A tablet in Linear B from Knossos reads:
To all the gods, honey
To the mistress of the labyrinth, honey.
The civilization at Knossos, on the island of Crete, preceded that of the Greeks. While it is hard to say exactly how much of the later Greek culture reflects that of the Cretans, both considered honey a gift worthy of the gods.
It might seem strange to us to connect insects with the divine, but bees have a long history in Greek myth, much of it centering on Crete. And honey continued to be an acceptable offering; the Olympians fed on it as well as the divine ambrosia.
The Greeks believed that bees reproduced asexually, and could be created from the bodies of the dead, especially those of oxen, making them both fertile and chaste, a puzzling contradiction. They were seen as a mirror of society, orderly and industrious, but they were also connected to the Muses and the dead. Honey was also common in medicine, thanks to its antiseptic properties.
The early Greek poet Pindar mentions “holy bees” in a love-poem (frag. 123). Two Roman authors, writing centuries later, agreed. A would-be philosopher in Petronius’ Satyricon opines: “Yes, and I hold the bees to be the most divine insects. They vomit honey, although people do say they bring it from Jupiter: and they have stings, because wherever you have a sweet thing there you will find something bitter too.”
Virgil in the Georgics also sees the bees as sacred animals:
Noting these tokens and examples some have said
that a share of divine intelligence is in bees,
and a draught of aether: since there is a god in everything,
Bees appear in art from the Minoan and Mycenean periods, both as insects and as hybrid forms like the ones below:
I have made these large so that you can see clearly the half-human half-bee figures. (The Thriai were bee-prophetesses who lived on Mt. Parnassos. More on them below.) A.B. Cook’s famous paper on bees in Greek mythology begins with a small golden image of a bee, from Crete, purchased by the British Museum.
Zeus was born on Crete, in a cave on Mt. Ida. There he was fed with goat’s milk by the goat Amalthea, whose skin became the aegis, and who was placed in the stars after her death. Along with his milk, the infant god had honey, either from bees who lived in the cave or nymphs called the Melissae.
Didymus in his Notes on Pindar states that Melisseus a king of Crete was the first to sacrifice to the gods, and to introduce novel rites and religous procesions. He had two daughters, Amalthaea and Melissa, who nourished the infant Jupiter with goats’ milk and honey. Hence arose the poets’ tale that bees flew up and filled the child’s mouth with honey. Melissa by her father was made first priestess of the Magna Mater; and from this fact the representatives of the goddess are still termed Melissae. (Cook: 3)
Melisseus must have been a local culture-hero, although other stories say that Zeus was his father. At any rate the priestesses of the Magna Mater, or Rhea, were called Melissae, and Zeus was sometimes known as Melissaios.
(Bees living in the cave is not as strange as it sounds. Wild bees do live under stones or in caves, being sheltered spots with access to water in the form of springs. Book IV of Virgil’s Georgics, a manual for would-be farmers, discusses bees living in caves.)
Women’s Rites and Bees
Another group of Melissae were the women who celebrated the Thesmophoria, the feast of Demeter. For the duration of the rite they were all Melissae, a title normally reserved for Demeter’s priestesses. A legend about a priestess named Melissa explained the reason for this:
There was once… at the Isthmus an aged dame called Melissa. She was taught by Ceres the secrets of her ritual, and warned not to disclose to anyone the mysteries which she had learnt. But when the womenfolk came and entreated her first by means of flattering words, then by prayers and promises, to reveal to them what Ceres had confided in her, and she persisted in holding her peace, then they became enfuriated and tore her asunder. Ceres avenged her fate by sending a plague upon these women and the whole neigbourhood; moreover she caused bees to be born from the body of Melissa. (Cook: 15)
Another story, from Apollodorus of Athens says that when Demeter was searching for her daughter, she took refuge with king Melissos and his 60 daughters. She gave them the cloth that Persephone had been weaving, and told them of her fate, and taught them the mysteries.
Other priestesses of Demeter were also known as Melissae, as in the Hymn to Apollo by Callimachus: “And not of every water do the Melissae carry to Deo, but of the trickling stream that springs from a holy fountain, pure and undefiled, the very crown of waters.”
Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was known as Melitoides, the Honeyed One, which may well be a euphemism for a goddess of the undeworld, or may reflect the hope for a good death which was part of the Elusinian Mysteries.
