The periodic abstinence from olive oil is one of the hardest parts of fasting. But why is there such a prohibition?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Religious fasting nutrition is a form of self discipline. It can be also a form of commemoration of saints or precede important religious feasts. Though early Christian writers had opposing views on fasting and of making food a religious concern, early Christians took the practice of fasting from their Jewish background and enthusiastically included it among other selftortures.
As virginity became a central Christian value, fanatic ascetics waged continuous battles against the demon of lust. Since lust originated in the flesh, the flesh should be starve. Stomach and pudendum were said to be united, otherwise stomach ” would not have been fixed to the belly rather than elsewhere.” (Tertullian, On Fasts 1. 1-2) In order to avoid the temptations of lust and gluttony, ascetics restricted themselves to small amounts of bread or rusk and water for several days. It was not uncommon for some of them to exist for years on the Eucharist or on a single fig.
Their diet was the extreme form of xerophagy – “dry eating” (Gr. xerofaghia / ξηροφαγία).
…. and gluttony.
(Gluttony, fresco, Vatopedi monastery, Mount Athos)
The rise of the monastic movement in Egypt (4th-5th AD), and from there to many other Roman provinces, incorporated fasting as an integral component of self-identity of ascetic anchorites’ and coenobites’ life. Sources indicate that monks followed two kinds of fasting diet: one related to the ecclesiastic year and another one individually adopted. Xerophagy held important role in both of them. Of course, hard working monks could not live on bread and water; thus the word xerophagy also signifies that the consumed foods could be raw vegetables, soaked legumes, bread or rusk and occasionally fruits, nuts and honey. In practice, boiled vegetables were also allowed. However, cooked foods and olive oil were strictly prohibited because they were considered processed foods.*
The Egyptian ascetic ideal served as the prototype of Christian monasticism in the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine monasteries maintained the tradition of xerophagy during fasting periods. During Great Lent xerophagy was prescribed on Wednesdays and Fridays. In some monasteries with stricter rules of eating, Mondays were also observed as xerophagic days. Olive oil was prohibited, but in some monasteries could be replaced by olives or sesame oil. However, in areas where olive oil was a staple good of daily consumption, sesame oil was considered as fake oil. Where olive oil was not a major part of the diet, the prohibition sometimes included all vegetable oils.
Greek Orthodox Fasting, following the Byzantine fasting rules, also uses sesame oil or sesame paste (tahini) instead of olive oil.
“We make a soup with water, salt and pasta** or rice. Pasta is preferable. The proportion of rice is 1 tbs per person, and the proportion of pasta is a little more than 1 tbs per person. When the soup is ready, we beat tahini and a little water in a bowl. We add the juice of two lemons and we beat until white, adding some liquid from the soup. We remove the soup from the heat and add tahini, stirring constantly. The proportion of tahini is a teacup per 5-6 persons. When soup and tahini have combined well and pasta has a cream texture, we serve. ” (1929, Vasileiou ed., I noikokyra, ti prepei na gnorizei, p. 288)
*On any other day, olive oil was used as an addition to various dishes or for cooking, but not for frying.
** Rice-shaped pasta, orzo.