Greek Gold and Garnet Butterfly Necklace, Late 4th-3rd Century B.C.(The body of this insect looks like the delineated body of the bee to me; instead of a butterfly.)
Greek Bee Fibula, 4th century BC The bee, found in the artifacts of Ancient Near East and Aegean cultures, was believed to be the sacred insect that bridged the natural world to the underworld.
The honeybees pendant was discovered in the Necropolis of the Minoan Palace of Malia on the island of Crete, and is thought to date to c.1800 BC. The site of the ancient cemetery is named Chryssolakkos, or “pit of gold”, because of the many precious objects that were found there. The scale of the palace and the plethora of treasures found in this adjoining burial ground, certainly suggest that those buried here were significantly wealthy and of high standing in the local community.
Malia honeybees pendant
The Palace of Malia, which is located about 3km east of the town, is the third largest of the Minoan Palaces, covering an area of around 7,500 square metres and, according to myth was ruled by Sarpedon, son of Zeus and Europa and brother of the famous King Minos. The Palace was originally constructed in c. 1900 BC but was destroyed by an earthquake c 1700. It was rebuilt soon after and most of what we can see at the archaeological site today dates to this second phase of construction, termed the Neopalatial complex. However, the Necropolis, where the pendant was found, dates to the first phase of construction.
The pendant itself is made from gold and comprises two bees, their bodies curved towards each other and their wings outstretched, clasping a honeycomb into which they are placing a small drop of honey. The piece is striking not only because of its unusual composition and intricate rendering, but also because of the significance of its subject-matter.
In the cultures of the Ancient Near East and Aegean, the bee was believed to be a sacred insect, especially associated with connecting the natural world to the underworld, which helps to explain why a pendant with such a design was placed in the tomb with the deceased. Often, the bee appears in tomb decoration and,
in Mycenae, so-called tholos tombs were sometimes even shaped as beehives.
Ariel view of a model of the Nekropolis, located in the Minoan palace Malia.
The bee also played a central role in Minoan and Mycenaean daily life; beekeping was a Minoan craft, which produced the fermented honey drink mead, older even than wine. The bee was also the symbol of the Minoan-Mycenaean goddess Potnia, meaning “mistress”, who was also referred to as “The Pure Mother Bee”. Her priestesses, too, were given the name Melissa, meaning “bee”, and some of our extant literary sources, such as Pindar, indicate that this practice carried on long after, with worshippers of Demeter and Artemis also being referred to as bees, as well as the Pythia at Apollo’s oracle in Delphi.
Malia honeybees pendant.
The pendant provides us with evidence for the advanced standard of workmanship in metal that was obviously being practised in this area at the time, since the artist has expertly wrought the honeycomb and certain details on the bees’ bodies using the difficult process of granulation. During this process, tiny beads of gold were applied to the surface of the jewellery using a compound of glue and copper salt, which, when heated, fused together the required components. As well as indicating the sophisticated technological knowledge of the Minoans, such obvious care and attention to detail perhaps also reflects the significance of the bee and confirms its important role within this ancient civilisation.
Later on, Greek Goddess priestesses were called melissae (bees) and bees were associated with Demeter and Artemis.
In Greece, priestesses who worshipped Demeter (a fertility and nature goddess) were called Melissai, meaning Bees in Greek.
Bees and Prophecy
There are a number of myths in which bees are linked to prophecy, or are said to have the power of prophecy. Many of these are associated with Apollo, the Greek god of prophecy. The major sanctuary to Apollo in the ancient world was Delphi, where the Pythia, or Delphic oracle, was consulted for advice on the future; she was said to have prophetic powers and knowledge of the will of the gods (Parke 1939, 4), and was even sometimes called by the name Melissa, meaning bee (Sourvinou-Inwood 1979, 242).
