In Depth

Why does an olive branch mean peace?

The ancient origins of worldwide symbol of reconciliation

Along with white dove and the V-sign, an olive branch is one of our most enduring symbols for peace.

In fact, an Ancient Roman transported to the 21st century would instantly understand the meaning of the literal olive branch that Katy Perry recently sent fellow pop star Taylor Swift to offer an end to their much-publicised feud.

So what is the connection?

Like many traditional emblems, the association has classical roots. Olives held a wide array of meanings to the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean, where the trees can be seen on almost every hillside.

Winners at the Ancient Greek Olympic games were crowned with olive wreaths, and olive trees featured in several Greek myths. In one, the goddess Athena became the patron of the region of Attica after planting an olive tree there as a symbol of peace and prosperity.

Other Ancient Mediterranean cultures used the olive branch as a metaphor for peace. Pax, the Roman goddess of peace, was frequently depicted holding an olive branch, as was her Greek counterpart, Eirene.

The image has endured into modern times partly because of its use in the Bible, most notably in the tale of Noah, when a dove bearing a twig from an olive tree signals the end of the 40-day flood.

In Christian theology, the flood and the olive branch respectively represent “the judgement that must befall all rebels while also representing the salvation that can be theirs”, writes Christian author Tim Challies.

“During the 1600s, it became fashionable for poets and artists to use the olive branch,” says The New York Times. It later took on a political significance in the American independence movement as a symbol of the patriots’ desire for a peaceful separation from Great Britain.

A close-up look at the bald eagle on the Great Seal of the US, which appears on government documents and on the one-dollar bill, shows that the bird is clasping an olive branch in its right talon, while the more warlike left talon holds a brace of arrows.

In the modern era, the UN signals its commitment to peacekeeping on its blue and white flag, which shows a map of the world encircled by twin olive branches. 

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