Why Olive Oil?

When we administer blessings we are commanded to use olive oil. A quick bit of research through the scriptures, Church magazines and Conference proceedings yielded basically only the reasons (a) we’ve been commanded to do so; (b) the ancients did it that way; and (3) it is the purest kind of oil. It is advised that if you do not have pure olive oil (and its purity is important and emphasized) do the blessing without.

Yet in much of our richest symbolism, we understand the reasons for the symbol. In the sacrament the bread stands for the body of Christ, the water the blood. It is very specific and well understood what these symbols refer to. Yet even in that holy ritual the substance can be substituted, if we understand and honor the referent. We all know the story of potato peels being used at the end of WWII. The symbols point to the atonement. The form the symbols take is not the important thing and the material symbols can be substituted.

This does not seem to be true of priesthood blessings. It has to be olive oil or nothing. Why? What is the olive oil pointing to?

Bookmark Why Olive Oil?


  1. Steve Evans says:

    My sense is that it is historically/scripturally-based. Anointing with oil has always, to my knowledge, referred to oilive oil.

  2. But so is bread for the sacrament. Why no substitution?

  3. There have been exceptions to the olive-oil only rule in our history; but you are right that it is the rule. Doesn’t Kevin have something on the tree of life being and olive tree or something?

  4. One [plainly extra-scriptural] allegory/analogy that I have heard is that olive oil is created by crushing the olives beneath a massive millstone and that this should bring to our minds Jesus’s experience in the Garden of Gethsemene, when he was psychically/physically crushed beneath the weight of our sins.

    The wikipedia entry on for “olive oil” offers some interesting commentary on the religious uses.

  5. Researcher says:

    One of the interesting aspects to this question is to consider what happened in the Book of Mormon when an olive-oil-using people moved away from a region with olive trees to an area of the world without olive trees.

    When you look at the use of the word “anoint” in the Book of Mormon, it appears in just a handful of places, including several times throughout the Book of Ether. (“And it came to pass that Jared was anointed king over the people…” and other similar uses.) Assuming they were using oil, what type of oil were they using?

    And then looking at the Nephite and related civilizations, they use the word anoint once. (“Nephi… anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people…” Jacob 1:9) It is possible that he was using a supply of olive oil brought from the Old World. The word “anoint” is used two other times in the Book of Mormon: once in a quote from Isaiah, and once in instructions from the Savior in 3rd Nephi.

    The technology of pressing oil evidently did not survive the trip across the ocean, undoubtedly due to the lack of the correct type of fruit. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the fact that they subsequently “consecrated” kings, priests, teachers, and other rulers. (It’s also an interesting side-note that some claim that the Allegory of the Olive Tree (Jacob 5), got a few details wrong about the trees. It’s possible that Jacob never saw an olive tree, but would have heard about them from older family members.)

    Sometime, do a search for the word “oil” in the Old Testament. Rather interesting result. Then do a search in the Book of Mormon. Downright fascinating result.

  6. Arelius says:

    As stated in the book, “The Allegory of the Olive Tree,” olive oil is a symbol of the Holy Ghost (pp. 279, 427).
    Both olive oil and the Holy Ghost provide nourishment, enlightenment and comfort.

  7. I read a very interesting article from a book of essays on the Book of Mormon that talked about the horticulture of an olive grove, how the fruit is processed, and the heavy symbolism involved. Unfortunately, that book is at home, and I can’t remember the name of the book, the editor, or the name of the author of the essay, or its title. My recollection, though, tracks with Danithew in # 4 above. The olive fruit in its native state is not edible, and only by a lot of processing can the olives be eaten as a food. In addition, great pressure and time are involved in the production of olive oil in the press. The result is that from bitter fruit, with great effort, something sweet and transcendent emerges, both in the fruit and the oil, and is highly symbolic of the Atonement.

    I’ll reference the essay later tonight, after my wife’s birthday party, if no one else has found it.

  8. “Gethsemane” is aramaic for “oil press”. Fairly obvious parallel to the Atonement there.

  9. I think Arelius in # 6 has the book that I am thinking of, “The Allegory of the Olive Tree”, edited by Ricks and Welch. If I recall, Truman Madsen, James Faulconer, John Tvedtnes, and Catherine Thomas were some of the contributors.

  10. Truman Madsen talks about the significance of Olive oil at length here.

  11. It only works with olive oil because of its viscosity. If you try to use SAE 30, the viscosity is too low and the Holy Ghost’s power dissipates too quickly.