The temples to Apollo at Delphi were said to have a varied mythical past; Pausanias talks of the mythical temples which were thought to have preceded the historical, human-built stone temples known to his contemporaries. The second of these mythical temples, built even before the gods built a temple there, was said to be of wax and feathers, and was built by bees which Apollo himself fetched from the distant north (Pausanias 10.5.5). Though of course no archaeological remains exist of such a structure, the origins of the story must have been considerably earlier than Pausanias, who was writing in the second century AD (Bowie 2001, 21), since three buildings which existed on Delos, one of which was a temple to Apollo’s mother Leto, had honeycomb patterning on parts of the exterior walls; this patterning may have been influenced by the mythical temple of Apollo at Delphi (Sourvinou-Inwood 1979, 243).
It should be noted, furthermore, that birds were closely associated with prophecy: seers and prophets were thought to interpret bird signs as part of their craft. For both birds and bees to be so closely linked in the form of the temple built of wax and feathers, to the god of prophecy, suggests that bees too had a link to prophecy.
Pausanias also tells another tale which links the prophetic abilities of Apollo with bees, of some Boeotian envoys. They had come to Delphi to consult the oracle, but she sent them instead to another oracle, Trophonios at Lebadeia. They became lost, but one of the Boeotians, Saon of Akraphnion, saw a swarm of bees and followed them, and they led him to Trophonios (Pausanias 9.40.1). Here the bees are guides, leading travellers on a journey determined by one oracle to where they might find another. While not involved in prophecy themselves, the bees are strongly linked to those who are thought to make prophecies. They are almost like servants of the oracles.
In one of the Homeric Hymns to Hermes, Apollo tells Hermes of three sisters, virgin bee-women, who lived on Parnassus and, when Apollo was a child, taught him divination (Hymn to Hermes 552-564). When they ate honey, they would fly this way and that way and predict the future. But if they had not had honey, they would buzz about confused and make false prophecies. Not only are these prophets part bee, but they also require honey in order to make accurate prophecies; the honey makes them mad, and they fly around at random. There are parallels whereby honey or mead creates madness or drunkenness and allows prophecy in other cultures (Scheinberg 1979, 16-17).
While there is no conclusive evidence of bee prophecies at Delphi, the combination of these two latter myths suggest it may have taken place (Sourvinou-Inwood 1979, 241); furthermore, the myth of the temple of wax and feathers would make more sense in the context of bee prophecies being used at Delphi. If this was indeed the case, it would also explain the use of the name Melissa – derived from the Greek word for bees – to occasionally refer to the Pythia (Sourvinou-Inwood 1979, 242). However, the Pythia was not alone in being referred to by this name. The priestesses of Artemis, Demeter and Persephone were also called Mellisai (Cook 1895, 13-15; Sourvinou-Inwood 1979, 239).
Bees were also said to have the ability to predict the weather. The author of Historia Animalium book 9 claims that cold weather and rain can be predicted by observing bees, which retreat to the hive when such weather is imminent (9.627b.9-11).
Bees and the Soul
Bees were linked to the soul from an early date: Homer tells of a cave on Ithaca, near the harbour where Odysseus lands. It was occupied by nymphs, specifically Naiads, and bees stored honey in stone jars within. There were two entrances to the underworld in this cave, one which may be entered by mortals and one only for the gods (Odyssey 13.115-126). Bees are very clearly linked here to a transitional location, a gateway between the living world and the world of the dead, the underworld, a place where souls might depart from the world. Earlier in the story, Odysseus was told by Circe to travel to the underworld and pour libations, one of which was a drink made of mixed honey and milk for the dead (10.571). Thus not only bees, but also the honey they produce, are linked to the underworld.
According to the Greek philosopher Porphyry, who wrote at some point in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, souls were sometimes called bees by his predecessors; this comparison was made by the classical poet Sophocles, who described swarms of souls buzzing (Porphyry De Antro Nymph. 7). Honey, Porphyry claims in the same passage, was used to preserve the bodies of the dead before burial.
