The remarkable service that Bees provide as pollinators of plants and trees and producers of life-affirming nectar has largely been taken for granted. Only when Bees started to disappear and actually die in alarming numbers did popular culture take notice, and only then out of a morbid sort of curiosity. But it has not always been this way. In fact, Bees were venerated in prehistory and revered in ancient cultures far and wide, especially Egypt. So how did the veneration of the Bee evolve from there? In The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford reflect on the importance of the Bee in one region in particular - the Mediterranean; “Bees have an ancient reputation as the bringers of order, and their hives served as models for organizing temples in many Mediterranean cultures.” As we shall see, these same cultures also worshiped bulls, and in doing so extended an ancient and sacred tradition into a new age.
A Minoan bull statue
The ancient Mediterranean is renowned for its sophisticated and artistically rich cultures, and the Minoans – a Bronze Age mercantile society with an extraordinary reach in overseas trade were arguably its first emissary. Few symbols were as prolific in Minoan life as the bull. The sacred creature graced Minoan frescos in palaces and temples, and the ritual of bull-leaping was an especially popular phenomena. According to scholars, the ritual consisted of an initiate leaping over a bull while grabbing its horns in order to antagonize the animal into catapulting them upwards, and while in the air, they would perform a variety of aerobic stunts before collapsing on the bull. The explanation lacks realism, promoting some to speculate that the bull-leaper may symbolically have represented Theseus, the mythical hero-king of Athens, leaping over the constellation of Taurus, the bull. Could this scenario represent the regeneration of the king’s reign and potency as a ruler – a sort of Minoan Heb-Sed Festival? Regardless of the rituals true meaning, one thing for certain is that the Minoan’s fascination with the bull was real, tangible and freely expressed in their art.
Bull Leaper, an ivory carving from the palace of Knossos, Crete
The British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans was the first to coin the name "Minoan", naming it after King Minos; a mystical figure who commissioned Daedalus – “the cunning worker” to design the legendary labyrinth. Evans believed the labyrinth was real, not mythical, and that it existed in the Cretan capital of Knossos; the ceremonial and political centre of Minoan civilization. Descriptions of the labyrinth recall an image of a Beehive with winding passages guiding souls on a journey through the afterlife. And lest we forget that shamanic Bee inspired drawings in Aboriginal Australia portray what appears to be the precursor to the now familiar labyrinth design. Additionally, the ‘north house’ in Knossos has been identified by archaeologists as a site where rituals of human sacrifice were preformed, including offerings of young children to the gods. Might the Minoans have also offered bulls to the gods, and if so may this have been the true function of the labyrinth? Might the labyrinth have been an ancient bull necropolis for the regeneration of souls, like the Saqqara Serapeum?
Coin from Knossos depicting the Minotaur Labyrinth
In Knossos, jars called pithoi were used to store honey in preparation for the mid summer New Years celebration. Like many societies before them, the Minoans considered honey to be the nectar of the gods and an important intoxicant in rituals that honoured the deities on their feast days. Once again, Marija Gimbutas, author of the respected work, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, comments on the tradition;
“Two lion-headed ginii clad in Bee skins hold jugs over horns from which new life springs in the shape of a plant. What do these jugs contain? – probably food of the Gods produced by the bee.”
Honey Jars – Knossos
Honey was also regarded as an elixir in Mediterranean societies; a magic potion that ensured a long and healthy life. The Roman Emperor Augustus once asked a centenarian how he managed to live to the ripe old age of 100, only to have the man reply, "Oil without and honey within." The legendary Greek mathematician Pythagoras, whose life spanned the greater part of the 6th century BC, attributed his longevity to a steady diet of honey. In addition to being an elixir, honey was a healing substance with a variety of medicinal uses. Legend states that the Greek sea god Glaucus, the son of Minos and Pasiphae, was restored to life when buried in a jar of honey. The story reminds us of Alexandra the Great, who requested that he be wrapped in honey as part of his burial preparation for the same reason. Each example reinforces the belief that honey preserves the remains of the deceased, and in fact honey discovered in ancient tombs has remained edible thousands of years after it was first processed.
The importance of Beekeeping in Minoan society was expressed in many different ways, as Gimbutas recounts; “The Apiculture of the Minoans is documented by Hieroglyphs, representing actual beehives, engraved images and myths.” Further, Bee authority Hilda Ransome suggests that the Minoan hieroglyphs for Palace and Bee; “are grouped together in such a way that they probably denote a royal title.” Each quote recalls the role of the Bee in ancient societies and confirms that the old traditions were preserved into a new age.
Minoan Gold Bee pendant from Crete, circa 2000 BC
The Minoans were expert Beekeepers who taught the craft of apiculture to the Greeks. Once again, we turn to Gimbutas for insight; “Many gold rings of Minoan workmanship from Crete and Greece portray the bee-headed goddess or the same goddess holding bull’s horns above her head.” Below, an onyx gem from Knossos dating to approximately 1500 BC illustrates a Bee goddess with bull horns above her head, just as Gimbutas describes. In this instance, the figure is surrounded by dogs with wings, most likely representing Hecate and Artemis - gods of the underworld, similar to the Egyptian gods Akeu and Anubis. The image recalls illustrations of dancing Bee goddesses from thousands of years before.
Onyx Gem from Knossos, Crete – 1500 BC
Like the Minoans, the Greeks held the Bee sacred and featured it prominently in their mythology. Not only did the Greeks believe that honey was ‘the food of the gods’ and that Bees were born of bulls, they believed that Bees were intricately entwined in the everyday lives of their gods. Take for example Zeus, the Greek ‘King of the Gods’ who was born in a cave and raised by Bees, earning him the title Melissaios, or Bee-man. Similarly Dionysus, the Greek god of ritual madness, ecstasy, and wine was called the Bull God and was fed honey as a baby by the nymph Makris, daughter of Aristaeus, the protector of flocks - and Bees.
Additionally, Dionysus was said to have assumed the form of a bull before being torn to pieces and reborn as a Bee. Intriguingly, the cult of Dionysus consisted of a group of frenzied female worshippers called Maenads’s (Greek) or Bacchante’s (Roman), who were renowned for their dancing and who were believed to have had wings. Might these bull worshiping maidens have been Bee priestesses?
Bacchante leading the Dionysian bull to the altar, from a Bas-relief in the Vatican
The title Melissaios - or Bee-man, has a feminine counterpart in Mediterranean cultures called Melissa, of which Hilda Ransome informs us; “The title Melissa, the Bee, is a very ancient one; it constantly occurs in Greek Myths, meaning sometimes a priestess, sometimes a nymph.” This is an important observation, for the tradition of dancing Bee goddesses appears to have been preserved in a form of Bee maidens known as Melissa’s – or nymphs, and Greek deities such as Rhea and Demeter were widely known to have held the title. Additionally, the Greeks frequently referred to ‘Bee-Souls’ and bestowed the title of ‘Melissa’ on unborn souls. The 3rd century Greek philosopher and mathematician Porphyry of Tyre believed that souls arrived on earth in the form of Bees, having descended from the moon goddess Artemis, and that they were lured to terrestrial life by the promise of earthly delights, such as honey. Ironically, honey was also a symbol of death and was frequently used as an offering to the gods. The dualistic quality of honey is no coincidence, as the nectar and its maker – the Bee, appear to represent the very cycle of existence. One could say that as the Bee returns to its hive, so the Melissa returns to its god in the afterlife; the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning.
The definition of Melissa – the Honeybee
Bees, Melissa’s and caves go hand in hand in Mediterranean mythology – as we saw with Zeus, however the tradition may have commenced with the Bronze Age Mycenaean culture (1500 - 1100 BC) on the island of Ithaca in the Ionian Sea. The island, which was featured in Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad – the first Greek work to feature Bees - and the Odyssey, is renowned for a sacred cave with a curious double entrance; one passage orientated to Boreas – the god of the northern wind, and the other to Notus – the god of the southern wind. The cave was home to Bee goddess nymphs – or Melissa’s called Nagaden. Here Bees deposited honey in stone containers and traveled through the Boreas entrance in order to appease the god of the southern winds, who was known for destroying crops and giving rise to the planet Sirius in late summer. The portal was believed to be a divine ‘Path of the Gods’ that no mortal was permitted to cross, and even today the cave remains elusive to the casual traveler, residing in near anonymity in the vicinity of an ancient Olive tree believed to be at least 1500 years old.
