Plato's Sacred Olive Tree

It was in the west of Athens that the philosopher Plato housed his Academy during the 5th century BC, which was fenced off naturally with olive trees. These olive trees were believed to have originated from 12 mythical olive trees which represented the 12 gateways to the city of Athens. These 12 trees were, according to the myth, clones of the Holy Olive Tree which the goddess of wisdom, Athena gifted to the city in order to win the seat of patron to the city, in a contest against the god the sea, Poseidon (had he won instead, Athens would have been called Poseidonas), which is how Athens was born.

This Olive Tree is believed to have survived somewhere in Plato's Academy, possibly one of the 12 trees that once marked the gateways to Athens, and it is thought that Plato sat below its branches with his students. From those olive trees evolved the largest Olive Grove in all of the Athens region, none of which remains now because the olive grove was eventually reduced to a single tree, Plato's Holy Olive Tree, which met an untimely end in the mid-1970s, when it was knocked down by a bus in an accident. Its trunk was then salvaged and preserved, and it has been on display in the and put on display in the nearby Agricultural University of Athens, while experts picked three parts of it that looked healthy enough to reproduce in an area with some temporary fencing around it. And indeed, over the next 30 or so years, it did shows signs of growth, which is remarkable given that it regrew in amongst the pollution and congestion. This is the reason that its recent death yesterday is being greatly mourned among all Greeks all over the world: somebody (probably one or two people who are completely ignorant of letters or blatantly ignored the signs) uprooted the main trunk, most likely for the purposes of keeping themselves warm.

It should sound surprising that a university with an agricultural nature should be situated in the middle of an industrial zone. But this is where the Olive Grove was located, in which the  Sacred Olive Tree was rooted, and it remained the sole witness for nearly 2,500 years to many changes in the area. For a start, the philosophers left (Plato's Academy is now an archaeological site), and the Olive Grove it lay in was slowly replaced by heavy industry. The University provides an indirect reference point to the agricultural nature of the general area. The  Sacred Olive Tree was located near the Holy Road itself which in ancient times linked the Acropolis with the goddess Demtetra's temple of mysteries (a cult that began after her daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades from the underworld) in Eleusis (present-day Elefsina), in the westernmost Athens suburb.

The  Sacred Road is still named thus, and along its course which forms a main arterial route (running side parallel to Athinas Avenue, which basically starts and ends at the same place as the  Sacred Road), you will find bus stops with the very names I have mentioned (all in bold green above). The Holy Olive tree has suffered a sad fate, but we must not necesasrily blame those accused of cutting it down (namely gypsies and very poor - possibly illegal - immigrants). I feel quite sure that it was not an act performed by the local (and very noble) working class of this area; if they really were such low-life themselves, they would have done this ages ago, and not waited for the economic crisis to come before they did it. It is clearly an act that shows that the state is not functioning correctly. It comes at a time of economic crisis coupled with the winter cold.

Even sadder is the simple fact that most Greeks will not ever have visited the former area of Plato's Academy, despite its relative proximity to the Acropolis, and although those living in the Western suburbs may have seen the bus stop sign for the Holy Tree, it is doubtful that they would have actually stopped off there to see the Holy Tree itself. After all, buses are used for the purposes of commuting, and not touring. So as they lament the loss of the  Sacred Olive Tree, they have to admit to themselves that they never gave it due credit.

Greece’s General Directorate of Antiquities said a tree believed cut down for firewood on the ancient site of Plato’s Academy was not the same one under which he sat, but a replacement that was put there 36 years ago after what was left of the original was removed for safekeeping after a bus hit it.

The directorate said the olive tree, known as Plato’s sacred tree which was located until 1976 in the Sacred Way of Athens (Iera Odos), was felled in an Oct. 7, 1976 accident. What was left of the old trunk was moved into a building of the Agricultural University of Athens and is kept in a specially constructed display case.

Thanks to the University, a new olive tree was planted at the exact point where the old one was. The new tree had three logs of 30 centimeters each. One of the trunks which was dead, was removed on Jan. 6. The two live logs remain intact. Officials said they wanted to make clear that the tree that was removed was not Plato’s.

Νεώτερον Εγκυκλοπαιδικόν Λεξικόν Ηλίου τομ.6ος, σελ.528.
Εφημερίδα "Η Ναυτεμπορική" φ.19 Ιαν. 2013, σελ.62.

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