THE BEE: PART 1 – BEEDAZZLED
by ANDREW GOUGH
History is rife with lost knowledge and traditions whose meaning has blurred with the passage of time. I believe the ‘Bee’ is one such tradition, and that its symbolism was important to civilizations of all ages. Inexplicably, the Bee is dying and nobody is quite sure why. Legend asserts that when the Bee dies out, man will shortly follow. We will review the implications of the Bee’s apparent demise in due course, however in this – our first instalment, we will examine the genesis of the Bee’s symbolism in the mist of prehistory.
The Bee in Prehistory
Thanks to fossilisation, Bees over 100 million years old have been discovered in amber, frozen in time, as if immortalised in their own honey. The Greeks called amber Electron, and associated it with the Sun God Elector, who was known as the awakener. Honey, which resembles amber, was also known as an awakener, a regenerative substance that was revered across the ancient world. The resemblance of honey with amber led to the Bees exalted status amongst ancient man and secured its favor over other fossilized insects. Marcus Valerius Martialis, the first century Latin poet renowned for his twelve books of Epigrams, commemorates the symbolism:
"The bee inclos’d, and through the amber shewn,
Seems buried in the juice, which was his own.
So honour’d was a life in labor spent:
Such might he wish to have his monument."
Bees accompanied Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and during the mythical Golden Age, honey dripped from trees like rain water. In Egypt, Bees symbolized a stable and obedient society, mantras that would later be adopted by Freemasonry – and the United States of America. The Bee’s ability to pollinate was not lost on prehistoric man and contributed to its reputation as a regenerative, transformative and mystical creature. Indeed, paintings from prehistory confirm that the Bee has been revered for tens of thousands of years.
In the Cave of the Spider near Valencia Spain, a 15,000 year old painting depicts a determined looking figure risking his life to extract honey from a precarious cliff-side Beehive. Honey hunting represents one of man’s earliest domestic pursuits and hints at the genesis of the Bee’s adoration in prehistory.
Veneration of the Bee continued in Neolithic Spain, as the highly stylised rendering of a dancing Bee below illustrates. The image underscores the quandary with Bee symbolism; that is, most of us would be hard pressed to identify the image and others like it, as a Bee. The tradition of the Bee worship in Spain has been preserved to this day, albeit under the rather macabre guise of Bull fighting. The modern day ‘sport’ is actually an extension of Mithraism, the ancient mystery school whose rites included the ritualistic slaughter of bulls. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, for to understand how bulls are related to Bees we must examine the Bee in prehistory still further.
The Bee is the only insect that communicates through dance, yet this largely forgotten trait is one of the reasons why Bee imagery from antiquity is often lost on the untrained eye. In her authoritative and oft quoted book, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, Marija Gimbutas examines imagery on artefacts from Old Europe, circa 8000 BC, and concludes that they portray the Bee as a manifestation of the Mother Goddess, as depicted below.
The Mother Goddess is arguably the oldest deity in the archaeological record and her manifestations are numerous, including likenesses of butterflies, toads, hedgehogs – and dancing Bees. In the ancient world, dancing Bees appear to have been special – the Queen Bee in particular, for she was the Mother Goddess – leader and ruler of the hive, and was often portrayed in the presence of adorning Bee Goddesses and Bee Priestesses.
In addition to dancing Bee symbolism, Gimbutas identified images of Bees as stick men, or schematized figures, with their arms arched over their head like the Dancing Goddess motif so common in Sumerian and Egyptian reliefs.
Clearly, the Bee was depicted in manners unidentifiable to the casual observer. And to be fair, this is no wonder, for the Bee was often portrayed in a highly stylized fashion anyway, and occasionally its features were distorted due to the unrefined skill of the artist in antiquity, as well as fact that the artist may have been in a shamanic, drug induced trance at the time the image was created. Furthermore, the image of the Bee was often prejudiced by the surface it was created on, i.e. rock wall, statue or mud brick, etc, and the perspective that this afforded.
So let’s look at several more examples, starting with a well known image that few would associate with Bee symbolism; a 10,000 year old Anatolian Mother Goddess wearing a Beehive styled tiara. The Beehive inspired motif was popular in earliest society and confirmed the Goddesses exalted status as a Queen Bee who ‘streams with honey’, a substance of considerable importance, and status, in ancient times.
Also in Anatolia, this time at the Neolithic settlement of Catal Huyuk, rudimentary images of Bees dating to 6540 BC are painted above the head of a Goddess in the form of a halo. Nearby, paintings of Beehive comb cells adorn rock strewn temple walls, recalling the day when such symbolism was widely understood – and important. In Anatolia, Bee veneration continued for thousands of years, as demonstrated by the 18th century BC Hittites, who relied on honey as an important element of their religious rites.
Catal Huyuk was first ‘discovered’ in 1958 and is widely regarded to be the most important site of its kind in the world. The complex was excavated by James Mellaart between 1961 and 1965 and found to feature two prominent images: the Mother Goddess, and the bull. Together with the Bee, these images comprise the essence of our research, as we shall see. However, images of Bees from antiquity are not limited to Old Europe, for in far away lands such as Australia, Aboriginal cave paintings of Beehives have been dated to 10,000 BC.
