The bee, found in Ancient Near East and Aegean cultures, is believed to be the sacred insect that bridged the natural world to the underworld. Appearing in tomb decorations, Mycenaean tholos tombs were even shaped as beehives.
Bee motifs are also seen in Mayan cultures, an example being the Ah Muzen Cab, the Bee God, found in Mayan ruins, likely designating honey producing cities (they prized honey as food of the gods).
The bee was an emblem of Potnia
, the Minoan-Mycenaean "Mistress", also referred to as "The Pure Mother Bee". Her priestesses received the name of "Melissa
" ("bee"). In addition, priestesses worshipping Artemis
were called "Bees". The Delphi Priestess is often referred to as a bee, and Pindar
notes that she remained "the Delphic bee" long after Apollo
had usurped the ancient oracle and shrine. "The Delphic priestess in historical times chewed a laurel leaf," Harrison noted, "but when she was a Bee surely she must have sought her inspiration in the honeycomb. Ernst Neustadt, in his monograph on Zeus Kretigenes
, "Cretan-born Zeus," devoted a chapter to the honey-goddess Melissa
The Homeric Hymn
to Apollo acknowledges that Apollo's gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee-maidens, usually identified with the Thriae
. The Thriae was a trinity
of pre-Hellenic bee-goddesses in the Aegean. The embossed gold plaque (illustration above right
) is one of a series of identical plaques recovered at Camiros in Rhodes
dating from the archaic period of Greek art, in the seventh century, but the winged bee goddesses they depict must be far older.
The Kalahari Desert's San people tell of a bee that carries a mantis across a river. The exhausted bee left the mantis on a floating flower. The bee plants a seed in the mantis's body before it dies, and that seed grows and becomes the first human.
In Egyptian mythology, bees grew from the tears of the sun god Ra when they landed on the desert sand. The bowstring on Hindu love god Kamadeva's bow is made of honeybees.
is connected with the bee-mask. Cretan bee-masked priestesses appear on Minoan seals. Before the Hellenes came to the Aegean,
Bee of the mythographers recalled the tradition "Merope", the "bee-eater", in the old Minoan tongue.
, a suitor of Merope, was born in Hyrai
. According to Hesychius
, the Cretan word hyron
meant "swarm of bees" or "beehive. Like some other archaic names of Greek cities, such as Athens
, Hyrai is plural, a name that evoked "the sisters of the beehive."
This name Merope figures in too many isolated tales for "Merope" to be an individual, and probably denotes a priestess of the Goddess. Merope the "bee-eater" is not always a bee herself. There is a small Mediterranean bird called the Bee-Eater known to Roman naturalists Pliny and Aelian. Bee-Eater may also indicate a She-Bear, representative of Artemis, herself often pictured with the head of a bear. At a festival called the Brauronia, pre-pubescent girls were dressed in honey-colored yellow robes and performed a bear dance. Once they had served Artemis in this way, they became marriageable. A Syriac Book of Medicine suggests that the eye of a bear, placed in a hive, makes the bees prosper. The bear's spirit watches over the hive, and this was precisely the Merope's role among the Hyrai at Chios.
was a Minoan craft, and the fermented honey-drink, mead
, was an old Cretan intoxicant, older than wine. The proto-Greek invaders, by contrast, did not bring the art of beekeeping with them. Homer saw bees as wild, never tame, as when the Achaeans issued forth from their ship encampment "like buzzing swarms of bees that come out in relays from a hollow rock" (Iliad
, book II). For two thousand years after Knossos fell the classical Greek tongue preserved "honey-intoxicated" as the phrase for "drunken." The Bee is also seen in a number of Aegean and Near Eastern names. The Jewish historian Josephus
noted that the name of the poet and prophet Deborah
meant "bee." Melissa is also similarly defined.
The name "Merope" seems to mean "honey-faced" in Greek, thus "eloquent" in Classical times.
- Cook, A.B. "The bee in Greek mythology" 1895 Journal of the Hellenic Society 15 pp 1ff, noted by Harrison 1922:443 note 1.
- Harrison, Jane Ellen, (1903) 1922. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek religion, third edition, pp 91 and 442f.
- Engels, David/Nicolaye, Carla (eds.), 2008, "Ille operum custos. Kulturgeschichtliche Beiträge zur antiken Bienensymbolik und ihrer Rezeption", Hildesheim (Georg Olms-press, series Spudasmata 118).
- James W. Johnson, "That Neo-Classical Bee" Journal of the History of Ideas 22.2 (April 1961), pp. 262-266.
- Kerenyi, Karl 1976. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Princeton: Bollingen Press)
- Neustadt, Ernst 1906. De Jove cretico, (Berlin). Chapter III "de Melissa dea" discusses bee-goddesses and bee-priestesses in Crete.
- Scheinberg, Susan 1979. "The Bee Maidens of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes" Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 83(1979), pp. 1-28.