Since at least the times when humans scratched on rocks to create images, the bee and the beehive have played central roles in human spiritual interest and worship. Bees and honey are present in the creation myths, cosmologies and sacred places of many diverse ancient cultures. African, Australian, South American, European, and Hindu-Indian creation myths and sacred stories feature the bee as a symbol of reverence. Archaeological evidence from almost every corner of the world demonstrates this. Bees and the hive life were powerful symbols of community, continuance, regeneration and a connection to the otherworld for our ancestors. As the source of honey, they also represented sweetness, healing and magic.
Valencia Spain Cave Painting 13,000 bc
Many scholars believe early cultures of the Mediterranean region worshiped a mother goddess. These cultures offer us our earliest archaeological evidence of organized apiculture centers. Central religious themes of these regions often depict the bull, the bee and goddess imagery. This triad of themes is believed to have centered around concepts of birth, death and rebirth; the ultimate mysteries of our human lives and those of the natural world around us, regardless of our time in human history. The works of Marija Gimbutas are a rich source for these interpretations.
Ancient image Knossis, Crete
Minoan culture, of the Neolithic period around Crete, depicted some of it’s many goddess images with bee-like stripes, wings and antennae. Apiculture was a prominent part of the Minoan culture, and bee- hives and other bee images feature prominently in it’s engraved imagery. Later Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures inherited these patterns and beliefs and transmuted them into their own later myths and legends.
Honey and the bee were also prominent in the cosmology of the early Egyptians. They were principles of the Egyptian diet, medicine and ritual magic. The typical black and gold striping and winged insect imagery seen on many Egyptian god and goddess figures, sarcophagi and other engraved imagery also referenced the bee. The Egyptian Sun God, Ra, cried tears that became bees that then created honey in the world. The Egyptian God, Apis, took the form of a Sacred Bull. The Latin name for our modern day honey-bee is Apis Mellifera. King Menes of Egypt was referred to as ‘The Beekeeper’ and his domain in Lower Egypt was known as the ‘Place of the Bee’. The Great Mother Goddess Neith, was worshiped at Sais and her temple was called ‘The House of the Bee’.
Turkish Goddess 8000 bc
Some of my favorite bee lore is found in Greek and Roman mythology. Before Dionysus was torn to pieces and returned as a bee, he was in the form of a bull. His worshipers, called Maenad’s, were often depicted as frenziedly dancing females with wings. It’s now believed early Greek and Roman cultures actually drank mead as their chosen beverage, probably what’s now called pyment, a honey wine made with grapes. Pan, the Greek God commonly associated with the wild and sexuality, was also the God of Beekeeping.
The most important oracular site of ancient Greece, Delphi, was said to have been constructed by bees. The oracle of the temple itself was an object called an Omphalos, a carved stone, shaped like a beehive, and covered in bee-like images linked in a beautiful pattern. Phythia, the chief priestess at Delphi, was called ‘The Delphic Bee’. Priestesses of Greece were called Queen Bees. It was believed they entered states of spiritual trance that involved the use of honey.
Egyptian Bee Heiroglyph
In a story about Aphrodite, in which she murders a king, we’re told she killed him by tearing out his insides; an act scholar Andrew Gough has pointed out is remarkably akin to what happens to the drone bee when it mates with the queen bee. Aphrodite is the mother of Artemis, Diana to the Romans, who goes on to become the preeminent Bee Goddess of her region. Aphrodite’s priestesses were called Melissa’s and a golden honeycomb was placed on her shrine at Mt. Eryx. Both Rhea and Demeter were also referred to as Melissa’s. At the Cave of the Bee, in Crete, Rhea gave birth to Zeus, the other parent of Artemis.
Sumerian Bee Goddess
In Artemis we have our most renowned bee patroness. As the goddess of nature and the hunt, forests, hills, rocks and rivers, she oversaw the home territory of wild bees. A particularly fascinating part of her history is her temple community, in Ionia, at Ephesus, today’s Turkey. Some believe it was a matriarchal community of beekeeping priestesses that worshiped Artemis. In her Ephesus form, she’s depicted covered in breast or egg-like carvings, that for a beekeeper, can only resemble the cells queen bees are born from in the hive. At her feet are two Omphalos stones.