In addition to cave paintings, Aboriginals also carved images on the inside of eucalyptus tree bark, including drawings of men with bags of honey over their shoulders.
Similarly, the following images illustrate how the Bee can be misinterpreted as representing other, more esoteric or otherworldly creatures. For instance, spiraling circles appear frequently in rock art, and on occasion have been interpreted to represent planetary alignments or symbols of advanced civilisations. In fact, the image below represents rock art from the sacred store house of Australia Honey Ant shamans, who hunted Honey Ants as the only source of honey in an otherwise dry and arid desert landscape (Spencer and Gillen, 1899). The rocks are located in a valley where shamans performed rituals designed to increase their supply of honey, for the sacred nectar provided a variety of medicinal and nutritional uses. Ironically, the conical images hints at the origins of the ancient Labyrinth design, a structure that played an important role in Egyptian, Greek and of course, Atlantian mythology; cultures that venerated the Bee.
Images from the ancient world are frequently interpreted through modern eyes as representing supernatural or even extraterrestrial events, due to the extraordinary images they portray. This is especially true of images whose symbolism includes figures in flight. Most notably, Zecharia Sitchin, linguist and writer of the controversial Earth Chronicles series, has devoted a lifetime to interpreting Sumerian reliefs and believes they represent extraterrestrial contact on earth.
For example, the Sumerian stele below is one of many believed by alternative history writers to depict figures of alien origin. However, more measured interpretations believe that this scene, and others like it, depict the worship of the Mother Goddess, manifest as a Queen Bee or Bee Goddess; a figure who is frequently adorned by her followers – the Bee Priestesses. Again, this should not be viewed as unusual, for honey was regarded by Sumerian physicians as a unique and vital medicinal drug. In fact, it has been suggested that the Sumerians invented Apitherapy, or the medical use of Honey Bee products such as honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis and bee venom. And least we forget, it was the Bee that led ancient man to the plants whose hallucinogens transported consciousness into the spirit world of the gods. Furthermore, objects cast in Beeswax were discovered in the earliest of Sumerian societies. Why then, should the source of these important byproducts – the Bee, not have been worshipped?
The Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer is believed to have flourished between 5300 – 3500 BC. In addition to producing dozens of cultural firsts – or inventions, Sumerians appear to have been the first to depict winged figures in art, including humans with wings. Might this symbolism be attributable to worship of the Bee Goddess? Could the Bee have been the inspiration for winged figures of all kinds? Was the Bee the archetype for biblical angels? Although alluring, such assertions are rather speculative at this juncture, and so we will reserve judgement until we have examined the Bee and its evocative symbolism in further detail.
Gigantic statues from the Assyrian city of Nimrud – now modern Iraq, and Persepolis – now modern Iran, appear to have continued the Sumerian ‘winged tradition’ by depicting bulls with wings. This is intriguing, for ancient cultures the world over have maintained that Bees are born of bulls, and here we have statues depicting bulls with wings.
The ancient custom of placing a Beehive in the head of a bull was at first a domestic exercise, and enabled the bull’s head to be purified of all matter before being used for practical purposes. Only later did the tradition morph into a highly symbolic ritual where Bees found on the carcasses of dead bulls represented the regeneration of souls. As we shall see, the belief that Bees were born of sacred bulls was especially prevalent in Egypt and Mediterranean cultures such as the Greeks and Minoans. Like the Sumerian reliefs that depicted humans with wings, the representation of bulls with wings will be duly noted and no conclusions drawn – just yet.
The Bee featured prominently in another ancient culture – the Dogon, a tribe from the West African region of Mali whose Nommo ancestors and Sirian mythology were made famous by Robert Temple in his book, The Sirius Mystery. The Dogon belief system is ancient, and until approximately 140 AD, its zodiac featured the Bee as the symbol of the constellation presently occupied by Libra. The Bee’s position in the Dogon Zodiac is significant to esoteric thought leaders such as Cabalists, who recognize the Bee’s role in establishing balance and harmony in the zodiac – and in life. Curiously, two of the most common Dogon symbols resemble schematized figures identified by Marija Gimbutas as Bees; one is associated with vital food supplies and the other with reincarnation. Together, the Dogon images reflect the essence of the Bee’s perceived value in ancient times.
The Bee in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians shared many similarities with the Sumerians and Dogons, including the veneration of Bees. Sophisticated Apiculture, or the organized craft of Beekeeping, was practiced in Egypt for thousands of years. According to Bee expert Eva Crane, whose authoritative book, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting remains the primary reference work in the genre; “beekeeping was very important before 3000 BC, especially in the Delta.” In other words, the agricultural, nutritional, medicinal and ritualistic value of the Bee and its honey was important in Egypt from pre-dynastic times onwards, as demonstrated by the fact that King Menes, founder of the First Egyptian Dynasty, was called "the Beekeeper”; a title ascribed to all subsequent Pharaohs. Additionally, the Kings administration had a special office called the ‘Sealer of the Honey’, and Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt bore the title "he who belongs to the sedge and the bee”. An image of the Bee was even positioned next to the King’s cartouche.
EgyptologistWallis Budge translated the Book of Opening the Mouth, and in doing so provided insight that confirmed the Bees’ importance in Egyptian mythology. One phrase simply read, “The Bee, giving him protection, they make him to exist”, while another adds: “Going about as a bee, thou seest all the goings about of thy father.” The later may in fact refer to the Ka, or an individual’s soul – or double, who is nurtured after death.
Egyptian mythology contains countless references to the Bee, including the belief that Bees were formed through the tears of the god RA. To put this into perspective, we are informed that the most important god in the Egyptian pantheon had Bees for tears. The ancient writings of Am-Tuat (the Otherworld) explains:
"This god cries out to their souls after he hath entered the city of the gods who are on their sand, and there are heard the voices of those who are shut in this circle which are like the hum of many bees of honey when their souls cry out to Ra."
And similarly, the Salt Magical Papyrus states:
“When RA weeps again and the water which flows from his eyes upon the ground turns into working bees. They work in flowers and trees of every kind and wax and honey come into being.”
The Bee’s association with the tears of RA is interesting, for the ideogram of the Bee has been interpreted by Egyptologists to represent honey, and its eyes the verb, “to see”. Many have studied its meaning, such as the Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner, who featured the Bee in his book Egyptian Grammar. So did the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe, who believed the Egyptians had forgotten the original word for Bee. Similarly, the Egyptologist Hermann Grapow felt that the Bee’s title was completely "unreadable". The point being, Egyptologists agree that they have yet to ascertain the symbol’s true meaning.
Intriguingly, Northern Egypt – the land stretching form the Delta to Memphis was known as “Ta-Bitty”, or “the land of the bee”. Similarly in the bible, the Lord promises to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into a land flowing with milk and honey. Poetically, later civilizations referred to the land of milk and honey as a sort of mythical utopia; a bountiful, abundant and fertile region, reminiscent of the Mother Goddess herself.
Bees are portrayed on the walls of Egyptian tombs and offerings of honey were routinely presented to the most important Egyptian deities. Indeed, honey was the ‘nectar of the gods’, and like the Sumerians before them, Egyptian physicians valued its medicinal value in many important procedures. In other words, they too practiced Apitherapy. Egyptian medicine men were often indistinguishable from sorcerers, and Beeswax was an essential ingredient in the creation of effigies used in rituals. In her 1937 book, The Sacred Bee, Hilda Ransome recounts several examples, stating that “One of the earliest instances of the magical use of wax is in the Westcar Papyrus.” In her example, Ransome recounts how a Beeswax effigy of a crocodile comes alive and eats the lover of mans wife as revenge for violating his marriage agreement.
Honey was frequently mentioned in papyri and was even a vital ingredient in Egyptian beer. This linked the Bee to commerce, for beer was often used as a form of wages. In fact, the versatile nectar was so cherished that promises of honey from husband to wife were included in marriage contracts, and even the Pharaoh Ramses III offered up 15 tons of honey to the Nile God Hapi, in the 12th Century BC. The Health Benefits of Honey web site sheds further light on honey’s unique role in Egyptian society:
“The oldest hieroglyphic carvings in temples, on sarcophagi and obelisks sufficiently prove that bees and honey had a vital significance in the daily life of the population of Egypt…Honeycombs, honey cakes, sealed jars of honey and lotus blooms were placed next to the sarcophagi as food for the souls of the dead. In the tomb of Pa-Ba-Sa, in Thebes, the entire wall is decorated by rows of bees. A man is shown pouring honey into a pail, another is kneeling and praying before a pyramid of honeycombs. On the wall of the tomb of Rekh-Mi-Re all phases of the honey industry are depicted; how the combs were removed from the hives with the aid of smoke, the baking of honey cakes, the filling and sealing of jars, etc.”
The Bee is featured prominently in many Egyptian temples, including the pillars of Karnak, the Luxor obelisk now erected on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the 20th Dynasty sarcophagus of Rameses III, a granite statue of Rameses II, the sarcophagus of a 26th Dynasty priest and on the Pyramid of Unas, to name but a few. Additionally, at the temple of Dendera an inscription recounts how Osiris emulated the Bee and provided instructions for knowing the “hsp”, or the sacred garden of the Bee in the other world – a domain believed to contain the tree of the golden apples of immortality. And in the Egyptian Delta, in the ancient Temple of Tanis – which is said to have once housed the Ark of the Covenant, the Bee was its first and most important ideogram. In fact, the Bee is even featured on the Rosetta Stone.
An intriguing source for the genesis of Bee symbolism in Egyptian mythology is the Eastern Egyptian Desert (EED) – a desolate expanse of Wadi’s stretching eastward from Luxor to the Red Sea. The seldom visited land is renowned for its pre-dynastic rock art, etched on barren cliff sides and isolated rock faces. The region has quietly emerged as a leading candidate for Egypt’s pre-dynastic origins, and may hold vital clues as to the genesis of Bee symbolism in Egyptian society.
The importance of EED rock art as an indicator of pre-dynastic Egypt settlement was first observed by two pioneering Egyptologists in the early part of the 20th century; Arthur Weigall in 1907 and Hans Winkler in 1936. The region was later popularized by Egyptologist and New Chronology proponent David Rohl, whose book Legend; The Genesis of Civilization, and subsequent catalogue of EED rock art, rejuvenated the debate over Egypt’s origins and underscored the regions importance in pre-dynastic studies. The essence of Rohl’s hypothesis is that EED rock art depicts the migration of a people who dragged their boats from Mesopotamia across the desert and into the Nile Valley, where they ultimately settled and founded pre-dynastic Egyptian civilization.
Another respected Egyptologist, Toby Wilkinson from Cambridge University, wrote of the importance of the EED in his book; Genesis of the Pharaohs, and drew his own, albeit more conventional conclusions. I toured the region with both men in 1999 and found its evocative rock art to be magical, mysterious, and well worth the journey.
The EED rock art features two images of relevance in our analysis, and each occurs with regularity in the Wadi’s leading westward to the Nile Valley. The first is an exalted looking figure with exaggerated plume-like attributes, as featured in the picture above. The plumed figure appears in both male and female form, and is usually depicted standing in a boat. The unusual lines extending upwards from the main figures’ heads, recall the antenna of the Bee while hinting at the shape of the plumes that would characterize the headdress of Egyptian Kingship for thousands of years to come. They also recall the god Amun, who is frequently shown with two tall plumes rising on top of a crown.
The other image of note is the Dancing Goddess motif, a woman with her hands bowed over her head just as the Bee Goddess had been depicted in Sumerian and Central European reliefs thousands of years earlier. The image is widespread in Egyptian mythology, although its origins remain a mystery. The abundance of Dancing Goddess images in the EED is especially intriguing, for they appear to support two different but equally interesting scenarios. Firstly, that the EED was one of the routes traveled by the Sumerians into the Nile Valley – as argued by Rohl, and secondly, that the EED was the path traveled by the forefathers of the Mormon religion; a group whose mythology is nothing if not obsessed with a legendary man-led migration of Bees across the ancient world and into America – or so its modern founders claim. We shall review the latter further, in our second installment, for the Mormon religion has greatly influenced the adoption of Bee symbolism in America.
With respect to the Dancing Goddess motif, Yosef Garfinkel informs us of an intriguing observation in his book, Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture;
“In the early Neolithic period of the Near East, female figures played the dominant role in dancing, and they compromise 75% of the depictions. In Predynastic Egypt, a similar, high proportion of female figures appears in the dancing scenes (ca 83%).”
Once again, this is especially interesting when we consider that the Bee is the only insect that communicates with dance, and according to scholars, Dancing Goddesses represent Bees – and here in the pre-dynastic EED we find a wide assortment of Dancing Goddess figures.
Still another visual clue is the Egyptian ceremonial dress, which has certain stylistic similarities with the Bee, namely the headdress, or nemes, and alternating yellow and dark horizontal stripes. This visual synchronicity is discernable in many reliefs and sculptures but is perhaps best illustrated in the death mask of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh, Tutankhamen. Before dismissing the possibility that the Bee inspired Egyptian ceremonial dress, it is interesting to recall the Beehive tiara of the 8th millennium BC Turkish Bee Goddess discussed earlier – a motif agreed by scholars to represent the Bee. In this light, does the Egyptian Bee motif seem so far fetched?
Once again, Marija Gimbutas provides a valued perspective: “The image of the goddess in the shape of a Bee or some other kind of insect has a very long history.” With this in mind, the notion of the Mother Goddess manifest as Queen Bee is interesting, for Bees are the definitive example of a true matriarchal society. The Queen Bee rules, and is viewed as the ‘mother’ of all bees in the hive. She’s fierce, and her power is absolute. The Queen Bee is developed in a pouch while the worker and drone Bees develop in the traditional a 6-sided honeycomb cell, and she develops in 16 days – approximately days 5 faster than other Bees. As a young Bee, the Queen in waiting is fed ‘royal jelly’ – a high protein substance derived from the heads of young Worker Bees. The young royal is groomed to become the sole, mated Queen in the hive, and is expected to kill all competitors that stand in her way. Her success as a ‘warrior princess’ is facilitated by the fact that unlike her rivals, her grooming has enabled her to sting repeatedly without dying.
If the Bee Goddess was a manifestation of the Mother Goddess, then we must ask; why is its symbolism not more visible in Egyptian mythology? One possibility, is that the Mother Goddess manifest as a ‘Queen Bee’ or Bee Goddess, morphed into another deity altogether. Another possibility is that the tradition was later suppressed – but why? We shall now review each scenario in more detail, in hope of finding some answers.
There are several candidates for the Egyptian deity that the Mother Goddess turned Bee Goddess morphed into, including the Egyptian God Min, who was known as the ‘Master of the Wild Bees’. Min was a pre-dynastic Bee Master, dated to 3000 BC, or even earlier. Min is traditionally depicted dressed in feathers with Bee like antenna plumes and an erect penis, and his symbols include a white bull and an arrow. Although Min is in fact a strong candidate, upon closer inspection, it appears that the Egyptian Goddess Neith is in fact the deity that the Mother Goddess turned Bee Goddess morphed into, for Neith was a warrior goddess with fertility symbolism and virginal mother qualities; all attributes of the Mother Goddess – and the Queen Bee.
