In Morocco, it is said that if you dream of bees entering your mouth and flying out again, you will become a good singer. Similarly, in Ancient Greece and Rome, it was believed that honey applied to the lips made ones words sweeter- it was customary to anoint the lips of the statues of great poets with honey.
The social organization of the beehive, the hexagonal honeycomb, the smell of beeswax, the musical buzzing, the sweet honey that results from their unceasing labor… it is no wonder, perhaps, that many Ancients exalted the bee as a sacred creature.
When, precisely, did this ancient relationship between humankind and bees begin? Its impossible to say, but an 8000 year old cave painting in Valencia, Spain, clearly depicts men gathering honey from a wild bee hive.
Honey seeker depicted in an 8000-year-old cave painting at Araña Caves in Spain https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3255236
We always hear stories about bears and wolves and eagles, animals that are powerful and fierce. And, although there are a lot of them, its much rarer to hear stories about bees.
And yet our own existence as a species is quite literally dependent on bees. Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
And, of course, bees are in fact disappearing on a mass scale at an alarming rate, along with the myriad other terrifying vaguely apocalyptic signs of our world hurtling shamelessly towards disaster… As smart as Einstein was, he was by no means the first person to harp on the significance of bees, and to study our relationship with these buzzing insects.
References to bees and honey are found in some of the oldest writings of the world- in ancient Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform tablets. In the Vedas of ancient India, in the art and poetry of Ancient Greece and Rome… In ancient Egypt, it was believed that bees were created from the tears of the sun god, Ra. When Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt were united under one ruler circa 3500BCE, the bee was used as the hieroglyph to denote the king of Lower Egypt, and the reed for upper Egypt. The Kahun Papyri, a collection of ancient Egyptian texts that discuss various aspects of mathematics and medicine, references this union of Upper and Lower Egypt: “He hath united the two lands, He hath joined the Reed to the Bee.”
By Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862-1934) – http://www.etana.org/coretexts/15146.pdf, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6106478
It is unknown precisely when the people of ancient Egypt began to keep beehives, but as early as the First Dynasty a position existed for the “Sealer of the Honey,” which would indicate that they were no strangers to the ways of the bee. Certainly by the Fifth Dynasty, and likely prior to that, beekeeping, or apiculture, was practiced in Egypt. Hieroglyphs from reliefs found at The Temple of the Sun, built circa 2600BCE depict the process of blowing smoke on the bees, collecting honey from the beehives, and sealing it in jars.
And, incase you were wondering, blowing smoke on the bees is still a common beekeeping practice. Basically, blowing smoke on a beehive calms the bees… or at least, it appears to. Actually what happens is that they go on a feeding frenzy and gorge themselves on honey because, if there is a fire, they may have to abandon their hive, in which case they need to load up on honey to prepare. So, when you’re opening up a hive to inspect your bees, or to harvest honey, smoking the bees before hand is still a common practice today, just as it was in Ancient Egypt and elsewhere.
In Egypt, beeswax was also used for magic. One of the earliest references to this is in the Westcar Papyrus, and its quite an interesting tale. A man named Aba-aner, who lived circa 2830 BCE, during the Third Dynasty, and held some sort of high-level priestly position, apparently kept a box of various materials used to fashion figures of men and animals for magical use. Beeswax was, of course, the primary ingredient.
According to the tale, his wife was fooling around on him, and so Aba-aner fashioned a crocodile out of beeswax and slipped it into the pool where his wife’s lover bathed. Upon entering the water, the crocodile sprang to life, snatched the lover, and dragged him beneath the surface, where he remained for seven days… At which point, Aba-aner invited the king to witness the spectacle. He called the crocodile, and when it appeared he took it in his hand and it transformed back into the wax figurine before the king’s eyes. After hearing Abu-aner’s reason for creating the crocodile, the king turned to the figurine and ordered, “Take what is yours and begone.” With that, the crocodile once again sprang to life, leapt into the water, devoured the man, and sank into the depths of the pool, never to return.
This practice of using wax figures for magical purposes was practiced not only in Egypt, but in Babylonia and India, as well, and it passed from Egypt to Greece and Rome, and subsequently throughout many other parts of the world.
As is so often the case when looking at ancient civilizations, the lines between magic and medicine tend to blur when looking into the medicinal uses of beeswax and honey. The Syric Book of Medicines, which is a collection of various lectures concerning anatomy and medicine thought to have been first assembled in the 12th century, contains a variety of recipes for curing a wide spectrum of ailments, and many of them call for honey, beeswax, and occasionally bees themselves… such as the recipe for preventing hair from turning white, which is as follows:
Take a handful of bees, roast them in oil, and smear them on the hair. The hair will become black.
