When I was young, I imagined the manna that fell from heaven as being some sort of bread, possibly akin to communion wafers. It made sense to my young, Catholic, self.
Much later in life, I had to rethink the nature of manna, because of two books. One was the Poetic Edda, and the other was The Hive by Bee Wilson (a very appropriate name). Wilson’s book talks mainly about honey from the hive, but she does mention manna or meli, as the ancient Greeks called it, which falls from ash trees.
People collected and ate this exudation, just like they harvested maple and birch sap.The Greek belief that in the Golden Age people lived on acorns and honey dripping from the trees may come from this practice. (The infant Zeus, as we shall see, was fed on honey or possibly manna.)
The Manna Industry
Sicily had a flourishing “manna” industry until modern times. The harvesters cut into the trees with a special knife called a mannarolo and collected the sap. (Lanza: 39) Until the 1950s the sap was shipped to the Italian mainland to be used in bitters like Fermet Branca. A panettone-like bread called manneto made locally used the sap, too. (40)
Norse myth combines the effortless nature of manna with the mystery of where bees get honey from:
I know an ash-tree stands called Yggdrasil,
a high tree, soaked with shining loam;
from there come the dews which fall in the valley,
ever green, it stands over the well of fate.
(Vsp. 19, Larrington’s trans.)
The dew that falls from it on to the earth, this is what people call honeydew, and from this bees feed.
(Snorri/Faulkes, Gylf. 17)
Apparently, according to Dumont and others, ash trees do exude a sugary substance from their branches and leaves, which if left turns liquid and can then be fermented. Four species of European ash do this, including Fraxinus excelsior, which grows in the far north and was probably the model for Yggdrasil, and F. ornus, which grows in Greece. (2)
And in Greek myth we find another connection between ash-trees and honey, this time in the form of the nymphs called Meliai, Zeus’ baby-sitters. They were created, along with the Giants and Furies, when Saturn overthrew his father Ouranos. When the next generation (the Olympians) came along, they acted as nursemaids for their infant leader.
The Meliai were ash-tree nymphs, (melíai means ash trees) but Zeus’ diet has led some (including A. B. Cook) to see them as honey or honey-bee nymphs. (Dumont: 2)
Aristotle, Pliny (who thought it might fall from the stars) and others speculated about honeydew falling from the skies, which is not as weird as it seems. We know some trees have liquid running from them in summer, but far from being star-drippings, it is excreted by aphids and other sapsucking insects. The dripping gooey stuff is the sap that has gone through the insect, so to speak.
Bee Wilson, who has done the hard work for us, says “it tastes of its origins”. (145) You can buy it online, should you wish to find out for yourself. During high summer in Paris the tree-lined avenues can be sticky with the stuff. (Should you want to collect your own.)
The Goat, Honey, and Milk
Zeus’ childhood and the Norse Valhalla both featured a nourishing goat. Zeus had the goat Amalthea for his nurse, and his nymph-nurses mixed her milk with honey.
The Norse Heidrun fed off the world-tree, and gave streams of mead from her udders, which the warriors of Valhalla drank.The difference in the myths may arise because you would not, after all, give an infant alcohol, but in both cases the nourishment from the tree combines milk and honey.
In Hindu mythology, the Soma is called honey that falls from the skies, and one verse compares the soma to a “ruddy branch of a tree”. (Dumont: 7) It seems a distant echo of the ash-tree dripping honey, although ash trees do not grow in India, except high in the Himalayas.
Honey and Hyperborea
A final note from Pausanias’ Description of Greece:
They say that the most ancient temple of Apollo was made of laurel, the branches of which were brought from the laurel in Tempe. This temple must have had the form of a hut. The Delphians say that the second temple was made by bees from bees-wax and feathers, and that it was sent to the Hyperboreans by Apollo.[10.5.9]
(trans W. H. S. Jones)
Presumably the temple was meant to house him when he was away in the north. It seems a long reach, but traders may have brought back stories from the North of a golden hall and a tree that rained honey.
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996
The Elder Edda, Andy Orchard (trans.) Penguin Classics, 2011 (Kindle).
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
Description of Greece Pausanias/W. H. S. Jones
Cook, Arthur Bernard 1895: “The Bees in Greek Mythology” in The Journal of Hellenic Study 15: 1-24.
Dumont, Darl J. 1992: “The Ash Tree In Indo-European Culture” in Mankind Quarterly, XXXII: 4, Summer 1992: 323-336.
Lanza, Anna Tasca 2005: “Sicilian Manna: A Sweet Gift of Nature”, in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 5: 1 (Winter 2005), pp. 38-40.
Wilson, Bee 2005: The Hive: the Story of the Honeybee and Us, John Murray.
The image at the top comes from Wikimedia.