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The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore

The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore

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by Hilda M. Ransome

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No creature has provided man with so much wholesome food as the honey bee. Equally impressive is the number of beliefs and superstitions the industrious insect has inspired. Its honey, which was known to the ancient Greeks as the “food of the Gods,” played an important role in early religious rites and was also mentioned in the folklore of many peoples


No creature has provided man with so much wholesome food as the honey bee. Equally impressive is the number of beliefs and superstitions the industrious insect has inspired. Its honey, which was known to the ancient Greeks as the “food of the Gods,” played an important role in early religious rites and was also mentioned in the folklore of many peoples. Hilda Ransome's well-documented and copiously illustrated study of bees focuses on this valuable byproduct of nature and its creator — the "sacred" bee.
Chapters cover the folklore of bees and bee culture — from Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese, Hittite, and other ancient sources as well as practices in modern England, France, and Central Europe. Thirty-five plates of rare black-and-white illustrations depict bees, hives, and beekeepers as they appear in ancient paintings and sculpture, on coins, jewelry, and Mayan glyphs; and carved into African tree trunks. Folk stories from Finland and the bee in America are also described.
Hailed by The New York Times as possessing an "oddity, beauty, and broad scholarly interest," this unusual book will attract a wide audience — nature lovers and folklore enthusiasts included.

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The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore

By Hilda M. Ransome

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12298-4



Honey used by primitive man—Bee regarded with reverence and awe—Fossil forms— ?Apis adamitica"—Rock painting of man and bees' nest at Bicorp, Spain

OF bees especially the proverb holds good, "Truth is stranger than fiction." Among all the members of the insect world bees and ants have aroused greater interest than any others, but it is the bees who have been of paramount use to man. As we look back upon their history we become more and more convinced that it is impossible to over-estimate their value to man in the past.

What veneration and yet what fear these tiny creatures excited in man! They exercise a fascination even on those who fear their sting, and all who tend them have quite a peculiar love and regard for them which they do not feel for other animals, and which is a bond of union between all beekeepers; they feel that they belong to a fraternity which reckons Vergil among their number. From the dawn of human society the nature and origin of the bee have awakened the curiosity and interest of man. For thousands of years honey was the only sweetening material known, and it is quite natural that in ancient times the little busy creature who produced this sweet food should have been regarded with reverence and awe.

Man very early discovered that honey was good for his health, and that a sparkling, fermented drink could be made from it, so it can easily be understood that he came to regard honey as a true "giver of life," a substance necessary to existence like water and milk. He held the bee to be a creature of special sanctity connected with those things which seemed to him so mysterious—birth, death, and reincarnation. Thus have arisen those folktales and customs relating to bees which are found among so many different peoples. The very widespread custom of telling the bees of occurrences which happen in their owner's family would not have arisen had they not been credited with almost supernatural powers. This custom still lingers; quite recently a woman in Sussex said that the death of her baby was due to her having omitted to tell the bees of its birth.

The scientific name of the European honey bee is Apis mellifica, the honey-maker, and its history can be traced back to a period long before man appeared on the earth, as there actually have been found in various rocks fossil remains of this

Active, eager, airy thing,
Ever hovering on the wing,

as Aristophanes called the bee nearly two thousand five hundred years ago.

Some of the oldest fossil bees are found in the amber of the Baltic coast, and they so resemble our honey bee that scientists have regarded them as their ancestors. A fossil bee, which is illustrated on Plate II and in Fig. 1, was found at Oehningen in Baden, and it is also so like our bee that it was named by its discoverer A. adamitica, though pre-adamitica would have been a more correct name, as this bee lived and gathered honey before there were any men on the earth. Its legs and antennae are missing, but its head, thorax, and abdomen can distinctly be recognized, and also one large eye.

Central Europe was probably the region where the different races of bees developed, for the oldest forms have been found there. All these fossil bees were as fully developed as the honey bees of the present day; that is, they built combs, reared their young, looked after the mother-bee just as they do now, and formed the same industrious state whose organization has been for ages the wonder and admiration of man. Man has done nothing to develop them; he has given them modern appliances which help them to store more surplus honey for him, but the character and work of the bees remain the same, and we can never describe them as really domesticated animals; they often, as beekeepers know to their cost, display independence of character; it has been truly said that "Bees never do anything invariably."

