An Ancient Friend: Bees in Mythology

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The Human – Honeybee relationship goes back for thousands of years.  Pretty much to the dawn of human history.

There are rock paintings of the spiritual nature that were done by the San (Bushmen) of South Africa and still reside and have descendants in Kalahari.  Many of these rock paintings are filled with depictions and bees and bee nests.  You would gather that if there is that much art and concentration (especially spiritually) on the honeybee then they must have played a large role in civilization and culture of the time…The Stone Age!

A Creation Story with a Bee

The bee is actually in the creation myth of the San people of South Africa.  The story says that a tired bee, near exhaustion from carrying a mantis across the river.  The bee was near death so she placed the mantis gently on a floating flower…then died.   However, just prior to death the bee was able to plant a seed inside the mantis and that seed became the first human.

cave drawing of man and bees
Note the bees, the man, the hive and the bucket for collecting hone.

You can see from that story how important the honeybee was to these early people.

Beyond the Stone Age up until the beekeepers of ancient Egypt, there is a gap in the documentation or archaeological data about the honeybee.  But that doesn’t really matter.  You can see from the archaeological finds that do exist and then the very detailed information from ancient Egypt and beyond, that the honeybee played a large role in the spirituality and mythical powers (or stories of).  The honeybee often had the role of being the link between the world of nature and the underworlds of religions.

Beehives and Burials

While there are many depictions of bees and hives on ancients tombs and burial places, Mycenaean tombs were shaped like beehives!

According to the ancient Greeks, bees often hung around with a goddess named, Demeter.  She was the goddess that represented the soul sent to hell…as well as the goddess of the Earth and crops.  In other cultures and traditions (Central Asia, Siberia, and South American) the bee symbolizes a soul flying to hell.

The Many Faces and Names of Bee Gods and Goddesses

Western Asia cultures and religions have a “great mother fertility goddess.  In different cultures this fertility goddess has various names; Ma, Anaita, Istar, Rhea, Cybele, Artemis, Atergatis, and Diana.  These people worshipped with fervor and the mother goddess frenzy reached its full height and potential in Ephesus (present-day Turkey) at the temple of Artemis.  There are two Roman wooden statues at the temple both depicting Artemis and decorated with bees.  Strikingly, is that the priests of Artemis were known as “Essenes” or “king bees”!

In Greek culture, the bee kings were likened to the bee nymphs (Mellissae) that are prominent in Greek mythology.  So, here’s the connection…  The bee nymphs took Apollo (Artemis’ twin) and gave him the power of prophecy.  The Apollo temple at Delphi and has its own priests and priestesses. The high priestess at Delphi (who was the recipient of Apollo’s prophecies) was known as the Delphic Bee.

Bees in Gods and Goddesses

Northern Europe

  • Nanosvelta, Romain-Germanic, Goddes-Carries a staff with a beehive on top in depictions.
  • Eastern Europe-The Poles, Livlanders, and Silesians-had a bee god called Babilos and a goddess called Austeia
  • Russia-bee god named Zosim (thought to be the inventor of beekeeping).  His image was placed in beehives for protection.
  • Russia-Indigenous people called “the Mondava” had a bee god who was thought to be the oldest son of their goddess mother.

India (Hindu)

  • The God of Love, Kama, is quite often shown with bees (as well as his Greek counterpart, Eros).  This is thought to mean the connection between nature and the bittersweet feeling and taste of love.
  • Vishnu, Indra, Krishna:  As a group, they are known as the “nectar-borne ones” or the Madhava.
  • Vishnu is often depicted as a blue bee sitting, standing or resting on a lotus flower.
  • Krishna is depicted with a blue bee on her forehead.
  • Siva, friendlier known as “the Destroyer” has another god-like form known as Madheri.  Madheri is often represented by a bee above a triangle.

Africa

  • In Egypt, bees were thought to be the tears of Ra, the Sun God as well as the giver of life and resurrection.
  • Kalahari is home to the Kung Bushmen and they believe that bees are the carriers of supernatural power.

The Ancient Mayans

  • These people kept native, stingless bees (we’ll talk more about these later).
  • They celebrated and worshipped the bee god (Ah Mucan Cab) during the 5th month of their 13 month calendar year. They freely drank a concoction called balaché, an alcoholic honey drink.
  • They also asked Ah Mucan Cab for abundant flowers for the bees to produce much honey.

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