Neith was an important deity from the First Dynasty (3050 – 2850 BC) whose cult was based in Sais, a town in the Western Nile Delta. Sadly, Neith’s temple is now lost from history, but fortunately some interesting accounts have survived. We are informed by the 5th century Greek Historian Herodotus, in his work Histories, that the temple had ‘pillars carved so as to resemble palm-trees’. We shall discuss the significance of palm trees further in our second installment, for they appear to be related to Bees. Herodotus also informs us that the gateway to the temple was;
‘an astonishing work, far surpassing all other buildings of the same kind in both extent and height, and built with stones of rare size and excellency’.
The Romans later revived the cult of Neith and reenacted rituals symbolizing her summer return – on a boat, like the Bee Goddess was portrayed in the EED, as it migrated from eastern lands. In Sais, Neith was regarded as the Goddess of the ‘House of the Bee’ and the Mother of RA; the ‘the ruler of all’. Neith’s House of the Bee bore a very curious inscription, indeed, as first century historian Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus recounts;
“I am All That Has Been, That Is, and That Will Be. No mortal has yet been able to lift the veil that covers Me.”
The 18th century author and philosopher of early German Romanticism Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg – more commonly known as Novalis, paid homage to the inscription in his riddle;
“There was one who arrived there. He lifted the veil of the goddess at Sais. But what did he see? Wonder above wonder, he saw himself.”
Neith was known as the Veiled Goddess, and thus the reference on her temple inscription to ‘lifting a veil’ is intriguing, for Bees are often called hymenoptera, stemming from the word hymen, meaning “veil winged”, representing that which concealed the holy parts of a temple, as well as the veil or hymen of a woman’s reproductive organ. Only later did the veiled wing become associated with the goddess Isis.
Equally as curious, Herodotus tells us that the Egyptian god Osiris – whose many symbols included the Beehive, was buried behind the ‘House of the Bee’, which is tantalizing on several levels. Firstly, Osiris is associated with the bull and the Bee, representing the transformation of souls from one to the other. Secondly, the Temple of Neith is where Plato recounted the legend of Atlantis, as relayed by Egyptian priests to the Greek law-giver Solon. Validating Plato’s account some 300 years later, a philosopher by the name of Crantor traveled to Sais to investigate the legend for himself. As Simon Cox and Mark Foster recount in An A to Z of Atlantis;
“Crantor says that he saw the columns in the temple on which the hieroglyphic inscriptions recounted the destruction of the civilization of Atlantis.”
The entire legend is interesting, for the location most commonly believed by scholars to be Atlantis is a Minoan island known in ancient times as Thera, or modern day Santorini. We will discuss the Minoans in more detail in our second installment, but suffice to say their culture shared many similarities with the Egyptians, including the veneration of Bees. Although speculative, the notion of Atlantis as a centre of bull and Bee worship is alluring, and based on the evidence, not entirely unfounded.
It’s worth noting that the Western Oasis of Siwa is where Alexander The Great visited the famous Oracle of Amun; the Egyptian god with the Bee antenna inspired plumes on his crown. This is of interest, given the fact that Alexander was believed to have been wrapped in honey before his burial, a common custom throughout Egypt and Assyria. Once again, it is Herodotus who comments on the tradition when he reports that; “Babylonians buried their dead in honey, and had funeral lamentations like the Egyptians.” Might the use of honey in ancient burials hint at the earliest forms of mummification?
An Egyptian monument that inconspicuously exhibits Bee symbolism is the Saqqara step pyramid, which boasts 6 levels above ground and 1 very special level below – the Apis Bull necropolis known as the Serapeum. On the most fundamental level, the step pyramid recalls the 6-sided shape of a Bee’s honeycomb as well as the 6th god of the Egyptian pantheon – Asar, the god of life and death whose symbol is the Djed pillar, and who was often depicted as a ‘green man’.
The Serapeum was discovered northwest of the Step Pyramid in 1850 by the explorer Auguste Mariette, who became interested in Saqqara after traveling to Egypt to study Coptic texts. The story goes that Mariette observed the head of a Sphinx protruding from the sand near the Step Pyramid, which ultimately led him to the entrance of the necropolis where he discovered a burial hall of sacred Egyptian Apis bulls.
Herodotus described the Apis bull as sacred, stating that the;
“Apis is the calf of a cow which is never afterwards able to bear young. The Egyptians say that fire comes down from heaven upon the cow, which thereupon bears Apis.”
Furthermore, Herodotus distinguished between the fate of the male and female bull;
“it was only the black bulls with special marks – a white disc between its horns being one of the most important – who were really entitled to the name Apis.”
Hilda Ransome adds;
“the females, who are sacred to Isis, are thrown into the river (Nile), but the males are buried in the suburbs of the towns with one or both of their horns appearing above the surface of the ground to mark the place. When the bodies are decayed a boat comes, at an appointed time, from the island of Prosopitis, which is a portion of the Delta, and calls at the various cities in turn to collect the bones of the oxen.”
