It is almost impossible today to appreciate the impression that Elaionas gave once upon a time. It was a seemingly vast forest of olive trees to the west of the city (from today's Peristeri to Faliro) with extensions to Mount Hymettus and Parnitha. Although we do not know how many trees the olive grove contained in classical times, the British traveller Bernard Randolph, who visited Athens in 1671, found 50,000 olive trees that formed a dense forest almost ten kilometres long and three kilometres wide. Unfortunately, Athens’ monstrous industrial and urban development consumed this natural wonder. Only small fragments survive, the most significant at Thevon and Petrou Ralli streets.
According to tradition, the core of Elaionas were twelve olives planted in the famous Academy of Plato. These trees came from the sacred olive tree donated to the city by the goddess Athena during the contest with Poseidon over the guardianship of Athens. The sea god hit the rock with his trident and created a spring of seawater, while Athena made a tame olive tree grow. The Athenian king Kekrops considered the tree the most valuable gift and offered the city to the goddess. The divine olive tree was located in the Pandroseion on the Acropolis, and the people extended unlimited respect to it. The Athenians made votive offerings and tied ribbons and wreaths on the branches. The sacred oil from the tree supplied an oil lamp in the Erechtheion, while the winners of the theatrical contest during the City Dionysia received wreaths from its branches.
The historical starting point of the olive grove dates back to the 6th century BCE. It is linked to legislative measures taken by Solon for the protection of the olive tree and the development of the olive oil trade. A few decades later, the tyrant Peisistratos also introduced measures to encourage the cultivation of olives in Attica, so it is speculated that Elaionas began to form at that time. According to tradition, Peisistratos ordered any landless Athenian to put on the usual clothes of farmers and spend their days in treeless fields planting olive trees.
The Athenians enacted strict laws for those who damaged the olive trees. Olive tree owners could only cut down two trees a year, and the process of securing the necessary permission was arduous and bureaucratic. If anyone wanted to uproot an olive tree, he had to pay a hundred drachmas to the city (ten belonged to the goddess Athena). The state employed specialised officials (epignomones) who maintained the trees and harvested the fruits. The Athenians looked at goats suspiciously because the animals were inordinately fond of the olive trees. As a result, goats were not allowed on the Acropolis, the goddess Athena never tasted goat meat in a sacrifice, and her priestess could not drink goat's milk.
Oedipus at Colonus, a play of the Athenian tragedian Sophocles, reflects the Athenians’ reverence for Elaionas. The playwright mentions the story of the Persian soldiers who did not dare to destroy the forest of olive trees in the west of the city for fear of the wrath of Athena and Zeus. Over the centuries, of course, the respect of the invaders fluctuated. The Roman general Sulla (in 86 BCE) and the Heruli (in 267 AD) caused terrible damage to Elaionas. Still, the Athenians soon restored the losses, and the forest remained intact until the 20th century, when factories and roads replaced it.
Cosmopoulos, Michael. Bronze Age Eleusis and the Origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Mylonas, George. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, London: Routledge, 1962.
Papangeli, Kalliopi.Eleusis: the archeological site and the museum, Athens: Omilos Latsi, 2002.
Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and co., 1867.
Image source: National Galleries of Scotland
Edward Lear (1849): Ο Ελαιώνας των Αθηνών.
Image source: Technische Universität München
Friedrich von Gärtner (1836): Σχέδιο των Αθηνών.
Image source: The British Museum
James Skene (1838): View of an olive grove in Maroussi.
Image source: The British Museum
Sir William Gell (περ. 1801-1813): Athens from the west.