Essential Oil: Kinship and Wealth Among Olive Farmers in Messina, Greece

Kavadias, Dionisios, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Damon, Frederick, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

From 2013 to 2015, amidst the economic panic, I conducted one and a half years of intensive ethnographic research in Messinía, Greece, among households that invest in the production and consumption of olive oil, often at the expense of solvency. My dissertation, Essential Oil: Kinship and Wealth among Olive Farmers in Messinía, Greece, documents the social life of olive oil and its local and global entanglements, detailing its role in Greek Orthodox Christianity, family relations, and global trade. In Messinía, olive oil is not only a vital daily food staple and market commodity, but it is also essential for ritual uses and for perpetuating the continuity of family households. The study of olive oil thus captures the interplay between kinship practice, spiritual worship, and economic planning. From page one, this dissertation assumes that oil is “good to think”—by the end, however, it also demonstrates that, for the Messiníans of Greece, olive oil is also good “to do.”

Mapping its trajectory from the grove, through the mill, and to various sites of consumption, the social life of olive oil follows a tripartite ritual process in which exchanges of all kinds iterate—and reiterate—oil as a non-capital form of “wealth.” Stepping into the world of the olive grove, we are asked to see from the perspective of the farmer, whose toil is experienced through the body, but whose sensibilities of right and wrong are writ on the trees through the craft of cultivation. Most important is the harvest, wherein oil and money (and memories of debt) come to define the relationships that distinguish the “us” from the “them.” Harvesting is as much about yielding to social obligations as it is about yielding crops. In the oil mill, everything is in suspension—not just the green sludge magically refined into pure virginity, but also histories, knowledges, and social hierarchies. Suspended here is also oil’s status: it symbolically waits on the threshold that separates family substance from a commodity to be alienated to the global market. In the home, oil is not only a thing to be integrated into life through culinary, religious, and everyday use, but it is itself the thing that creates important relationships in these contexts. By effecting physical and metaphysical transformations, it helps key actors—especially women—to reinforce dimensions of insider-ness and outsider-ness of the body and of the home. Bodily healing, boundary maintenance, and religious practice all come into play here.

In this ritual process, oil “flows” between modernist divisions of hard economics and kinship, lubricating a universe of exchanges between the two. As Greece teeters between European uncertainty and financial ruin, this thesis demonstrates how, contrary to ideological assumptions about rational capitalism, the architecture of a kinship system and of a local economy can be (and frequently are!) built from the same blueprint.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Greece, Greek economy, Olive oil, Kinship
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: