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.
Anatomy of a female Honey Bee
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."
A Bee fossilized in amber over 100 hundred million years old - from Southeast Asia
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.
Honey Hunting in Spain – approximately 13,000 BC
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.
Bee Goddess, 5000 BC – Neolithic Spain
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.
Mother Goddess, thought to have been carved between 24,000–22,000 BC
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.
Dancing Bee Goddesses, from The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe
© Marija Gimbutas
Dancing Bee Goddess, from The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe
© Marija Gimbutas
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.
Bees as stick men, or schematized figures © Marija Gimbutas
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.
Goddess wearing a beehive tiara from Turkey, circa 8000 BC
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; a wall depicting a Beehive comb – 6600 BC © James Mellaart
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.
Beehive painting near Prince Regent River, Western Australia. © Eva Crane
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.
Tree bark carvings of men with bags of honey over their shoulders © Eva Crane | An old print showing Aboriginal men carrying sacks of honey over their shoulder
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.
Rock drawings from sacred store house of a group of Honey Ant Totem. © Eva Crane
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?
Sumerian stele – extraterrestrial Gods or Bee Goddess worship?
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.
A Bull statue with wings from Persepolis, another from Nimrod
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.
Common Dogon Symbols © http://www.artheos.org/eng/contents.html
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.
The Bee, next to the signature of Hatshepsut, the 5th Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty
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 Egyptian God RA, who cried Bees for tears
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.
A description of the Bee ideograph from
The Rosetta Stone: The Discoveries of Dr. Thomas Young:
The Classification of the Egyptian Alphabet by Champollion
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.”
Bee hieroglyph – Luxor © Kenneth J Stein
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.