The nymphs, spirits of woods and wild places, are among the minor figures of Greek myth. They lived in caves or trees, where wild bees and honey were also to be found, so it’s no surprise that a lot of bee lore relates to them.
There was a cult of the nymphs, mainly focused around caves. Homer described a nymphs’ cave in the Odyssey:
At the head of the harbor is a long-leafed olive tree, and near it is a pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the nymphs called naiads. In it are stone mixing bowls and jars and there too the bees store honey. And in the cave are long looms of stone, where the nymphs weave sea- purple cloth, a wonder to see, and there are ever-flowing springs. There are two doors: that toward the north wind is the way down for humans; but that toward the south wind is holy indeed. Men do not enter by that way, but it is the path of the immortals. (XIII: 96ff)
The tree or grove outside the cave, which would be a pleasant place with fresh water, was a constant of the nymph cults. This is the earliest association between the nymphs and the bees. (Larson: 25)
Feeding the Gods
The nymphs, who “have bees in their keeping” (Oppian, Cynegetica 4. 265 ff ) were the logical ones to feed young gods. They, like Artemis, looked after the young, and their demi-divine status made them ideal attendants for the Olympians’ offspring.
Some myths say that it was the bees themselves who fed Zeus or Dionysus, although other accounts make this metaphorical by calling the nymphs Meliae or Melissae. (As we will see below, the Muses and bees were similarly confused.)
Zeus was born on Crete, in a cave inhabited by bees:
In Crete there is said to be a sacred cave full of bees. In it, as storytellers tell it, Rhea gave birth to Zeus; it is a sacred place, and no one is to go near it, whether god or mortal. At the appointed time each year, a great blaze is seen to come out of the cave.
The story goes on to say that this happens whenever the blood from the birth of Zeus boils up. The sacred bees that were the nurses of Zeus occupy this cave. Laius, Celeus, Cereberus and Aegolius were bold enough to approach the cave to collect a great quantity of honey. With their bodies encased in bronze, they gathered the bees’ honey and gazed on the swaddling clothes of Zeus. Their bronze armour split away from their bodies.
Zeus thundered and brandished his thunderbolt, but the Fates and Themis stopped him. It was impious for anyone to die there. So Zeus turned them all into birds.
(Metapmorphoses, Antonius Liberalis, trans. Francis Celoria)
This story is full of female powers, considering that it concerns the king of the gods. He is even prevented from exercising his traditional vengeance by the Fates and Themis, older female powers. Also, while myth has it that the Kouretes bashed their weapons to drown out Rhea’s cries while in labour, they carefully stayed outside the birth-cave, while the armoured men who invade it first lose their armour, then their identity.
Other myths describe nymphs feeding the infant Zeus on honey, or bees being attracted to the cave where he lay by the clashing of the Kouretes’ weapons, and staying to feed they young god. (A variant has bees attracted by the noise made by the satyrs who followed Dionysus.)
A truly creative version says that two daughters of the Cretan king Melisseus, Amalthea and Melissa, fed young Zeus on goat’s milk and honey. (Another myth says that the goat Amalthea fed Zeus on goat’s milk, for which he placed her in the skies as the constellation Capella, and Melissa means “bee”.) This was meant as a rationalization of two myths, in other words, although Melisseus was also said to be a son of Zeus, which would be a neat trick.
Dionysus was also nursed by nymphs, who have various names depending on where the story is set. Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica says that the nymph Macris fed the young god on honey, probably because she was Aristaeus’ daughter:
the sacred cave, where once dwelt Macris, the daughter of Aristaeus, lord of honey, who discovered the works of bees and the fatness of the olive, the fruit of labour. She it was that first received in her bosom the Nysean son of Zeus in Abantian Euboea, and with honey moistened his parched lips when Hermes bore him out of the flame. (Argonautica IV: 1131ff)
Her cave was on the island of Scheria, home of the Phaeacians. Odysseus was washed up there after Poseidon sent storms to capsize his boat. He met the princess Nausicaa there, who helped him. Although islands in myth need not correspond to any real-world map, Scheria might be the island of Corfu.
