Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don't Worry Bee Api

These gold plaques embossed with images of winged bee goddesses were found at
Camiros, Rhodes, and have been dated to the 7th century BCE.

One of the unexpected perks of living in Moscow 2002-2004 was visiting the honey fair. My husband John described it very well for his online newspaper The eXile:

Each stand offered samples of their honeys, and after a few tastings I could see there really is a range of taste and texture in the stuff. It ranged from sandstone beige to molasses black, with textures from wet sand to motor oil. And the aftertastes were downright weird. A lot of them were dung-based, but not unpleasantly so. Others were synthetic, cologne-like, or close to menthol. I could see being a honey critic more easily than a wine critic. I wouldn't feel as fake. More range.
The stalls were grouped by region. Altai honey was drawing big crowds, as was Kislovodsk and other Caucasian towns. There was also "mountain honey," "forest honey," and, for the fence-sitters, "mountain forest honey." I ended up buying a kilo of Tambov buckwheat honey, which was four times as much as I meant to buy, but I figured it was my mumbling or improperly-declined numbers that caused the mix up.

It is interesting to speculate on the range of tastes in fifth-century BC Greece. There are some clues in written sources. In passage 22 from his History of Animals, for example, Aristotle writes that, "the taste of thyme-honey is discernible at once, from its peculiar sweetness and consistency". He also mentions a variety of local differences:

In Pontus are found bees exceedingly white in colour, and
these bees produce their honey twice a month. (The bees in Themiscyra,
on the banks of the river Thermodon, build honeycombs in the ground
and in hives, and these honeycombs are furnished with very little wax
but with honey of great consistency; and the honeycomb, by the way,
is smooth and level.) But this is not always the case with these bees,
but only in the winter season; for in Pontus the ivy is abundant,
and it flowers at this time of the year, and it is from the ivy-flower
that they derive their honey. A white and very consistent honey is
brought down from the upper country to Amisus, which is deposited by
bees on trees without the employment of honeycombs: and this kind of
honey is produced in other districts in Pontus.

The Greeks probably learned beekeeping from the Minoans, who took their bees very seriously. In Minoan Crete the bee was an emblem of Potnia, the Minoan-Mycenaean "Mistress", also referred to as "The Pure Mother Bee". Her priestesses received the name of "Melissa" ("bee")*. Later on, in Classical Greece, priestesses worshipping Artemis and Demeter were called "Bees". The Delphic priestess is also often referred to as a bee, and Pindar notes that she remained "the Delphic bee" long after Apollo had usurped the ancient oracle and shrine. [Pindar's Fourth Pythian Ode, 60].
The fermented honey-drink, mead, was an old Cretan intoxicant, older than wine; Zeus made Kronos intoxicated with honey, "for wine was not", Nonnus wrote in Dionysiaca XIII.258 [source]. Intoxicants were often used in religious rituals as a means of acheiving an altered state which might be interpreted as the possession by a deity.
Honey therefore conveyed prescience: the "Delphic Bee", and in 1 Samuel 14 "Jonathan...put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand, and dipped it in a honey comb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were enlightened." So in
the Homeric Hymn % where Apollo tells Hermes the story of how he gained the gift of prophecy, it is no surprise to find bees, here three bee maidens who are usually identified with the Thriae, a trinity of pre-Hellenic Aegean bee goddesses.:

`But I will tell you another thing, Son of all-
glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius
of the gods. 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. These, then, I
give you; enquire of them strictly and delight your heart: and if
you should teach any mortal so to do, often will he hear your
response -- if he have good fortune. Take these, Son of Maia,
and tend the wild roving, horned oxen and horses and patient mules.'

Honey's vatic uses may be why ancient Greeks associated lips anointed with honey with the gift of eloquence: Achilles and Pythagoras, it was said, had been fed on honey as infants, and the lips of Plato, Pindar, and Ambrose of Milan were anointed with it. The name "Merope" seems to mean "honey-faced" [or honey mouthed?] in Greek -- "eloquent" in Classical times.
Whether because of its divine properties or its delicious sweetness, honey was a highly desirable item in Ancient Greece. Beekeeping was so popular that Solon passed this law in 594/593 BC, 'He who sets up hives of bees must put them 300 feet [100 m] away from those already installed by another" (Plutarch, Life of Solon, 23). What's more, Plato groused about 'mountains in Attica which can now support nothing but bees, but which were clothed, not so very long ago, with fine trees...' (Critias 111b-d).#

Incidentally, we aren't the only ones to like honey:
a 'honey pounding' chimp

* Melissa is also the name of one of my new sisters-in-law. Unaware of her name's provenance, she attended a fancy-dress party dressed as a bee. No one finds this funny but me.
% Homeric Hymn (ll. 550-568)
# The World History of Hive Beekeeping in Ancient Greece, Eva Crane p.196

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating ... I always find bees fascinating. We have a friend who's a beekeeper and when invited to do so, imparts captivating facts about these amazing insects. I think they are probably my favourite insect. I like the way you have put these facts together, constructing some of them around homely insights, as well as around the more grandiose world of Ancient Greece. I guess it's a little like constructing a honeycomb (which of course is unlike the ivy-flower-gathering-bees who do not need combs. Just one of the many facts about bees I now know thanks to your fact-packed post.)