Priestesses of Demeter and Persephone were, like those of Artemis, sometimes called Mellisai (Cook 1895, 13-15; Sourvinou-Inwood 1979, 239). These goddesses were connected to the underworld, particularly Persephone, who was said to be married to Hades the god of the underworld, where she resided during half of the year before returning to her mother Demeter in the spring. Demeter’s link to bees may be through this, or due to her association with the harvest and fertility.
A myth of Crete, recorded by Hyginus, tells of Glaukos, son of king Minos of Crete; the boy fell into a jar of honey and drowned. His body was found by a seer, Polyeidos, who saw that an owl was frightening bees away from this jar. Minos locked Polyeidos in a tomb with the body of Glaukos until Polyeidos, using a herb he witnessed a snake use to revive its dead companion, brought Glaukos back to life (Hyginus 86, as cited by Cook 1895, 11). The bees, kept from the jar by an owl, may represent the soul of the dead boy (Cook 1895, 11), while it has been suggested that honey was used in burial rituals, and Glaukos falling in a honey jar alludes to this (Elderkin 1939, 206-207); both of these conclusions are supported by Porphyry.
The grave of a child at Marathon, dated to the 2nd century BC, featured a coffin made from two horizontal hives (Jones 1976, 89-91). Jones hypothesises that the boy was from a peasant family and that these hives, probably not in use at the time of the boy’s death, were the best coffin his family could provide him with. However, if, as the above evidence suggests, bees were connected to life and death, and used as symbols of the soul, the choice of the hives as a coffin may have had as much to do with that as it did with economy or convenience.
Bee myths from Crete
A notably significant proportion of myths involving bees originate in Crete, including that of Glaukos and the honey which has already been discussed. Such myths primarily involve Zeus and Artemis.
Bees are strongly connected to myths surrounding Zeus’ birth. One of these was told by Antoninus Liberalis, a Greek living some time between 100AD and 300AD, in his Metamorphoses. There was, he says, a cave sacred to the goddess Rhea in Mount Ida; it was here that Zeus was born. Bees lived in the cave and produced honey. It was forbidden for mortal men to enter the cave, but in spite of this, four men went there in search of honey. Zeus split their armour and planned to kill them until he was calmed by the nymphs living in the cave who told him it was forbidden for blood to be spilled there. Instead, he turned the four men into birds to serve him as attendants (Antoninus Liberalis xix, cited by Cook 1895, 2). This myth suggests the desirability of honey, since these men were prepared to break sacred laws to acquire it.
Another tale, also from Crete, tells of Amalthea and Melissa, the daughters of king Melisseus of Crete, who nursed the infant Zeus with goat’s milk and honey. Melissa later became the first priestess of Magna Mater (Cook 1895, 3). These women are also sometimes referred to as nymphs (Cook 1895, 15). These two myths tell two different tales connecting bees to the infant Zeus, suggesting that the myths were created at a time when the association was already there, in order to explain the origins of the link.
Myths surrounding bees, and links between bees and deities, appear to be fairly common on Crete. The suggestion of an association between Artemis and bees has supporting evidence from both Crete and Ephesus. Statues and coins have been found at Ephesus depicting bees with Artemis, and priestesses of Artemis are thought to have been called Melissai (Elderkin 1939, 203). This link is supported by linguistic similarities between the Cretan names for Artemis, Βριτ? and Βριτ?μαρτις, and a word meaning “to remove honey from the comb,” Βλ?ττειν (Cook 1895, 15).
To the Classical Greeks, bees clearly had significance, perhaps inspired by their economic value, but clearly going beyond it. Bees were involved in, or integral to, a variety of myths in Classical Greek culture; one myth gives an indication of the value of honey. The value of bees in prophecy and their links to the soul place bees at a higher level, almost like a link between humanity and the gods.
Now there are also relations to an alcoholic drink from honey (that came before wine)