Mt. Nysa, which may have given Dionysus his name, housed another nymph, also named Nysa. She was another daughter of Aristaeus, and several myths make her the god’s nurse. Dionysus put this knowledge to use, teaching the nymph Brisa how to keep bees. (He had a temple on her mountain, Mt. Brisa, so it may have been a swap.)
Aristaeus and the Nymphs
I mentioned Aristaios above, as the father of the nymph Macris. Aristaios (Aristaeus to the Romans) is a demi-god whose name means simply “most excellent” or “most useful”. (His name comes from the same root as “aristocrat”.) As the son of Apollo and a nymph, Cyrene, he is only semi-divine, but he is a true culture hero who taught humans many useful arts, including beekeeping.
As a young man, he went to Boetia, where he learned prophecy and medicine from the muses and the great healer Chiron, and how to make use of nature’s bounty from the nymphs:
He learned from the Nymphai how to curdle milk [i.e. how to make cheese], to make bee-hives, and to cultivate olive-trees, and was the first to instruct men in these matters. And because of the advantage which came to them from these discoveries the men who had received his benefactions rendered to Aristaios honours equal to those offered to the gods, even as they had done in the case of Dionysos. (Diodorus Siculus Library of History IV:8.1)
He travelled around Greece and the Mediterranean, teaching his arts, until he disappeared, after founding the town of Aristaeon.
Revenge of the Nymphs
Aristaios has a more contemporary aspect as well, since he was the first mortal to have his bees die on him:
Aristaeus wept because he saw his bees destroyed,
And the hives they had begun left abandoned.
His azure mother, Cyrene, could barely calm his grief,
But added these final words to what she said:
‘Son, cease your tears! Proteus will allay your loss,
And show you how to recover what has perished.
But lest he still deceives you by changing shape,
Entangle both his hands with strong fastenings.’
The youth approached the seer, who was fast asleep,
And bound the arms of that Old Man of the Sea.
He by his art altered his shape and transformed his face,
But soon reverted to his true form, tamed by the ropes.
Then raising his dripping head, and sea-green beard,
He said: ‘Do you ask how to recover your bees
Kill a heifer and bury its carcase in the earth,
Buried it will produce what you ask of me.’
The shepherd obeyed: the beast’s putrid corpse
Swarmed: one life destroyed created thousands.
(Ovid, Fasti I:363 ff)
(The Greeks really did think that killing an ox and leaving it to rot would engender bees. Beekeeping manuals from ancient times can get very detailed about how to kill the ox, and how long it might take to grow bees. Bee Wilson’s book discusses this in some detail.)
Virgil said in the Georgics (Book IV) that the nymphs killed his bees, in retaliation after he inadvertently caused the death of Eurydice. He either came on to her or tried to force himself on her, and she was bitten by a serpent as she fled. This story also forms part of a long tradition that bees, chaste beings, hate beekeepers who are unfaithful to their wives.
Eurydice was a nymph herself, so the nymphs were standing up for one of their own, as well as taking revenge where they could for the general pushiness of Greek gods when it came to sex. (A nymph couldn’t do much to Zeus or Apollo, but Aristaios they could hurt and did.)
The Muses and bees
The Muses sent their gifts to great poets and orators by way of the bees, who left honey on the chosen one’s lips. Many notable Greeks, from Sappho to Plato, were said to have been fed by the bees as babies, or fed on honey.
Like the nymphs, the Muses were divine beings, a little below the Olympians, who might follow in their retinues or otherwise serve them, and act as their messengers. The bees, too, were seen as divine, who might carry messages from the gods.
(For links on bees, see my post on the Melissae. This time I’m focusing on nymphs.)
Theoi.com comprehensive list of references to nymphs in Classical literature
Thought.co lists some famous nymphs
Ancient History Encyclopedia on cult of nymphs
Paleothea on nymphs, wildness and nature
Ancient-Greece.org nymphs as part of Classical culture
The image at the top can be found here.