Layne Redmond’s book “When the Drummers Were Women” is an enthralling account of goddess worship, priestessing and drumming, based on archaeological research from the ancient Mediterranean region. Her thoughts on the combination of the bull, the bee and goddess worship in these ancient days present the reader with a picture of a culture focused on ritual, healing, the feminine nature and a connection with the natural world we have shifted dramatically away from. She’s now engendering a movement to help us heal ourselves, the bees and our planet by reconnecting with the ancient priestessing ways of the Melissa by recognizing the magic and wisdom of the bees.
Gold Minoan Bee Necklace
By the times of the Romans, bees were also being used in less spiritual ways. Besides consuming truly impressive quantities of mead, honey wine, on a daily basis, the Romans are also known to have used bees in battle by catapulting hives onto their enemies. This use of bees as a weapon reportedly ceased when the population of bees in Italy actually dwindled dangerously low because of it.
Omphalos Oracle Stone
Hindu creation stories are another wealthy source of bee lore and worship.
The Rig Vedas are full of tales of bees and honey and their place in the divine nature of the universe. Indra, the namesake of India, is said to have been fed honey as his first food. Krishna has a bee aspect in which he’s depicted striped like a bee and buzzing with creation power. My favorite Hindu tale of the power of bees is the story of Bhramari Devi. Her most famous legend recounts a tale in which she’s faced with battling an army of demons working with a greedy human. She transforms into a large black bee and from her bee-body pour streams of black bees that eventually envelop the whole world, driving away the demons and teaching us the ‘Bhramaran’, the life protecting hum of the bee, which resides in our Heart Chakra. When kept strong, it protects us from outside negativity and invasion that would weaken us. This sound is believed to be the essential sound of the universe in the Hindu cosmology. If you’re ever lucky enough to stand within swarming bees, you can experience a feeling that their group buzzing is indeed a sound deeply embedded within us, that is perhaps the thread connecting all energy together.
Pythia, Delphic Bee Oracle
Mayan Culture is one of the only ancient cultures known to have worshiped bees in a primarily masculine form, though they did refer to bees as ‘Our Ladies’. Their bee god was called Ah Muzen Cab and his temple was Tulum. Ah Muzen Cab is associated with world creation in Mayan mythology and it’s believed that honey, in some kind of psychoactive form, was used in his worship. Shamans from the Mayan tradition still use a form of humming, based on the sound of bees, in their trance-inducing and healing chants today.
Melissa, Bee Goddess at Eryx
In later historical time periods, an equally consuming hot spot of Bee Worship can be found further north, in Europe, where Bees were worshiped in Scandinavia, throughout Eastern Europe, Germany, Russia and the British Isles.
Lithuania is perhaps the most pristine source of ancient and modern Bee Worship, as Beekeeping has existed as a revered way of life there for as long as can be remembered. Because the lore of ancient Lithuania was an oral tradition, and the country remained relatively primitive by western standards, it’s written records of these amazing histories is minimal.
Artemis/Diana of Ephesus
The bee was one of it’s central mythic creatures and as such was considered sacred. Bees could not be bought or sold, because of their revered status, and this practice is still a tradition in parts of rural Lithuania today. In medieval times families were known to leave their homes to follow local bees when they swarmed, relocating where the bees established their new hive. Once this happened, the family of human followers were believed to have earned a special grace and protection that could never be taken away from them, or their offspring, that also made them related to other humans that shared this form of bee-blessing in a sacred form of kinship.
Interestingly, Lithuania is also known to have the longest living path of Pagan worship, called Romuva. As one of the last western countries to experience the spread and acceptance of Christianity, it’s folk traditions remained uniquely intact and were never completely wiped out. Austeja is their bee goddess. It’s also one of the most popular names given to Lithuanian girls today. If I’m ever able to get there, I look forward to visiting the ‘Lithuanian Museum of Ancient Beekeeping’. There, one can see examples of the intricately carved logs traditionally used for hives by beekeepers deep in the forest. Some of these logs represented gods and goddesses and elemental forest spirits. Others logs were left in a more natural state and were chosen because of the power of a particular tree in it’s place in the forest, and the belief that it would go on to bless the bees within it and bring it’s good ju-ju to all that resided near it’s place. Movements are underway today to bring back this form of log beekeeping and it’s currently being practiced again.