The ancient Olive Tree near the entrance to the sacred Bee cave on Ithaca
In many ways the Greeks were students of the Minoans, and one example of this is Beekeeping. The Minoans taught the Greeks the importance of Beekeeping with respect to their agricultural, medicinal and ritualistic well being, and the Greeks rapidly developed their own mythology around the practice. In the process of assimilating the insect and its valuable by-products into their culture, the Greeks would have been aware that the Minoan word for Bee was ‘Sphex’, and as we know, the Greeks renamed the rather indistinct looking statue on Giza plateau ‘Sphinx’. Coincidently, or perhaps out of respect for their Minoan elders the Greeks proceeded to feature sphinx’s in their own art, and not only was their design highly feminine, but it added an element not previously found in earlier designs; they added wings.
Two classical Greek sphinxes – each feminine and with wings
While the implication that Greek sphinx’s were inspired by Bee goddesses is both alluring and romantic, further etymological analysis is required before the notion has any real validity. However, it is safe to say that the sphinx appears to most to be the head of a lioness of some description. And curiously, the tradition of lion guardians presiding over a sacred complex – ala Akeru, the two Egyptian gods who presided over the Giza complex, is also found in second millennium BC Greece. Here, one of the most famous images from antiquity – the Lion Gate, hovers stoically over the ancient centre of early Greek civilization; a military and cultural stronghold located 90 km south-west of Athens that was known by the name of Mycenae.
The Lion Gate - Mycenae
Like the Bee and the bull, Bee and lion symbolism go hand in had in Greek mythology, as Hilda Ransome so eloquently describes:
“In a grave in north-west Peloponnese were found two pin heads, dated fifth century BC. From the volutes spring four lions, their paws resting on the cone, and between the forepaws of each rises a spiral ornament; in the spaces between the spirals are four bees, modelled with absolute realism, even to the veining of the wings. Between them are three lions, and on the bud itself there are three bees, each sucking from a small bud, and between the bees are three tiny sphinxes.”
Further, Ransome adds; “Another link between the lion and the bee is found on an Etruscan gem.” Like the bull and the Bee, did the symbolism of Bees, lions and sphinx’s once have a special meaning, now lost?
Mycenae also featured a Beehive shaped tomb style called thalamus. The choice of the Bee’s hive as the model for their most important tombs reinforces the significance that Mycenaean culture placed on the Bee in the afterlife, and suggests that its reputation as a symbol of resurrection may have been inherited from the Egyptians and Sumerians before them.
Mycenaean tomb of Tholos – 1500 BC
Archaeologists have also uncovered statues of female goddesses draped in honey laden tiaras, buried amongst other Mycenaean tomb artifacts. The finds are nearly identical to 10,000 year old statues discovered in Turkey that represent the mother goddess ‘streaming with honey’. The discovery of such a find in Mycenaean tombs is consistent with the goddess culture of the day and a society that was highly matriarchal. The statue also resembles the dancing goddess motif that appears to have originated in Sumerian culture before spreading to Egypt.
Minoan Bee Goddess – laden with honey - Mycenae
At Delphi, site of the most important oracle in the ancient world, legend asserts that the second temple was constructed entirely by Bees. In fact, the Oracle itself – the Omphalos Stone, resembles a Beehive and is designed with crisscrossing rows of Bee-like symbols, reminiscent of the ‘Net dress’ worn by Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky and keeper of the title She Who Holds a Thousand Souls.
The apparently Bee inspired Omphalos Stone - Delphi
Another instance where the Bee is linked with sacred stones is the story of the goddess Rhea, whose titles included Mother of the Gods, Queen of Heaven and Goddess of Fertility and Generation. Rhea was the wife of the Titan Kronos, who feared a prophecy that stipulated that he would soon be killed by one of his offspring. Fearing for his life, Kronos proceeded to eat his children - one at a time - before they, could kill him. The Titan’s strategy worked, except for Zeus, who Rhea hid in the Cave of the Bee. By now, Rhea was wise to her husband’s strategy and needed to be especially clever should she hope to outwit him. Thus, in a final attempt to save her only surviving son, Rhea wrapped a large stone in cloth, creating the appearance that it was in fact a child, and presented it to Kronos as his last remaining offspring, which he promptly devoured believing it was Zeus. To this day, Greeks hold their Easter ritual in Crete’s Cave of the Bee, the same cave where Rhea gave birth to Zeus, who in turn fathered Artemis, arguably the most famous Bee goddess in all of Greek mythology – as we shall see.