While I don’t recommend trying that one, the medicinal benefits of honey are not lost on modern science. Honey does, indeed, possess antimicrobial properties. And, interestingly, this isn’t the only example of a story that correlates a remedy for hair turning white with bees…
An Irish tale related in the Journal of American Folklore tells of a man named Mark Flaherty who was once riding around after sunset, minding his own business, when all of a sudden he heard a mysterious voice behind him. He turned around, and no one was there. He returned home, and once again he heard the voice… Maybe he needed to get some sleep, he thought. But, he could not sleep- it felt like someone was sitting on his chest. By the next morning, his hair had turned completely white and his health had begun to fail. He heard the voice, still, and now saw a man creeping behind him, who disappeared whenever he tried to approach. His health declined rapidly until one day a beggar approached Flaherty and told him he must go to the bed and collect enough honey to rub all over his entire body. “You must,” explained the bigger, “collect the honey yourself. If anyone else does it for you, it will do no good.” The reasoning given by the beggar for this remedy is that bees fly to all the flowers and such the goodness out of them, which is then transferred into the honey. So, the Irishman followed the beggar’s advice- he went to the bees and collected a great deal of honey, smeared it all over his body, and in no time his hair had turned brown again and his health was back to normal… and, of course, he no longer heard the creepy voice or saw the mysterious man.
The next story comes from India. Long ago, in the city of the Daityas, there lived a powerful demon named Aruna. He hated the devas, and wanted to destroy them. Aruna went to the banks of the Ganga, in the Himalayan mountains, and practiced a very strict tapasya… which is essentially a very intense devotional meditative practice. For 10,000 years he consumed nothing by dry leaves and repeated the Gayatri Mantra, over and over. Which goes:
om bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi
dhíyo yó naḥ prachodayāt
For the next 10,000 years after that he drank only drops of water. And for 10,000 years after that he survived only on air, breathing in a deep state of meditation.
These austerities made him very powerful, and a halo of light shot forth out of his body and began to burn the whole world. The devas trembled in fear and ran to the the refuge of Brahma, the great god. Hearing the news, Brahma rode on his vehicle, a divine swan, to the place where the demon Aruna was meditating. The demon was so immersed in meditation that his body had dried up and withered, and only his breath sustaining him. He looked as if he were blazing with fire. Pleased with his devotion, Brahma granted the demon a boon. “What is it you desire?” He asked.
These words were like nectar to the Demon, who opened his eyes to see Brahma standing before him. Aruna said, simply, “I shall not die. Grant this.” Brahma explained to him that not even he himself, nor Vishnu or Shiva or any of the the other devas were free from the limitation of death. He cannot grant him this boon, he explains, but urges him to be more creative in his demands.
“Very well,” says the demon, “I wish that my death shall not be caused by any arms or weapons, any man or woman, any two-legged or four-legged creature, and also grant me an army large enough to defeat the Devas.”
Brahma agreed to this demand and granted him the boon.
With that, Aruna left his tapasya and gathered the other demons under his leadership, preparing to fight the Devas. Immensely powerful because of his years of austerities, Aruna was able to change his shape and size, and quickly capture the Sun and Moon, the the underworld of Yama, and Agni, the deity of fire, and dislodge many other Devas from their stations.
At a loss, the Devas fled to the home of Lord Shiva, asking for his help. Much discussion occurred over what was to be done about the powerful demon and his army. Brahma explained the stipulations of the boon, and for a time the situation seemed hopeless.
Then, a celestial voice rang out. “Let you all worship the Divine Mother Goddess. She will take care of this.” And so the Devas all began to meditate on the Divine Mother. After some time, she appeared to them, resplendent with the brilliance of ten million suns, her body adorned in beautiful garments and jewelry, and from her hands emanated swarms of bees. At this sight, the Devas, with Brahma at the front, all began to chant multitudes of praises to the Auspicious Devi.
After adequate praising from the Devas, the Divine Mother was pleased and offered them a boon. They explained their woes and their predicament with the demon.
The Auspicious Devi, upon hearing all of this, sent forth innumerable swarms of bees from her body. Countless bees emerged from all sides of her until the sky was overcast with bees and they covered the world in a massive swarm. The bees began to attack the demons, biting and stinging them. Aruna had failed to include the ranks of insects in his boon, and thus he was vulnerable to six-legged creatures. There was nothing the demons could do to defend themselves against the onslaught of bees, and they simply died, their bodies turning into dust. When all of the demons had been dispatched, including their leader Aruna, the bees returned back into the body of the Divine Mother, who was once again exalted by the Devas.
In this form, the Divine Mother is knows as Bhramari Devi, or the Goddess of the Bees.