Hindu Goddess Bhramari Devi
In Germany, where an ancient bee god called Imme (I-Me) was worshipped, it’s known that this his name was also used to refer to sacred trees in their forests where bees were kept.
The British Isles are also a place relevant to the sacred worship of bees in pre-Christian times. Ireland, Scotland and England were referred to as ‘The Lands of Copious Honey’ by the Romans. The ancient scholar Giraldus wrote of the abundance of bees in these regions, both cultivated and wild, and stated that almost every household was advanced in the management of bees and the hive.
Hive Structures Lithuanian Beekeeping Museum
The ancient Irish are particularly noted for their relationship with the bee. In Gaelic, the word for bee is bech, and a swarm is saithe. The hive had many names but was most commonly referred to as a corcog. The gift of a hive of bees was the traditional way to show gratitude or loyalty to the ancient Irish Kings and Queens and as such, their realms were often known as centers of Beekeeping. It’s not surprising, with these facts in mind, that Honey was a staple of the diet of the ancient Irish. It’s believed that everyone present at a royal table was given their own dish of honey, and supposedly each bite of food was dipped in it before eating. Honey was used to marinate meats, particularly salmon, and was drunk in hot milk, as well as used as an offering in religious ceremony. Mead was considered a sacred and ceremonial beverage and was consumed at feasts and celebrations to bring blessings to all present and to lend the event it’s magical properties. Tara had a special residence called ‘The House of Mead Circling".
Bees were so central to the mythology and culture of the ancient Irish that the old Druidic Laws, the Brehon Laws, were said to be protected as a tradition by the Bees themselves. The Brehon Laws contain twenty pages entitled “Bee-Judgement”, that spell out specific regulations regarding the care and ownership of Hives, Bees and Swarms. In an old tale of Ailill and Maeve, the king and queen of Connaught, they were served grilled salmon with Honey “well made” by their daughter, the princess Findabair.
Zemaiciu Alka, Lithuania
The ancient Gaelic word for harp is Clair Seach and it was said that the best of them were tuned to the drone of bees. The ancient tune “Isth co Nemh” was known as a bee charm. A much interpreted adage from ancient times in the British Isles was “ask the wild bees what the druids know”.…
Today we’re seeing a new period of interest in bees. Media exposure of Colony Collapse Disorder, and the serious decline in bee health around the world, gives us yet another potent revelation of our ways in the world endangering the necessary balance and connection of all living things. As our culture awakens to the knowledge that our values and lifestyles are tremendously damaging our planet and her health, we’re beginning to reconnect with the awareness of our deep relationship to the natural cycles we live within and the importance of finding ways to live as a world population that nurture and sustain our Mother, and all life within her. It seems that the magic our ancestors found in bees and the hive life is coming around again to assist us in the challenges we face today.
Eastern European Farm with Hive Structures
The truly amazing values of the hive – self-sacrifice for greater community good, industriousness, and commitment to perpetuation, provide us with a model of where we need to go. That the hive also results in the purest and most healthy form of sweet, honey, tells us there are magical gifts to be found by living in deep commitment to co-existing as true community with all around us.
Aerial View of Tara, County Meath, Ireland
The following prayer is an ancient Lithuanian Daina, or hymn, of the Romuva tradition:
“A poplar stood alongside a road. Sounding kankles – from below the roots, buzzing bees – in the middle, falcon’s children – at the top. And a group of brothers comes riding on horseback. Please stop, young brothers: listen to the sounding kankles, listen to the buzzing bees, look at the falcon’s children.”
There are many wonderful resources for those inspired by the history of bee worship and the magic of bees. Some of them are listed below, for those that would like to pursue further the magical nature of bees.
The Civilization of the Goddess and The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas
The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting by Eva Crane
The Sacred Bee by Hilda Ransome
When the Drummers Were Women Layne Redmond 1997
The Shamanic Way of the Bee Simon Buxton 2004
Source: Beehaven Honey Farm