A few weeks ago I went to see the new Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library with my friend Malcolm, a very knowledgeable commentator on the Macedonian king (you can listen to his potted history of him here). As readers may know, he was celebrated in medieval Europe as one of the Nine Worthies – sort of the medieval equivalent of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – and apocryphal stories about him during this period were popular. In fact, the landing page of the Bestiary features a scene from a high-end manuscript of The Alexander Romance in the BL, an adventure story in which Alexander and his cat explore the bottom of the ocean…
Worthy as the Alexander exhibition was, I was even more interested to find these Greek Olive Oil biscuits in the gift shop. As you’ll see from the packaging, the transliteration of the Greek word for biscuits is biskota: a fact I expect to come in useful if I visit Greece again, as I hope I will. This recipe developed by Thessalonian company Petits Grecs hails from Crete and incorporates Arabic influences in the Tahini. For anyone on a dairy free diet they’re also dairy free.
The relationship of Hellenic to Hebraic Culture could be antagonistic when it threatened the survival of Jewish beliefs (as in the story of Hanukkah) but it was also Greek language and literary culture – widely disseminated in the ancient world as a result of Alexander’s conquests – which became the vehicle for translating the Bible to a wider readership before Christ’s birth and the language used to write the gospel accounts of his life by the early Christians. We know St Paul visited Athens, debating with the philosophers there on their own terms and quoting a Cretan poet’s words that in God we all live, and move, and have our being. Like most educated Jews of his day he was well-versed in Greek literature and philosophy, and wanted to show that there could be some common ground between Jews and Gentiles in their quest for truth about heavenly things.
So you’ll forgive me if I got a little excited about these Greek biscuits, and still more by their association with olive oil or liquid gold as the Greeks still call it. A key resource in the ancient world, you’ll find it referenced again and again in the bible where it is used for cooking and lighting and as an unguent for cleaning wounds. When mixed with a special combination of spices it was also used to anoint the kings and priests of Israel as a sign of their being set apart for God and his purposes and in a purified form to keep the lamps burning in the temple. The Bible and apocrypha both contain stories in which oil supplies are miraculously provided: it never runs out for Elijah’s widow in a season of famine and it stretches for an extra seven days to keep the Menorah in the temple burning in the Maccabees’ time.
I was expecting these biscuits to be a little greasy given the oil is a major component but in fact they’re a pleasing combination of dry and chewy. There’s also a palpable hit of orange which is a good Christmassy flavour – even if it is Advent, it’s open season on mince pies. I must admit to a little disappointment on finding there were just five biscuits in the box however (and all individually wrapped) making them even more expensive than Fortnum and Mason’s Chocolate Pearls of Great Price…
On reflection I wondered whether Petits Grecs hadn’t served me this biscuit’s moral on a china plate though. Given the five biscuits and the olive oil, what could this be but the perfect set-up for Jesus’s Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids: a story commonly told in Advent to encourage his followers to watch and wait for his return. Oil plays a crucial part in this story because it is only the five wise bridesmaids who have laid up a good stock of it who are ready to join the bridegroom – an allegorical representation of Jesus – when he returns to fetch them for the wedding feast while the five who have to go and buy some are left outside. (You can read the full story here if you like.)
Meditation is one of the disciplines of the spiritual life and Jesus’s stories especially invite meditation. I’m convinced one of the reasons that he used them so much is because it provoked his listeners to take an active approach to mining meaning from them – to allow the truths in them to be found by each listener at their own point of need, travelling from the head to the heart. Meditating on this story this Advent leaves me with more questions than answers I want to take some time to sit with: what does it mean to know Christ if he says that not everyone who claims to know him really knows him? And what does this oil signify, if it’s so vital to keep a supply of it ready all the time?
Read a little more on Alexander’s Mythical Adventures from the British Library blog.
Read a little more on the ancient history of Olive Oil.
One of many beautiful Anglo-Saxon meditations on Advent from the Clerk of Oxford – this one focuses on the Trinity, appropriate for the Greek Orthodox church as well who have a special focus on it.
British Orthodox composer John Tavener’s stunning choral piece The Bridegroom seems particularly fitting for this Advent post. Here it is juxtaposed with some rather haunting images from YouTuber Marcin Markowicz:
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