Now, depending on where you’re from, you may not have heard of Bhramari Devi, the Hindu Bee Goddess, before. She’s probably not the most well-known deity in the Hindu pantheon. But, there is a good chance you’ve heard of Zeus… the head honcho, and probably the most famous, of the Greek gods. And, for our purposes today we’re going to take a look at the story of his birth.
Zeus’s mother was Rhea, and his father was Kronos, the Titan- perhaps more familiar by his Roman persona as Saturn. The Titans were an ancient race of super-scary giant beings that were predecessors to the gods. You may have seen images of Saturn eating his children, notably the famous and also terrifying, painting by Francisco Goya… which was one of the 14 so-called “Black Paintings” that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his own house during the later years of his life, all of which deal with some fairly dark themes… Kronos or Saturn eating his children is, of course, no exception.
…and, indeed, Zeus’s father was hell-bent on murdering all of his children, which he did by swallowing them. The reason for this was a prophecy that foretold that he, Kronos, would be overthrown by one of his own sons, just as he had done to his own father, Uranus, before him.
Zeus’s mother, Rhea, wanted to spare Zeus from this unfortunate fate, and when he was born she handed her husband a rock wrapped up in blankets, disguised as a baby, which he swallowed in place of baby Zeus.
There are several takes on what happened after this, during Zeus’s infancy, but the one we’re going to be looking at today, and a fairly popular one, is the idea that Zeus was raised in secret by the nymph, Melissa, who fed Zeus honey to sustain him. The name Melissa actually comes from the Greek word for bee.
Upon reaching maturity, Zeus confronted his father and forced him to disgorge the other children, who then banded together and overthrew Kronos and the other Titans, banishing them to the sort of uber-netherworld of Tartarus, which was below the regular underworld of Hades and served as a special prison for the Titans. And that story is something we may look at in more depth in another episode.
Today, we’re going to focus on Zeus’s birth. In older versions of the myth, it was literally bee- Melissae, the plural of Melissa, meaning bees- that cared for the infant Zeus, and only later were these Melissae interpreted as the nymph, Melissa. Similarly, the goat Amaltheia was also said to help with rearing Zeus, feeding him on milk, and later the goat became a nymph, often the sister of Melissa. There are a number of other variants, as well. And actually this relationship between bees and the divine, and particularly sacred female divinities, goes pretty deep, particularly in Western Asia and Crete where traditions of mother-goddess worship were very popular.
Often the word Melissae, bees, is used to refer either to nymphs or to priestesses associated with Mother Goddess deities, such as Rhea or Cybele, or goddesses associated with nature, such Demeter and Persephone, who were the principal focus of the Eluesion mysteries, a set of secretive Ancient Greek religious rites.
There is a myth of one such priestess, or Melissa, of Demeter who lived on in Corinth. She was an old woman, said to have been initiated into the mysteries by the goddess herself. The women in her village pressured her to reveal the divine secrets, but she refused again and again until the other women became so enraged that they chopped her into pieces. Demeter, infuriated, sent a plague to punish them and caused a swarm of bees to come from the body of the priestess.
There’s an interesting account, given by the ancient Greek grammarian Antonius Liberalis in his only surviving work, which chronicles various mythological metamorphoses involving deities within the pantheon. Transformations into animals, plants, rocks, etc.
He tells of a cave in Crete that is sacred to the bees, and it is unlawful for any god or man to enter. This is where Rhea gave birth to Zeus, and at a certain season during the year a flood of light streams forth from the cave’s mouth, which is said to be the birth blood of Zeus.
He also tells a story of four men who, enticed by the honey in the cave, encased themselves in bronze and ventured inside. They saw the swaddling-bands of Zeus, and at this point their bronze armor crumbled to pieces. Zeus was about to slay them with his thunderbolt, but the three Fates intervened, on the grounds that it was unlawful for any man to die in the cave. So, instead of killing the men, Zeus transformed them into birds.
There is actually an ancient vase-painting that depicts this scene- the four men right at the moment when their armor has fallen off.
Now, of course, when it comes to mythology, we can’t talk about bees and honey without mentioning mead- probably the first fermented, alcoholic beverage known to man, which is, of course, made from honey. Amongst the Germanic peoples, mead was the drink of the gods, and there are numerous ballads and folksongs and tales that sing the praises of this intoxicating beverage. And, indeed, that is what this next story, which comes from Finland, is all about.
The main epic of Finnish mythology is the Kalevala, which is essentially a collection of oral folklore and mythology that was put together in the early 1800’s by a man named Elias Lonnrott.
From the Kalevala, we get the story of the mythical origin of bees- how bees came to be.