The description is fascinating, and underscores the ritualistic significance of the Apis bull in Egyptian religion and society. It also highlights that only certain bulls were revered, namely the Apis, which was all black except for a white triangle on its forehead, and a bull with a white body and a black head called Muntu, which was sacred to the Bee master god Min. The cult of the god Apis dates to the First Dynasty and possibly earlier, for the constellation of age of Taurus began in 4530 BC. Like the Apis bull itself, the constellation has a distinctive triangle on its forehead, with a prominent star – Alderbaran, in the location of the “third eye”, which represents with the 7th chakra, or the passage through the abyss and the notion of transcending time. Clearly, the Egyptians were obsessed with the veneration of the bull. The question remains, was their obsession intrinsically linked to the Bee?
Egyptologists believe that the Apis Bull was bestowed with the regenerative qualities of the Memphite god Ptah – the Egyptian god of reincarnation. They also believed that those who inhaled the breath of the Apis bull received the gift of prophesy, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Egyptians believed that the bull was transformed into Osiris Apis, after death. ‘Bee’ in Latin is ‘Apis’, which may have derived from Sipa / Asipa in Mesopotamia; Sipa meaning ‘Great Shepherd in the Sky’ and Apis meaning Osiris. This relates to the belief that after death, the Pharaoh’s soul joined Osiris as a star in the constellation of Orion. Alternatively, some believe it became a Bee star in the constellation of Cancer. And of course Sipa is Apis spelt backwards.
The god Apis was related to Osiris / Asar and carried the title WHM, meaning repetition of births. It is worth mentioning that Osiris is neither associated with regeneration – the concept of starting over at the beginning of the cosmic ladder of births, nor with reincarnation, – the progression forward or backward in the cosmic ladder based on the virtue of ones actions in this life. Rather, Osiris represented resurrection, or the obtainment of total consciousness and awareness of all that has been and will be, by willingly stepping off the ladder after death and terminating the process of reincarnation. And this required preparation, intent and ritual.
Curiously, Osiris’s birth was announced by three wise men – or stars, his flesh was symbolically eaten in the form of communion cakes and he was murdered under a full moon before being resurrected. Because of these, and other similarities with the life of Jesus Christ, Osiris is regarded by many as the archetype savior. And as we will discuss in our second installment, Jesus was regarded as an Aetherial Bee and the Qumran Essenes – as King Bees. So both Osiris and Jesus are linked to Bees – once again the question is; by association, were Bees also connected with the concept or resurrection?
The worship of the bull in ancient cultures predates its veneration in Egypt by thousands of years. In Old Europe – and the South of France in particular, caves deep underground depict sacred bulls, such as the 17 foot bull painted on a wall in the ‘Hall of the Bull’ at Lascaux. And in the ‘Temple of Bull Heads’ at Catal Huyuk, bulls appear to have provided an important ritualistic function, as the archeologists’ rendering below illustrates. Might the significance of the bull be related to the Bee, in each instance?
As previously noted, the Bee was regarded as sacred due to its multi-purpose nectar and ability to process pollen; a substance regarded as a life-giving ‘dust’ since time immoral. Lands that were graced with Bees flourished – those that were not frequently languished. However, the regenerative symbolism of Bees born from bulls appears to be the aspect the Egyptians revered most, for we are told that an Apis Bull produced 1000 Bees, and that the Bees represented souls. It is unclear where the number 1000 comes from, or for that matter, precisely where and how the concept originated. Nevertheless, the symbolism appears fully formed in Egyptian society from its inception, and in this context is it any wonder that bulls were held sacred? Bulls provided an important domestic function, this is beyond dispute, but could the fact that an Apis bull produced 1000 Bees (souls) have been the real reason why the bull was held sacred in the first place, like it had been 4000 years earlier in ancient Turkey and even earlier in France?
Much speculation has occurred about a statue of an Apis bull found in the Serapeum and the object between its horns in particular. The conventional belief is that it represents the Solar Disc, as depicted between the horns of the Goddess Hathor – the patroness of Alchemy, pictured below. However, another school of thought is that it represents the collective wisdom of Bees in the form of a bowl of honey. As we shall see, the belief that Bees and Beehive’s represented a ‘library’ of knowledge was quite common in the ancient world.
The knowledge that Bees were born of bulls leads us to suggest that the underground necropolis known as the Serapeum may have been a ritualistic centre of regeneration designed to recycle souls from the heads of bulls, and not a mausoleum for sacred Apis bulls in and of themselves. The reader will recall that it was a Sphinx submerged in the sand that led Mariette to unearth the Serapeum in the first place. Poetically, this account recalls an earlier passage from the works of Antigonos of Karystos, a philosopher and writer circa 250 BC who recorded a hauntingly similar custom in ancient Egypt;
“In Egypt if you bury the Ox in certain places, so that only his horns project above ground and then saw them off, they say that bees fly out; for the ox putrefies and is resolved into bees.”