  12. Wait, some of us don’t know the story of potato peels being used at the end of WWII.

  13. It’s referenced often by President Benson as here.

  14. I ran across a story of some South Pacific islanders using dried coconut meat, and coconut milk, when the cisterns were dry and supplies were overdue. For the Sacrament, that is, not for anointing.

  15. I wonder if there is lost scripture on the significance of olive oil.

    We have the allegory of the olive trees/vineyard – but it doesn’t talk about oil specifically. The emphasis is on the fruit being stored up or stored away – but not on any oil from the fruit.

    The Book of Mormon was meant to help re-entrench and buttress biblical teaching and doctrines and to fill in things that were lost – but as has been pointed out in comments above, olive trees are not endemic to the Americas – so that may be one area where the Book of Mormon might logically be deficient.

  16. Note that the book of Mormon does not have any examples of healing by anointing. Neither does the New Testament (though it has instruction on the matter). Early Mormons did not anoint the sick, they laid on hands without anointing. Not until the Temple at Kirtland did other people besides JS anoint the sick; and then, the temple form was used – anointing with consecrated oil, sealing the anointing. So the use of olive oil in blessing the sick is a direct result of it being used in the temple. Its use in the Kirtland temple was a recapitulation of Old Testement consecration of priests, which used olive oil explicitly (Ex 30:25), among other things.

  17. David Tayman says:

    Here’s Margaret Barker’s paper on the Holy Anointing Oil: http://www.margaretbarker.com/Papers/TheHolyAnointingOil.pdf

  18. Kris Wright’s paper at MHA on this point is fantabulous.
    My reading of Donald Kagan on ancient Mediterranean is that oil is the equivalent of wine from grapes, a transformation of an agricultural product that requires substantial work and technology.

  19. i personally sometimes still get teary-eyed at the image of Christ and the olive press.

  20. Everyone is addressing the symbolism of the olive oil–even Truman Madsen’s article. And of course it’s significant and weighty. But the question (posed as vulgarly as possible, I suppose) is, “so what”? If we decide that the olive oil is a sign of the atonement, or purification, or whatever, then it’s still only a sign. The question remains–why is it better to invoke NO symbolism at all rather than find a substitute when pure oil is not available, when it comes to the healing power? Particularly since it is alright to substitute the sign in other ordinances? I think Steve asks a good question…one that hasn’t really been addressed yet.

  21. Ugly Mahana says:

    I think the post conflates two questions. First: What is the symbolism of olive oil? Second: Why no substitutes?

    I find, as others have already stated, olive oil to be a powerful symbol of the atonement, and also useful as a symbol of the Holy Ghost. I also think I heard somewhere (vague enough reference?) that it was actually used in ancient medicine as well.

    As to the second question, I think the practice is to NOT use substitutes unless commanded. After all, it took a revelation to authorize the use of water in the sacrament. I think it would take a similar revelation to authorize a substitute for olive oil in the ordinance of anointing the sick.

  22. SteveP,
    Thanks. I hadn’t heard that.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    My discussion of the olive as the Tree of Life is in my Mother in Heaven article from the Winter 2008 Dialogue.

    You know, I never liked olives growing up. Then I read the Truman Madsen article on olive symbolism at Gethsemane. And for some reason after reading that article I started to like olives. Now I love them.

    Once when I was teaching GD and we were talking about Gethsemane I brought olives for the class to eat.

  24. I have found myself asking the question, “So what?” many times, especially when it comes to things of religious practices, and every time I come up with the answer, “I don’t know!”

    But I imagine a worthwhile follow-up question to Steve’s question is this: Are there any other kinds of oil derived from a fruit/vegetable that are similar to olive oil? For example, other than flavour, what is the difference between, say, canola, safflower, flaxseed, sunflower, corn, soybean, peanut, cottonseed, palm, or coconut oil and olive oil? (Other than the amount of monounsaturated fat?

  25. I think it must be more than the composition of the oil. For example, say one synthesized the exact chemical composition of pure olive oil. Call it golive oil. Could you use it in a blessing? Remember golive oil and olive oil are identical chemically, their only difference is in origin. Doesn’t something seem wrong with using golive oil in a blessing?

  26. There is this great account of a community in Utah that didn’t have any oil of any kind and they wanted to administer. So someone volunteered to go up into the mountains and kill a bear, which he did. They then rendered the fat into an oil and used that.

