floors, but also bricks. Before the big earthquake in 1953 there were about 35 places where ceramics were made. Ceramic and the Ceramist have taken their name for Ceramous, he was the god, who always made sure that when the ceramics had to go outside to dry, the weather would be hot and dry. So to honour the hard work from Ceramous, they gave his name to the clay objects.
The cypress tree (kyparisi)
Greek mythology: Cyparissus was a famous hunter in the Greek mythology, much loved by Apollo, who once gave him a beautiful deer for his birthday. Cyparissus and the deer were inseparable, but one-day fate struck them. The little deer went away from the side of Cyparissus and hid himself in the bush. When Cyparissus saw the moving bush, he understood something was hidden over there and shot his precious deer. Out of sadness and shame he could not face Apollo, and asked him to let his tears fall forever. Apollo transformed him into a cypress, whose sap forms droplets like tears on the trunk. It is for this reason that the cypress is connected to death and mourning. It is for this reason that you will see a lot of cypresses in and around the cemeteries of Greece. In the old days they thought that the soul of us humans would go through the “male” cypress connecting us with the lord, (this tree is also called the finger of god) the female cypress is a much wider shape and they do indeed need each other to re-produce. The small nut balls that are in the trees will crack open on the ground, and the spores of both male and female, will come inside creating either a male or female tree.
The famous Retsina wine takes its name, and peculiar taste, from the sap of the cypress (risini), that is added while the wine matures.
The bay leaf – laurel tree (daphni)
Greek mythology: The son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Eros is a bit of a nutty boy. One day he was bragging to Apollo “Look Apollo, if you think of it, then you must admit that I am much more powerful with my bow and arrow, than you could ever be! Because love over rules everything”. Apollo burst out in Homeric laughter and says “Haha, You are just a kid of the gods and I am one of the gods!” Mmm thought Eros you wait and see… Daphne was a beautiful nymph, who just loved to stroll next to the riverbanks. One day Apollo accompanied her, this was seen by Eros, whom quickly shot an arrow with a golden point in the heart of Apollo and a bronze in the heart of Daphne. This caused Apollo to fall madly in love with Daphne but Daphne did not want anything from Apollo. After months of frustration Apollo understood that his magnificent looks could not charm Daphne and he decided to take it a step further. Daphne felt this and started to scream and run. He nearly got her, but then mother earth came to rescue Daphne and transformed her into a beautiful bay leaf- laurel tree. Apollo could never forget his beloved Daphne and carried a wad of bay leaves on his blond mop of hair.
The oracle of Delhi in the north of Greece is in honour of Apollo. The priestess could look into the future on the moment that she drank from the holy well and chewed on a bailiff.
The pine tree (pefko)
Greek mythology: The pine tree took its name from Pythies, a beautiful nymph, who was the only nymph in Greek mythology to fall madly in love with the god Pan. She did not fall for his beauty, because with his goat feet and horns on his head, he would never qualify for that, neither for the charms of his speech. (With his loud voice Pan used to give us mortals a lot of fear, this is also where a word like panic takes its roots from. It comes from the Greek word Pan-ighos. Pan, as the God and ighos is a voice) She loved Pan most for his talent as an musician, yes indeed the Pan flute/pipes are created by Pan. One day they where sitting at the cliffs, madly in love with each other. Pan was creating the most romantic sounds on the flute to impress his beloved Pythies. This was seen by Boreas the Northern wind and in a jealous rage, he took a deep breath, filled up his cheeks and started to blow into the direction of the two lovebirds. He nearly blew Pythies away, but Mother Giae (earth) took pity on her and quickly transformed her into the Pine Tree. They say that when the Northern wind blows you can still here the crying of Pan through the trees and the resin that flows from the tree is a symbol for Pan his tears.
Greece is coloured green by these amazing trees, and many are hanging of the cliffs. In ancient times the wood of the pine tree was used for building boats. On Zante we can also find a rich variation of: Pistachio, walnuts, almond, and chestnuts trees.
Carob / St. Johns bread tree
The name St. Johns bread tree comes from John the Baptist. When he lived in the wilderness to be close to God, he survived on the beans from this odd looking tree. In Arabic, it’s called the Carob tree, which refers to karat. The brown seeds in the beans have a constant weight of 0,197. In the old days they used to weigh the gold with these seeds. In the Second World War these trees were also important for the Zakynthians, to survive they made bread from the seeds. You can also find it as an ingredient in the very good classified ice creams.
A few facts on the fruit trees
On New Year’s day, you will find that the first visitor who will come into a Greek house will throw a Pomegranate on the ground. The amount of seeds what will come out of the pomegranate will tell you how much prosperity you will have that year. French word hand grenade comes to us from this as well.
If you ever eat the fruit from the lotus tree, than there is a chance to forget everything you ever knew and never go back home. This happened to some of the soldiers of Odysseus.
The Greek word for figs is Sico, the Greek word for liver is Sicodi. The fact that figs are very healthy especially for the liver is not a coincidence! Another name for fig tree is Judas tree, the stories tell us that Judas hang himself on a fig tree. So if you ever would decide to sleep under a fig tree, be aware that you might fall in a very deep sleep.
The citrus trees:
Oranges, lemons and mandarins are not of Greek origin. While Alexander the Great was going on far discoveries, he found them in the east and had them sent back to Greece. The name Hesperide came to be applied first to oranges and then to the entire citrus family. When Zeus and Hera got married they got a beautiful present of “Giea” (Mother Earth). A blissful garden in the western part of the world located near the Atlas Mountains in Libya or a blissful garden on a distant blessed island at the edge of the encircling river the Oceanus. Meaning Madeira, there are 2 versions of this story. The garden was tended by the three sisters the Hesperidins. The daughters of either Hesparus the god of the evening star. Or the titan Atlas, who holds the sky aloft on his shoulders. (He tried to take over Zeus his Kingdom and was condemned in this way). The hesperidins took care of “the tree of life”; The golden apples of this tree provided eternal youth. One of the tasks of Hercules was to steal on of these golden apples. Later on in history a connection has been made between these apples and the golden coloured oranges. The Hesperidins became an inexhaustible source of inspiration for poets and artists.
The famous fruit of Greece are indeed the grapes. There are over 300 native type of grapes in Greece and about 25 here in Zakynthos. The fertile ground, the climate, and the way of vinification (by the law, chemicals should not been used) creates a unique product. The local wines can have a percentage of 12 / 14 percent alcohol. Yes indeed, be warned!
Dionysus, the god of the wine, went for a walk through the grapevines. He saw a tiny little branch, what was bending over to the left. Right in that moment a bird flew over; Dionysus shot the bird and used its bones to support the branch into a straight position. A few years passed by, until he next looked at that branch again, indeed it had grown but it was still bent over to the left. At that moment a big bear came by. He shot the bear, took its bones and re- supported the branch. A further few years went by until he noticed that although the branch was healthy it still lent towards the left! At that moment a donkey came by, he shot the donkey, took its bones, and supported the branch one more time. Well, now you will be able to understand what is the moral of this story: After one glass of Greek wine, you think you can fly, After two glasses, you think you are as strong as a bear. But after 3 classes of wine, you will be as stupid as a donkey… JAMAS – CHEERS.
The pulp that is left over after pressing the grapes is used to make Tziporou. It is brewed twice and has a very slow distillation. Tzipouro is mostly used as an apéritif and has a percentage of 40 percent alcohol (Beware!). A small percentage of the grape juice will be boiled for hours. In this way they create the substance petsi-metsi from which they make the melagrino brownies, the moustokoliro cookies and the desert mousta lefria (No eggs or flower are used).