So, the Saqqara Serapeum may have been a ritualistic centre for regenerating souls via Bees born of bulls. In our second instalment, we will explore the manner in which the bull was slaughtered and suggest that the Serapeum many have been a ritual centre for what later surfaced as Mithraism; an ancient mystery school with rites involving the slaughter of bulls.
At this juncture it is worth recalling that the Bee was the symbol of Egypt, and that Beekeeper was the title given to the Pharaoh, and honey was an offering presented to the gods in the afterlife. With this in mind, I believe that evidence suggests that one of Egypt’s most iconic images – the Djed Pillar, may also be related to the Bee. Before revealing how and why, it is necessary to review another Egyptian image of great renown – the Ankh.
With respect to the Ankh, www.Answers.com informs us that; “The original meaning of this Egyptian symbol is not known.” Like so many evocative images, the Ankh has been ascribed a wide spectrum of origins, ranging from the knot of Isis, a woman’s womb, the sunrise, a penis sheath, the royal cartouche, and a plethora of other new-age inspired associations. Refreshingly, the Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner observed that the word for sandal strap resembled the word Ankh, and that the loop around the ankle of the sandal resembled the very image of the Ankh. For adherents of Occam’s Razor – the supposition that the simplest explanation is likely to be the correct one – this interpretation resonates, as does a variation on the theme that suggests that the Ankh was a camel shoe. Both interpretations highlight the fact that objects central to everyday life were held sacred for the domestic, yet vital service they provided.
Similarly, I noted in an earlier writing that the Ankh – whose definitions include ‘The key to the Nile’, may represent an Anchor. The two names are linguistically similar and their respective designs are visually striking.
I believe that the stability of any sea or river faring society would be indebted to the service that an anchor provides. And Pharaoh, who is often portrayed with two ankhs; one in each hand, may have symbolically been grounding himself in this life, and the next. Further, first century Saints in Rome had Ankh-like anchors carved on their tombs and the image appears frequently in the catacombs. Could the Ankh have been an anchor? Occam’s Razor seems to at least support the possibility.
Just as the Ankh may have been an anchor, or some other rudimentary object, the function of the Djed Pillar, arguably the most enigmatic of all Egyptian symbols, may also have its roots in domestic use. The Djed, like the Bee, is strongly associated with the concept of stability. It’s also associated with the god Osiris, creating the belief amongst many scholars that the Djed is ‘the backbone of Osiris’. As previously discussed, Osiris is associated with bulls, regeneration and the Bee. In fact, Djedu is the Egyptian word for Busiris, an ancient centre of Osiris worship. Ultimately, this symbolism has prompted some to suggest that the Djed is actually the sacrum of a bull’s spine – a common offering in ancient animal sacrifices. And in fact, Sacrum in Latin is sacer, or "sacred", a translation of the Greek hieron, meaning sacred or strong bone.
Still others have associated the Djed with the Tree of Life, due to the myth that Osiris was imprisoned in a Tamarind tree, and that the Djed resembles a tree. This is understandable, as the Djed played a vital role in the ‘Renewal’ or ‘Sed Festival’, which was sometimes known as the ‘Festival of the Tail’. During the Sed Festival, Pharaoh would run around an outdoor temple with a tail of a bull affixed to his regalia, stopping to shoot arrows in all cardinal directions in order to symbolically mark the boundaries of his kingdom.
With respect to bow and arrows, it is interesting to note that as a warrior Goddess, Neith is associated with archery – and arrows, as is Min, the pre-dynastic god whose titles included ‘Master of the Wild Bee’. The Sed Festival, which was typically held on the 30th anniversary of the king’s reign, was held throughout Egypt, although Luxor and Saqqara – site of the Apis bull necropolis of regeneration – were arguably the most special (see previous picture of Step Pyramid and the court where the Sed Festival was held).
The Sed Festival featured the Djed, which was ceremonially raised as a symbol of the potency and duration of the pharaoh’s rule. We have already noted how honey was believed to prolong life and was a vital ingredient in drinks used for magic and ritual. Not surprisingly then, the Djed is frequently depicted being presented to the Pharaoh’s mouth in various reliefs and stele. And herein lays a clue to its possible function.
The raising of the Djed is depicted in many places and perhaps most notably at Abydos, where a secretive Passion Play took place in the presence of the King. Another centre known for its Djed raising rituals was Memphis – the domain of the god Ptah, who was known as “the Noble Djed’. Memphis is also known to have had a sanctuary dedicated to the Bee where the most noble of women served as priestesses of the goddess Neith. Reliefs showing the raising of the Djed often depict the Djed with plumes, recalling the image of a Bee-like antenna, as earlier discussed, and illustrated below in a relief from Abydos.
So, we have learned that Egypt was the Land of the Bee and that the King was the Beekeeper and that honey was the Nectar of the Gods offered to the deities in the afterlife. In this context, might the Djed have simply been the instrument that administered honey – the ‘nectar of the gods’, to the actual Gods. Might the Djed have been a form of Honey Dripper? Even the most callused of observers can observe the similarity in design, function and context.
Suggesting that the Djed may have been a real or symbolic honey dripper does not deny that it, or for that matter the Ankh, did not have a deeper, more spiritual, and esoterically important meaning. It only suggests that its origins may very well have been rudimentary and ordinary, and from that foundation sprang more sacred associations.
