I’ve recently seen it suggested that the practice of anointing an official in oil dates back to Egypt, where such a ceremony is represented in images of coronations.
It has been proposed that, symbolically speaking, the anointment transfers the power of a god into the human ruler. If this is true, it’s likely where the Hebrews got the idea, seeing as how they were neighbors of the Egyptians, and slaves there as well if the Exodus story is to be believed. In Judaism, anointing was a ritual that only a priest could perform. While the Jews didn’t think people could actually gain the power of gods, it still served the same general purpose of consecrating an official before God. According to Wikipedia, the oil used was a mixture of myrrh, cinnamon, cannabis (stoners take note!), cassia, and olive oil. It’s from this practice that we get the title Mashiaẖ, meaning literally “anointed one,” and Anglicized into the word “messiah.”
Originally it was simply used to refer to actual kings, but when the Davidic kingship died out and the Jews looked forward to a future time when their oppressors would be vanquished, “Messiah” came to mean the legendary leader who would accomplish this. Another popular title for this coming leader was “Son of Man,” based on a passage in Daniel where a figure often interpreted as the coming Messiah is referred to as “one like a son of man.” The implication here seems to be that the Messiah will appear to be human, but might actually be something else. The phrase “Son of Man” is used in apocalyptic books like that of Enoch, and Jesus also used it quite frequently. Whether he was referring to himself or someone else isn’t always clear from the context, but of course Christians have taken it to mean that he is the Son of Man, and the Messiah. Since he doesn’t fit the messianic prophecies all that well, despite the best efforts of Matthew, it was really only when the messianic cult of Jesus was taken outside a Jewish context that it caught on in a big way. Some Christians still hold out hope that Jews will recognize Jesus as the Messiah at his Second Coming.
So was Jesus ever literally anointed? Yes, according to a story that appears in all four Gospels, although the particulars differ. In Matthew and Mark, this occurs when he is lodging in Bethany; Luke and John don’t specify the location. A woman pours an expensive ointment over Jesus (his head according to the first two Gospels, but his feet according to the others), and the disciples complain that they could have sold that ointment and given the money to the poor. Jesus’ answer is, essentially, “Lighten up; I’m going to die soon.” This doesn’t really fit too well with most of his other teachings, but Jesus was probably glad to finally get some recognition. There’s a tradition that the woman who anointed him was none other than Mary Magdalene, but there’s no indication of this in the text. It’s also not clear whether the woman actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, or had some other reason for pouring oil on him. Since this was only shortly before his crucifixion, it’s been suggested that it was actually supposed to be symbolic of his upcoming burial.
As far as anointing in recent years goes, former Attorney General John Ashcroft had himself anointed with cooking oil (Crisco, according to some sources) before taking political office.
This seems to me to be making a mockery of the ritual, but then Ashcroft pretty much is a living parody of the Religious Right. Also, Sean Hannity makes fun of President Obama by calling him “the anointed one,” presumably because he thinks people hero-worship Obama. Never mind that Hannity hero-worships Ronald Reagan. Oh, Hannity, you’ll get yours someday. Okay, you probably won’t, since the universe isn’t fair. If Jesus was right, though, the one thing I know will happen is that his former partner Alan Colmes will inherit the Earth. I mean, can you think of anyone meeker?