The cave where Rhea gave birth to Zeus © Maicar Forlag
Yet another link between the Bee and a sacred stone is Cybele, the ancient Mother goddess of Neolithic Anatolia who was revered by the Greeks as a Goddess of Bees and Caves. Curiously, Cybele was often worshipped in the form of a meteoritic stone, or a stone from heaven. Cybele was also known as Sybil - an oracle of the ancient near east who was known to the Greeks as Sibyls. The name inspired Sybil, the title of seer priestesses for hundreds of years to come, as illustrated below in a series of paintings by the German artist Herman tom Ring (1521-1597).
A Sybil, from a series by the artist Herman tom Ring
Similarly, the god Apollo anointed Pythia, his chief oracular priestess at Delphi, with the title ‘the Delphic Bee’. In ancient Greece, a High Priestess was considered to be the Queen Bee, and her rituals required honey to induce states of spiritual ecstasy. Thus, it would appear that the tradition of Bee goddesses continued with Melissa’s, Sybil’s and Delphic Bee priestesses. Might they be different titles for the same exalted position?
Pythia – the ‘Delphic Bee’ sitting on the Delphic Tripod Cauldron
Apollo was one of the most important gods in the Greek Pantheon and was known as the God of Truth and Prophecy. Remarkably, he is said to have provided a gift of Bees to Hermes; the god of otherworldly boundaries and transformation of souls. The legend is recounted in the 8th century Homeric Hymn to Hermes, for here Apollo alludes to his gift including three female Bee-Maidens who practiced divination;
“There are some Fates sisters born,
maidens three of them, adorned with swift wings.
Their heads are sprinkled over with white barley meal,
wind they make their homes under the cliffs of Parnassus.
They taught divination far off from me, the art I used to practice
round my cattle while still a boy.”
Hermes steals Apollo’s cattle © Photo by R. Schoder
The legendary Greek god Poseidon carried the title God of the Sea and hailed from Rhodes; site of many fine Bee artefacts from antiquity. In fact, one of Poseidon’s sons was a Beekeeper named Eiyrieus. Another was Theseus, who as a young man became renowned for killing the half-man | half-bull Minotaur that had become trapped inside the labyrinth. This is the same Theseus who some believe is portrayed jumping over the constellation of Taurus - the bull, in frescos that depict the Minoan bull-leaping ritual. Might Theseus’s killing of the Minotaur be an example of a ritualistic bull sacrifice and if so might this suggest that the labyrinth was in fact a place where Mithraism was practiced and that the bull-leaping ritual was the Minoan equivalent of the Egyptian Heb-Sed Festival? The notion is intriguing.
As an aside, the half man | half bull symbolism is peculiar but not entirely unique in Mediterranean mythology, for example Poseidon was worshiped as a bull on the citadel of Boeotian in Thebes. These details, combined with Apollo’s link with the Minotaur suggests an affiliation with Atlantis, as the legendary civilization is said to have featured a labyrinth and appears to be associated with the island of Crete; a culture that worshiped bulls, bees and lions.
Bust of the half-man, half-bull Minotaur: National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Another example of the Bee as an important element of Greek mythology is Pan, the god of all things wild and sexual, and the Greek God of Beekeeping. Icarus is another example. The Greek god was the son of Daedalus – the master craftsman who built the labyrinth for King Minos, and who is infamous for having flown too close to the sun before falling to earth after his Beeswax constructed feathers started to melt. And then we have Cyrene, a Beekeeper and one of 50 nymphs who road dolphins in the Mediterranean. As we have seen, Nymphs are synonymous with Bee goddesses, but could the number 50, which is associated with the planet Sirius, also be related to the Bee?
The Beeswax wings of Icarus begin to melt as he flies too close to the sun
Still another example of Bee veneration in Greek mythology is Aphrodite, the nymph-goddess of midsummer who is renowned for murdering the king and tearing out his organs just as the Queen Bee does to the drone. Aphrodite’s priestesses, who are known as Melissa’s, are said to have displayed a golden honeycomb at her shrine on Mount Eryx. The mythologist Robert Graves spoke of Butes - a priest to Athene who lived on Mount Eryx and was allegedly the most famous Beekeeper of antiquity. Butes represented the love-god Phanes, who is often depicted as Eircepaius - a loud buzzing Bee. Graves also states in his authoritative work, ‘The Greek Myths’ that Plato identified Athene with the Egyptian goddess Neith, who as we have seen, is associated with the Bee in a multitude of ways.