When did early man discover that honey was good for food and drink? We can never answer that question positively, but it must have been long ages ago, for there is definite proof that he was taking honey in late Paleolithic times, that is, perhaps ten thousand to fifteen thousand years ago. In 1919 a wonderful series of rock paintings were discovered in the Araña (Spider) Cave at Bicorp, near Valencia in Spain, most of which were hunting scenes in which extinct as well as existing animals were portrayed, thus proving their antiquity. One of these drawings represents a unique scene, reproduced on Fig. 2, where two men are climbing up a very rudimentary ladder, probably made of esparto grass, which grows abundantly in the neighbourhood. One of the men is by a natural hole in the rocks (there are many like it in the rocks around), he is holding on to the ladder with one hand and in the other he carries a basket of some sort, perhaps made of skin, the handle of which can be clearly seen. The figures painted on the wall around him are bees in flight, which have come out of their nest in the hole. The head, abdomen, legs, and extended wings may be distinguished on some of them. The man lower down carries a bag, similar to that the first man holds, but on his back so as to have his hands free. The ropes, on account of his weight, are not vertical, so probably this man is climbing up to bring down the honey which the other man is taking out of the nest. Both men are naked and so without any protection against the stings of the bees, but they seem to have something on their heads.

This scene was drawn when man was still in the hunting stage of civilization, before he had begun to domesticate any animals, except perhaps the dog. His food would be flesh and fish; he would have no bread, for there was no agriculture; no milk, for he had no cattle, but he had found in the wild bees' nests the sweet food which must have been such a welcome addition to his simple fare. Perhaps, too, he had already discovered that an intoxicating drink could be made from it; for mead in some form was certainly one of the earliest, if not the first, fermented drinks known.

Honey must first have been obtained from nests in rocks or in hollow trees within easy reach. The hunters would carefully mark each nest, watching the bees fly in and out, but this picture shows that honey was wanted sufficiently for the men to venture naked up a frail ladder to get it, which seems to imply that it was wanted for very special reasons, which gave them courage. Possibly honey was already used for magical or religious purposes, and man had begun to offer it to the spirits of his dead, a custom which is found in some of the earliest known religious rites.

Many of the pictures of animals found at Altamira and other places in Spain and the South of France seem to have been drawn under a magico-religious impulse. Man appears, even at that early period, to have had a belief in invisible powers, and he probably thought that these paintings somehow helped him to carry out a successful hunt, and this drawing of the bees was therefore possibly made in the belief that it would aid and protect him when really collecting the honey he so much needed. Many natives of Asia and Africa at the present day take honey when only very scantily clad, believing that they are protected by having performed some religious observances, which vary in different tribes, but in all cases have for their object a magical increase in the yield of honey.

After this painting there is a gap in our knowledge of bees for many thousands of years. Possibly the perforated clay vessels which have been found among the Neolithic lake pile dwellings of Switzerland may have been used for straining honey; at certain temperatures the honey would flow through the holes leaving the wax behind. This suggestion is rendered more probable by the fact that a similar way of straining honey is still used in the Emmental and also in the Bernese Jura. If it is true it would prove that Neolithic man had discovered some of the many uses of wax. The writings of the Ancient East will, however, provide the next authentic information of the sacred bees.



Bee used as symbol for king of Lower Egypt from about 3500 B.C. till Roman times— Relief from Temple of Ne-user-re at Abusir—Beekeepers' petition— ?Wanderbienenzucht"—Use of wax for magic figures—Burial in honey—How to make a mummy—Honey as tribute—Honey in religious rites—Given to sacred animals— Ceremony of ?Opening the Mouth"—Bee souls—Origin of bees

BEES and honey are mentioned in the oldest literatures of the world, for honey is often alluded to in the Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform writings, laws about bees are included in a Hittite code, the sacred writings of India, the Vedas, contain frequent mention of bees and honey, and in ancient Egypt, besides many allusions in its literature, we have the earliest known use of the bee as a symbol. About 3500 B.C. or even earlier, when the two countries of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under one ruler, it was used as the hieroglyph to denote the king of Lower Egypt, that for the king of Upper Egypt was the reed. In the Kahun papyrus there is a reference to this union:

He hath united the two lands,
He hath joined the Reed to the Bee.

This bee hieroglyph, denoting the king of Lower Egypt, is found on inscriptions from the First Dynasty down to the Roman period, that is, for about four thousand years. On Fig. 3 (a-l) are represented types of the hieroglyph used at various periods (a, b, i also show the reed). In nearly all cases the head, antennae, thorax, and abdomen are clearly distinguishable, and the wings, only two of the four being shown, are erect. The bee is always drawn in profile and in the earliest times the number of legs depicted was usually three, but in the later dynasties and in Ptolemaic times four legs were drawn, which is strange for an observant people like the early Egyptians; they might have shown all six, as their idea of perspective was somewhat faulty.

Egypt is described in the Bible as a land, like Canaan, "flowing with milk and honey." It was probably the first land where agriculture and cattle-rearing were practised, and where there is pasture and fodder for cattle there will be plenty of food for bees. It is not known when the inhabitants began to keep the wild bees in hives, but already in pre-dynastic times they must have known a good deal about bee life, have observed the communal life of the bee-state, and the one large bee among the crowd, before they chose it to denote their king; and as the royal symbol means "He who belongs to the bee," or perhaps, originally, the "beekeeper," and there was as early as the first dynasty an official called the "Sealer of the Honey," it seems probable that it was an industry before the union of the two kingdoms.

It is, however, nearly one thousand years after the introduction of the bee as a symbol before we have direct evidence of the existence of beekeeping. In 1900 a German expedition, excavating at Abusir, found a relief which shows the industry in such an advanced condition that it must have been practised for a very long period.

This relief, which is illustrated by the Frontispiece, belongs to a series representing the seasons found in the Temple of the Sun, built about 2600 B.C. by Ne-user-re of the Fifth Dynasty. The hieroglyphs, which divide the relief into four groups, reading from left to right, have been translated as "Blowing or smoking, filling, pressing, sealing of honey." On the extreme left a man is kneeling before the hives, taking out honey. He has something in his hand, possibly a block of dried cow dung, like those still used by Egyptian beekeepers of the present day for smoking the bees. The hives are nine in number, placed one above the other, and were probably pipes made of burnt clay, tapering slightly towards the end, very similar to the hives made of pipes of clay or Nile mud which are used in Egypt to-day (see Plate III). The same type of hive has thus persisted for over four thousand five hundred years.

The next scene shows three men who are filling various-shaped jars with honey. The third group, depicting the "pressing," is unfortunately damaged, but it evidently consists of two men who must be squeezing the honey into some jars. The last scene contains one figure only, a man who is kneeling and sealing up a curiously shaped vessel. He is probably sealing it at the top with the owner's seal. Two other jars of the same shape are already sealed above him, and between him and the last group are the hieroglyphs which describe the scenes.

Until lately it was not known if the ancient Egyptians practised what the Germans call Wanderbienenzucht, that is, moving the hives to different districts in order to take advantage of the earlier or later flowering plants, as our beekeepers take the hives to the heather when the ordinary honey flow is over. However, in 1914-15 a number of papyri were found which belonged to Zenon, a Greek official who lived at Philadelphia in the Fayum, about the middle of the third century before Christ. One of these documents is a "Petition from the Beekeepers," which runs:

To Zenon greeting from the Beekeepers of the Arsinoite nome. You wrote about the donkeys, that they were to come to Philadelphia and work ten days. But it is now eighteen days that they have been working and the hives have been kept in the fields, and it is time to bring them home and we have no donkeys to carry them back. Now it is no small impost that we pay the king. Unless the donkeys are sent at once, the result will be that the hives will be ruined and the impost lost. Already the peasants are warning us, saying, "We are going to release the water and burn the brushwood, so unless you remove them you will lose them." We beg you then, if it please you, to send us our donkeys, in order that we may remove them. And after removing them we will come back with the donkeys when you need them. May you prosper!

This interesting document proves that it was customary to move hives in the third century B.C., so it was probably a custom which had long been in use. In 1740 a French traveller, De Maillet, wrote that the people of Lower Egypt, recognizing that all plants flowered earlier in Upper Egypt than with them, sent their hives at the end of October up the Nile. When they arrived at their destination, they were numbered and placed in pyramidal form on rafts, specially built for this purpose. The bees were released and collected honey from the fields near by. When the flowers there were over, the rafts were moved a few miles farther down. Thus they passed through the whole of Egypt, arriving at Cairo at the beginning of February, where the produce of the expedition was sold. The removal of hives is practised to-day in Upper Egypt, either in boats or by land on camels and donkeys. The conservative Egyptians have thus preserved the usage of their forefathers to the present day.

Beekeeping must have been practised on a large scale in ancient Egypt, for honey was required by all classes. It was used in every household as a sweetening material; there is a marriage contract in existence which states: "I take thee to wife ... and promise to deliver to thee yearly twelve jars of honey." The physicians and magicians (in early times there was no great distinction between the two) were aware of its healing properties, and it figures largely in recipes in the Medical Papyri. Many of these prescriptions were handed down from generation to generation; the Greeks took them to Europe, and some are still in use among the peasantry of the present day.


Excerpted from The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore by Hilda M. Ransome. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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