  27. FYI-

    “Note that the book of Mormon does not have any examples of healing by anointing. Neither does the New Testament (though it has instruction on the matter).”

    Mark 6:13 And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.

    James 5:14 Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:

  28. Karl K. says:

    I had always understood that olive oil is the only oil that will penetrate the skin.
    I do not remember where I heard that.

  29. Pete (#27), I think you just reiterated my point. Of all the specific examples of healing in the New Testament, none involve anointing with oil. There is general discussion of it. In fact, those are the only two references.

    Karl K. (#28) Not so much.

  30. Brant Gardner says:

    The olive was considered one of the physical representations of the Tree of Life. The meaning of the oil, however, derives from two symbolic aspects of the tree. The first is that the tree was associated with the rightful king. Hence, anointing a king with olive oil placed the new king in the symbolic state of the true king (and possessor of the Tree of Life). That connection tells us why it was use for anointing.

    The second association was with the healing properties of the liquid from the Tree of Life. The Tree gave Life, but also health (I would assume in smaller doses?). As the liquid from the Tree of Life, olive oil rightfully carried the association with healing, hence its use in anoint the sick.

  31. Read accounts of the Kirtland holy season if you want a reason for the physical substance in the rites. These physical anointings are absolutely luxurious. I love the image of things touching our skin. You might as well as why we bother to embrace instead of merely thinking an embrace toward each other.

    and Kevin, I love olives. broiling them (particularly Lucques) for a few minutes in orange zest a little salt and just a whiff of olive oil is a heavenly transport.

  32. Steve, I think a lot of people have given lots of historical/scriptural examples of what the symbolism of olive oil might be and as Laurie Maffly-Kipp pointed out in my MHA session, anointing is also used in other religions and cultures. There are several fascinating examples of people going to great lengths to procure some kind of oil for anointing (bear tallow, coconut oil) as well as other “bending of the rules” in order to do an anointing correctly ie. women consecrating oil themselves. I wonder if the no substitution rule comes from church leaders. In 1921, the Millennial Star published an article which stated, “anointing with oil is one of the features of the ordinance for the administration to the sick [which] is not absolutely essential”. This represents a fairly significant shift and signals an important change in the prescribed use of oil that occurred during this period.

  33. John Mansfield says:

    Off hand, I would guess that olive oil extraction preceded any other vegetable oil processing by millennia. When Moses annointed Aaron where there yet alternatives? Wikipedia claims that sesame was one of the first crops processed for oil, going back to 6th Century B.C., whereas olive cultivation goes back to 6th Millennium B.C. and amphorae exist from 3500 B.C. Maybe olive oil has antiquity on its side.

  34. One thing I think we missed, is that we CAN give blessings without oil, but we can’t offer the Sacrament without some tangible food and drink.
    Perhaps this is the reason why there are no substitutes for the oil, as it isn’t really required for blessings; whereas the bread and water must be substituted.

  35. kris (#32), that is very interesting, I wonder why it was changed and who sanctioned its change? From your work I’ve been astonished how such significant changes in our healing practices just seem to have happened without specific revelation, they just seem to get towed away by strange undercurrents.

  36. chelseaw says:

    Interesting that the use of “pure” olive oil is specified, since olive oil fraud is apparently rampant. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/13/070813fa_fact_mueller

  37. #29

    You didn’t say “specific” examples originally. In my view, Mark 6 clearly states that many people were anointed with oil as part of a healing process and that Christ taught the apostles to use it to heal the sick “in His name”. That oil isn’t mentioned in any of the healing done by the apostles is not proof that it wasn’t used.

    You bring up an interesting point in #16-that using oil was first practiced by the early Saints AFTER the temple was completed. Using oil was very much an ancient ritual associated with temple (or tabernacle) rites. The average member of ancient Israel-after losing the opportunity to participate in the higher priesthood with Moses may not have been authorized to use oil and/or laying on of hands and the Nephite civilizations that existed without a “temple” in their midst may have also been restricted in the same practices.

    Something not brought up so far is that shepherds used oil to prevent their sheep from becoming infested with flies in the summertime. These flies lay their eggs in the soft, mucus linings of the nose and when they hatch, the larvae would crawl up and infest the sheep’s heads and brains. It’s a painful scourge that often led to blindness and death.

    Shepherds in ancient Palestine would prepare a mixture of olive oil and spices and cover the noses of the animals with it to repel the flies and prevent them from laying their eggs. Sheep are also afflicted with a disease called “scab”. It’s highly infectious and when the sheep rub their heads together it spreads quickly from an afflicted sheep to a healthy one. The same used against the flies was (and still is) often smeared over their entire heads to prevent and cure scab.