The nature of the Elusinian Mysteries is still unknown, but it involved some sort of intitiation which took the terror out of death and the afterlife. The Greeks believed that bees came from corpses, notably those of bulls, so it may be that bees, like butterflies, were seen as symbols of the soul:
All souls, however, proceeding into generation, are not simply called bees, but those who will live justly, and who, after having preformed such things as are acceptable to the gods, will again return [to their kindred stars]. For this insect loves to return to the place from whence it first came, and is eminently just and sober… (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 8)
Artemis at Ephesus
Artemis’ cult at Ephesus was very different from the way she was worshipped elsewhere. The Anatolian city did nod towards the youthful huntress, using her deer on their coins. But in keeping with their view of her as a Great Mother, they also used the bee, linking her to Demeter and Magna Mater.
The chief priest was the essene, who served for a year, under conditions of strict chastity. (Pausanias 8.13.1) The Ephesians had no doubt noticed that bees are mainly asexual, so the goddess, who was herself chaste, was served by a “drone”. (Larson: 335, n. 48) Her priestesses were called Melissae. A fragment from a lost play by Aeschylus called Artemis’ chief priestesses “Bee-Keepers”. (Carlson: 36)
The essene may only have lasted a year because the drones do, also. Having inseminated the queen, they are cast out of the hive, although to the ancient Greeks they had no purpose at all, since they had not realized that bees reproduce sexually.
One enduring question about the Artemis of Ephesus concerns her statue: are those breasts that line her torso, or testicles, or what? While we will never know for certain, one interesting idea given the prominence given to bees in the goddess’ cult is that they are bee eggs.
Prophetic Bees: the Thriai
The Thriai, who are often connected with bee-figures like those in the gold plaque above, since they were nymphs who lived in a cave at Mt. Parnassos and practiced divination. They used pebbles for this, which were also called thriai, and prophesying from them thriasthai. Theoi.com suggests that they also took omens from birds, based on a line from Callimachus: “The Thriai inspired the old crow.”
These nymphs were Apollo’s teachers when he was a young, unlike the ones who nursed Zeus. They may be the same as the unnamed women in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes:
There are certain holy ones, sisters born —three virgins gifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus. These are teachers of divination apart from me, the art which I practised while yet a boy following herds, though my father paid no heed to it. From their home they fly now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods’ sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together. (Homeric Hymn to Hermes, trans. Evelyn-White. 554ff)
Note that he is passing them on to his younger brother, which seems to imply that they have some relation to him. This, their prophetic nature, their location and the number three, suggest that these bee-maidens and the Thriai are the same, although others have suggested the Corcyian Nymphs, who were also worshipped on Mt. Parnassos. (Larson)
It is intriguing that they needed honey to give a true oracle; offerings of honey were part of the cult of the nymphs, too. But I like Jennifer Larson’s idea that Apollo’s description of their behaviour would fit actual bees: excitement at the honey, a dusting of pollen on their heads. She suggests that they were real bees, who needed to be placated before the oracle could be consulted.
Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins 1996: Dictionary of Roman Religion, OUP.
Carlson, Rachel D. The Honey Bee and Apian Imagery in Classical Literature, University of Washington, diss. (pdf here)
Cook, A. B. (1895) ‘The Bee in Greek Mythology’, The Journal of Hellenistic Studies 15: 1-24.
Correa, Katherine 2012: “Artemis Ephesia and Sacred Bee Imagery in Ancient Greece”, Symposium 12: 74-82. (Internet Archive)
Elderkin, G. W. (1939) ‘The Bees of Artemis’, The American Journal of Philology 60/2: 203-213. (JSTOR)
Keller, Mara Lynn “The Elusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone: Fertility, Sexuality and Rebirth”, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 4/1 (Spring 1988): 27-54. (pdf here)
Lawler, Lillian B 1954: ‘Bee Dances and the “Sacred Bees”‘, The Classical Weekly 47/7: 103-6. (JSTOR)
Larson, Jennifer(1995: ‘The Corycian Nymphs and the Bee Maidens of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 34/ 4: 341-357. (pdf here)
O’Higgins, Laurie 2003: Women and Humour in Classical Greece, Cambridge Univesity Press. (She has some interesting ideas about why the celebrants of the Thesmophoria were called bees.) Google Books.
Wilson, Bee 2014: The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, MacMillan. (This book has many interesting comments on the political and moral lessons the Greeks drew from bees, as well as a section on why people thought that you could get bees from dead oxen.) Google Books has a preview.
Melissae and Aphrodite (I’m not sure why she says that the essenes were cross-dressed, though.)
The image of the bee at the top can be found here.