The use of oil in ritual and in sacrifice is characteristic of the peoples of the Mediterranean Basin and of the Near (or Middle) East, or, to be more precise, of all social groups in which the olive-tree, because it provides both food and light, is especially highly regarded. Directly deriving from this twofold use, oil is at once a symbol of purity and light as well as of prosperity.
In North Africa and once, it would seem, in the traditions of all Mediterranean peoples, women poured oil over altars of undressed stone and men oiled their PLOUGH-shares before cutting the first furrow. 'In both cases, it is a matter of an offering to the invisible power’. In such an offering oil. the colour of the sun and the symbol of lubricating and fertilizing power, simultaneously proffers a prayer for fertility and injects its symbolism into the open furrow. The oiled share penetrating the earth may also, perhaps, signify the gentleness, infused with an almost holy reverence, of this communication with Earth. This is the predominant emotion surrounding this fertility rite, a symbol of human coitus.
Oil, which is thus present at the beginning of life as it is in Extreme Unction at its end, comes to play an extraordinary sacral role in the Christian world and is perhaps best summarized by the comments of the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
On the other hand, the natural consistency of oil made Shinto mythology regard it as the image of the primeval undifferentiated state, the primordial waters being of oil.
It is not surprising, therefore, that alchemy should have given oil so important a symbolic role. It is present at the beginning and end of life, but Claude de Saint-Martin regards it as a symbol of the intermediary bond, since it is an element in the alchemists' Great Work in which bread and wine are mercury and sulphur. Oil. he stresses, ‘is composed of four elemental substances which give it an active relation to the four cardinal points.' Its nature is such that it immobilizes and stops external influences, another aspect of its cleansing and protective role.