    Consider the scriptures referring to the scabs on the heads of the daughters of Zion, the wild and tame olive branches, and the “blind” people healed by Christ (the anointed one, the Tree of Life, Lord of the vineyard, the Shepherd, the unblemished (undiseased) Lamb of God…)

    Olives and the oil that comes from them provide heat, light, food, and both protection from and healing of fatal diseases.

    Christ and His atoning power provide spiritual fire, light, nourishment and protection and healing from things that can cause spiritual death.

    Powerful and thought provoking thread.

  38. I concede that I could have been more clear.

  39. #36

    Interesting read.
    The first page, I mean. I couldn’t bring myself to read 6 more.

  40. Stapley, 26: that is the coolest story ever! Can you provide a reference? It’s going in my scriptures. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I was sick and my hometeacher came over and said, “Sorry, I ran out of olive oil at home, so I hunted down a bear in the mountains, killed it, and rendered its fat for your sake”—that’d do wonders to increase my faith.

  41. Ellice Moffitt, Oral History, interviewed by Barbara Lee Hargis, July 6, 1966, quoted in Barbara Lee Hargis, “A Folk History of the Manti Temple: A Study of the Folklore and Traditions Connected with the Settlement of Manti, Utah, and the Building of the Temple” (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1968), 32.

  42. Found it. You sir, are the man.

  43. Michael says:

    I was once annointed with motor oil.

    While tracting, we came across a radical born-again. He was in the driveway working on his car. He made a cross of motor oil on my forehead, then raised his arms in the air and started praying that the Lord would bind our tongues so we couldn’t spread the gospel of death and lies.

    I told him it didn’t work.

  44. Researcher says:

    Thanks, J. Stapley and BrianJ for the link to that thesis about Manti and the surrounding areas. I just finished reading almost the entire thing. There are some very lovely stories in there.

  45. Michael: maybe it didn’t work because the born-again was using a synthetic and not pure motor oil.

  46. If someone went to the trouble of killing a bear and rendering its fat into oil – and then came to my house with the oil … well, at that point I might ask if I could have some bear meat as well.

    Haven’t ever had bear steak before …

  47. Why not WD-40?
    Cetyl Myristoleate is a nutritional supplement that has been touted as the WD-40 for arthritis sufferers. It is a fatty acid ester that is supposed to act like WD-40 for the joints. While the jury is still out, it seems to have beneficial effects in some patients.
    Finally WD-40 is a type of protein that is being extensively studied in research. It apparently holds the key to some disorders including cancer and arthritis.

  48. FMaxwell says:

    Another interesting tidbit about olive oil: When I was first diagnosed with a slight case of gallstones, I researched natural remedies to see if I could alleviate the problem without surgery. A few sources recommended olive oil. So often now I take 4 tablespoons of olive oil at the end of a meal, and any gallbladder discomfort goes away within half an hour. Don’t know what the spiritual parallel of this would be.

    (I haven’t done the olive-oil/lemon juice flush technique to get rid of gallstones yet. Being careful of what and how much I eat seems to be effective, though I may still consider surgery later. )

  49. Bob, what “WD-40 protein” are you talking about? I know about “WD-40 repeats” found in many proteins….

  50. Wd-40 has a very large following as a healing oil (not me). But I have some believing friends.
    I errored in not putting my second sentence in quotes. Sorry, I don’t know the protein. Google have some good debates on WD-40 and arthritis. I’m an Epson salts guy myself.

  51. That story about the bear is awesome but it is not entirely plausible. A village without oil would have a tough time baking and frying anything.

  52. They likely had fats (solid at room temperature), but no one likes to be anointed with butter or tallow.

  53. I’m positive there is a cannibal-related rebuttal to your assertion, J.

  54. Olive oil is the symbol of the Holy Ghost. Look for text where one has been ‘anointed’. See the sequesnce of the annointing of Saul and David: it was not until Saul had lost the Spirit that David could be annointed. The Saviour was able to speak BECAUSE he was annointed. (Luke 4:18.)
    Yet there is also the significance of the Gesthemen incident where the Saviour is annointed and then had the power to take upon himself the sins of the world – resulting in his sweating of blood because of the spiritual weight of all our sins. (I remember all this because I am old enough to have been there! HA)

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