The story begins with a young women named Osmotar, who was struggling with some ale she was trying to brew. She couldn’t get her barley and hops to ferment properly. She picked a pea plant and rubbed in her hands and between her thighs, and this produced a bee. She then instructed the bee to gather some honey and bring it to her, and with that mead was born.
There’s another good bee story in the Kalevala, as well.
Lemminkäinen is an important figure in the Kalevala, and he’s actually sort of a composite of various heroes. He’s usually described as strong and handsome with red hair. In one mythological episode, Lemminkainen’s mother becomes altered that something terrible has happened to her son when a hairbrush begins to bleed red drops of blood.
And, indeed, Lemminkainen was on a quest to kill the Swan of Death, which swims on the Tuonela, of the river of death. The impetus for this mission was to win the hand of a lovely young maiden, but, he was killed and his body sank to the depths of the river.
Hence the ominous bleeding hairbrush.
Lemminkainen’s mother is determined to retrieve her son’s body. She goes to the god Ilmarinen, the Eternal Hammerer or blacksmith, and asks him to fashion a rake of copper, which she then uses to scrape the depths of the river Tuonela to fish out her son’s remains.
First she uncovers his hat, and then his shoes. She wades deeper and deeper into the river, raking the river bottom until slowly but surely all of his dismembered body parts are pulled out of the river.
Next, she begins to sew his body back together. He is badly mangled, so this is a laborious task, but eventually she succeeds. But, while his body is whole once again, despite her many prayers to the various gods, her son remains lifeless. Finally, she petitions a bee to travel to the hall of the sky god, Ukko, to retrieve a drop of divine honey.
The bee returns with this potent drop of honey, which when administered to Lemminkainen’s lips, restores him back to life.
Throughout the world, we find examples of a certain intimacy between humankind and bees.
There is an old European folk custom of “Telling the Bees”- it was widely believed by people who kept beehives that it was essential to tell the bees of important events in the life of the beekeeper- such a birth, wedding, or a death. If one failed to tell the bees, something would inevitably go wrong with the hive- the bees would swarm and leave the hive, stop producing honey, or die en masse. In parts of Scotland, it was customary to decorate the beehive when a wedding occurred, and to leave a slice of cake near the hive for the bees.
Likewise, should a funeral take place, it was common practice to leave funeral biscuits and wine by the hive, and sometime to cover it with a mourning cloth. In the Pyrenees, it was customary to bury a piece of the deceased’s clothing near the hive, particularly if it was the beekeeper who passed away. Selling the bees of a deceased person was also considered very bad luck, and its not uncommon to find records of beehives that were passed down through a family from generation to generation for many years. And elements of this idea of “Telling the Bees” came over to the Americas with the Europeans- actually along with the species of honeybees that we have today, Apis mellifara, which were not native to the Americas.
The ancient Maya, however, did practice beekeeping and collected honey from a native species bee long before the arrival of the Europeans. Interestingly, it is widely espoused that the native wild bees kept by the Maya were stingless bees, and yet there is a story in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche, that would seem to indicate that certainly not all of the bees familiar to the ancient Quiche were stingless.
Walters Art Museum, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18816010
The story concerns their ancestors, who were once besieged by a neighboring tribe. So, they secured their city as well as they could and put up wooden cutouts in the forms of men around the ramparts, and hung weapons and shields on them. Then, they gathered bees and wasps, as many as they could find, and put them in giant calabashes, which they then placed around the city near these wooden men. Now, when scouts from their enemy came to the town they reported back that they had seen only a few guards, but not many- the wooden figures… When they attacked, the townspeople knocked the lids off of the giant calabashes and released swarms of angry bees, which descended upon the enemy and began to sting them mercilessly, causing them to throw down their weapons, which then left them vulnerable to be killed by the men of the town.
I’ll leave you with one final bit of bee lore today, and that is the custom of “tanging” the bees. This is a fairly ancient practice with various incarnations, and basically what it entails is beating on pots and pans or clanging bells to cause a swarm of bees to settle… And you’ll see old etchings and illustrations of this in beekeeping manuals… For many years the general consensus was that the bees simply loved the sound of clanging metal, and therefore a swarm would alight on an nearby tree or log to enjoy the dissonant sound of pots being beaten with spoons… Now, of course, we know that what more likely happens is that the sound waves resonating from the metal interfere with the bees sense of direction, causing them to settle. That being said, tanging the bees does actually work if one is trying to control a swarming hive.
https://archive.org/details/syriananatomypat01budg – Syric Book of Medicines
http://sacred-texts.com/hin/db/bk10ch13.htm#page_1046 – Devi Bhagavatam, book 10, Bhramari Devi
http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune15.htm – Kalevala: Rune XV
The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore by Hilda R. Ransome
This book is a great resource on bees in myth & folklore!