Melissa, the Bee goddess of Mount Eryx
Further, evidence suggests that Artemis was in fact the most renowned patron of the Bee in all of Greece. As the daughter of Zeus and twin sister to Apollo, Artemis was the goddess of nature, particularly forests, hills, rocky outcroppings and rivers; all natural habitats of Bees. Artemis’s Roman equivalent was the goddess Diana, and statues of Artemis | Diana from the Anatolian city of Ephesus portray her covered in eggs, which some have identified as Bee eggs given that a typical Queen Bee will lay tens of thousands of eggs in her short lifetime. Alternatively, others believe that the abundance of small spherical objects represent bull testicles. In either case, the connection between Ephesus and the Bee is irrefutable, for "Ephesos" is thought to derive from the word "Apasas", which was the name of the city in the Bronze Age and a pre-Greek word meaning Bee. Bees are often depicted on statues of Artemis | Diana and her headdress frequently hints at a Beehive style design.
Statues of Artemis | Diana from Ephesus (‘the Bee’) showing Bee eggs or bull testicles, Bees and a Beehive styled headdress
The influence of Greek culture spread far and wide and images of winged sphinxes, bulls and Bees soon reached many a distant shore. For instance, the ancient Romans relied heavily on Bees for warfare and deployed Beehives as catapult projectiles in battle, although the success of the technique ultimately depleted the supply of Bees in central Italy. However, the roots of Bee symbolism in Roman mythology run far deeper than warfare. In fact, they date back to Mithraism, a mystery religion practiced in Rome between the 1st and 4th centuries, as well as in other provinces, such as Britain.
Very little is known about Mithraism, besides the fact that it involved the ritualistic slaughter of bulls and that it is linked with the concept of regeneration. Like other mystery schools, its principal rituals were maintained orally and never written down. Some believe that Mithras is connected with the constellation of Orion, due to its proximity to Taurus. If true, this further binds Mithraism with Osiris and the regenerative aspect of the Apis Bull, which hearkens back to the Saqqara Serapeum; a necropolis that may have served as a ritualistic centre for the regeneration of souls in the form of Bees.
Mithras and the Bull: Italian fresco from the mithraeum at Marino, Italy
So clearly we can see a pattern here; societies that worshiped the bull also seem to have venerated the Bee. And in Roman mythology there are many examples of Bee veneration. For example, the Roman Bee goddess was named Mellonia and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, philosopher and some would argue the world's first Socialist, coined the phrase; "What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee." Likewise Lycurgus, founder of Sparta, built his model for the perfect Spartan government on the social strata observed in the Beehive. Bees were depicted on coins throughout the ancient world, such as Sicily, where a Bee is featured on a 7th century BC coin. And in Rhodes – the ancient home of Poseidon, an 8th century gold plague depicts a decidedly Egyptian looking sphinx with a Bee headdress and sternum.
Gold Plaque form Rhodes and a Bee Coin from Sicily
The dissemination of Bee symbolism was propagated by the work of many famous artists of the day, including writers such as Plato, who as we discussed in our first installment, wrote of Solon’s enlightenment at the temple of Neith in Egypt. Plato and other writers such as Virgil and Sophocles were called ‘birds of the muses’ due to the belief that as infants, their lips were touched by Bees. Their initiation by Bees was thought to have transformed their lives and set their destiny as great orators, poets and philosophers. Sophocles in particular confirms his patronage to the Bee with a haunting turn of a phrase; “the swarm of the dead hums.” However, Homer was the first Greek writer to reference Bees in his work, the Iliad;
“Even as when the tribes of thronging Bees issue from some hollow rock, ever in fresh procession, and fly clustering among the flowers in spring, and some on this side, and some on that side fly thick.”
Additionally, writers such as Virgil, and a Byzantine by the name of Florentinus - author of the Geoponica, recorded the ancient and undeniably gruesome death ritual performed on bulls. Florentinus tells us that the ritual was ideally preformed while the sun was in Taurus and involved beating the bull to death in a dark and confined space. The dead animal was left for three weeks before being inspected and re-sealed for another 10 days. After the next visit, the bull’s flesh would have mostly evaporated, leaving only clusters of Bees where the flesh once hugged the bone. Interestingly, images evoked from Florentinus’s lucid description feel suspiciously like a mithraeum – a dark and windowless cave or building where Mithraism was preformed.
A Roman Mithraeum