Lastly, before concluding our review of Bee symbolism in Egypt, we would be remiss if we did not explore the controversy surrounding the image of the Sphinx, for amazingly enough, it too may be related to the Bee. The image depicted on the Sphinx has long been the source of speculation. A lioness is the most popular theory, and is supported by the legend of the gods Akeru; two lion guardians who preside over the east / west axis, and hence the rising and setting sun. The gods are related to Horus – the god of the East, RA – the god of the midday sun and Asar – the god of the night sun. The legend of two lion guardians has in recent times given rise to the belief that a second Sphinx may exists beneath the sands of the Giza Plateau, although this remains to be seen.
Others believe the image of the Sphinx portrays the dog Anubis – or Anpu, and curiously, the vital force of Anpu’s skin is frequently represented by Bees. Anubis was also known as the ‘Lord of the Hallowed Land’, meaning necropolis, and his cult is thought to predate Osiris. And of course, we have the possibility that the 4th Dynasty King Khafre (2558 – 2532 BC) had the Sphinx re-carved in his own image, or obscured its identity – perhaps in an attempt to usurp an earlier matriarchal rule. After all, the Goddess Neith was worshiped more than most other Egyptian Gods at the time of the King’s reign.
Alternatively, as Khafre’s pyramid most closely aligns with the Sphinx, and as he was the son of Khufu, whose pyramid was the grandest in all of Egypt, perhaps he re-carved the Sphinx in his own image in an attempt to ‘one-up’ his father. Or, was it just the opposite? Might Khafre have re-carved the Sphinx in the very image of his father as a form of ancestor worship? Irrespective of these rather speculative suppositions, we may very well find a clue to the true identity of the Sphinx in its name.
The Sphinx was known by the ancient Egyptians as Hun nb and most of us forget that it was the Greeks who named it Sphinx, a word believed to stem from the Greek verb σφιγγω, or sphiggo, meaning "to strangle". As this definition is somewhat ambiguous to our 21st century minds, we will examine what other ancient cultures knew the Sphinx as in hopes of gaining further insight.
For a start, the Sphinx was known as Abul-Hol in Arabic, which has been translated as ‘Father of Terror’. The Sabians called it Hwl, which equates to the Egyptian Hu. Furthermore, the stele in front of the Sphinx refers to Hor-em-Akhet-Khepri-Re-Atum and Atum-Hore-Akhet, with Thutmosis being described as the Protector of the Horakhti. Egyptologists have often translated Hor-em-Akhet and Horakhti as Horus of the Two Horizons, which harkens back to the two guardian gods Akeru. In short, these are the names of the Sphinx in the language of those whose monuments shared the plateau or who visited the site in antiquity. But has that helped us understand the true identity of the Sphinx? Just possibly the answer involves another culture altogether – that of the Minoans.
We will explore the Minoans in the context of the Bee in our second installment, but suffice to say they existed in the same time and in some instances, in the same place as the ancient Egyptians. The Minoans were experts in Beekeeping – or Apiculture, and we know that the Greeks adopted their knowledge of the craft from them. And again, it was the Greeks who named the rock hewn statue ‘Sphinx’ in the first place. So how does all this relate to the Bee? The Minoans had a word for Bee, and they called it ‘Sphex’ (Hilda Ransome, The Sacred Bee P64, 1937).
So what can we conclude from this revelation? The civilization that educated the Greeks in the craft of Beekeeping used the word ‘Sphex’ to describe the Bee – and the Greeks named the rock statue ‘Sphinx’. Entertaining the scenario for a moment; does this mean that the Pharaoh Khafre re-shape the Sphinx with the intent of concealing its Mother Goddess influenced origins? Could the 4th Dynasty have involved an attempt to suppress the cult of the Mother Goddess and conceal the importance of the Goddess Neith – the Goddess that existed before the other Gods? Was the Sphinx already present when Menes first established Kingship and was it known that the Sphinx represented the Bee, hence the Pharaoh’s title, Beekeeper?
The analysis is speculative, and further etymological work is required. At a cursory glance, the Online Etymology Dictionary states that the definition of ‘Sphinx’ includes: “Monster, having a lion’s (winged) body and a woman’s head.” Further, ‘Sphex’ in ancient Greek and contemporary language refers to Wasps – a form of Bee. Once again, expert etymological work beckons, but the implication that the Sphinx might in some way, shape, or form, represent the Bee remains highly intriguing, and as we shall see in our second instalment, legends of lions and bees and winged sphinx’s are quite common in the ancient world.
Further in the next installment, we will explore the decidedly feminine and winged Sphinxes of the Greek tradition in more detail, for lo and behold, they resemble Bees. We will also discover that another pyramid building culture may shed further light on the matter – the Mayans; a civilization that worshiped the Bee like few others. We will also review the veneration and importance of the Bee across many different cultures and epochs, right up to modern times. Not surprisingly, the lost esoteric significance of the Bee appears to be quite prevalent and significant. But is the Bee, like its once powerful symbolism, at risk of becoming extinct?