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. 

Tahinosoupa (Tαχινόσουπα)

“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.

More on fasting.




Τhe climax (ladder) of Divine ascent. Monks climb and fail from the ladder to heaven. They have to overcome  23 vices and gluttony is among them. 

(John of the Ladder or John Scholasticus or John Sinaites, 6th century)


Christian Church used fasting as a form of self – discipline, contempt for the flesh and sexual desire, mortification of sin, a way to the spiritual perfection. Since lust and gluttony were seen as deadly sins inextricably linked, the daily diet of the proper Christian’s should not arouse pleasure but only quench hunger and give strength for work. This connection between food, body, sins and spiritual life is one of the characteristics of the Christian theology. That’s why fast became central both to the monastic lifestyle and to life of common people.

However, the strict dietary rules imposed by the church dipped the life of poor of Byzantium and most habitants of Ottoman occupied Greece in misery. Considering that the official fast days count the 2/3 of the year, the perpetual undernourishment of the poor became worse and worse. If the fortunate could brighten the fasting diet with fresh and pickled oysters, fresh, dried or pickled octopus, black caviar, egg-roe, taramas, fresh and dried fruits etc., the poor suffered. Not only they did not have enough money to soften the Fast’s rigors they did not even dare to break the fast. Neither old men, nor sick men, nor even children were excepted from the strict and steady diet. On 1806, the anonymous writer of Greek Nomarchy asked the Patriarch to limit the days of feasts and fasts, because the feasts prevented the profit and the fasts damaged the health. But only one patriarch, Jeremiah, had dared to suggest less fasting days, on 1705. Unfortunately his effort had no result; he had been almost lynched by the infuriated grocers and fishermen, because they had seen their profits being in danger.

The truth is that the term fast could be quite elastic. It could cover not only abstinence, but also a variety of foods, prepared with skill and expense for the fortunate ones. It is also true that the use of  delicious ingredients was not allowed by the Eastern Church. On contrary, Church approved the lack of cooking talent as means to sharpen the fast. The only consolation allowed to Byzantine monks was the begging of the kneeled cooks for forgiveness for their incompetence. However, in the wealthy monasteries of 12th century- that is the period of ethical crisis of orthodox monasticism- the rich monks enjoyed inspired and luxurious alternatives that diverted attention from the absence of meat. Even at the years of Turkish occupation of Greece, some monasteries could serve abundant delicacies to their guests. On 1797, roast piglet, lamb, pigeons, hens, olives, honey, pomegranates, almonds, grapes, white and red wines, were offered to Claude Savary by the Bishop of St. George, a Cretan monastery; he also enjoyed forty dishes full of meats, legumes and fruits at the Cretan monastery of Asomaton.

Dembinska M, ‘Fasting and working monks, regulations of the fifth and eleventh centuries’ in Fenton A, Food in change (1986)

Russell N, The lives of the Desert Fathers, (1981)

Simopoulos K., Foreign Travelers, p.427-8 (1984), Greek ed.