Saturday, January 25, 2014
I have been fascinated by bees ever since the time that I had, as an infant, I shrank in fear at the appearance of Mr Doobee making an appearance on Romper Room accompanied by an ear-splitting racket, as well as having the misfortune of treading one and being stung on the sole of the foot. My tears of pain were coupled with amazement when I learned that a bee invariably dies when releasing its sting - paying the ultimate price for spite or aggression. Yet it was growing up among family with agrarian roots who displayed an inordinate respect and decided lack of fear vis a vis the honey bee in particular, that my love of the bee became further cemented. Customs such as informing the household bees of the death of a member of the family may seem quaint, but they also serve to highlight the closeness of the relationship between mankind and their purveyors of honey.
We have two natural hives in our backyard, both on the same tree, wherein the geometrical artistry of the bees can be appreciated to the full, for these being native, rather than aggressive, Africanised bees, they seem not at all concerned at the proximity of mere humans, even ones mesmerised by the smell of their so easily accessible larder. One approaches with reverence and awe, and withdraws quickly and discreetly, bearing back golden goodness. The manner of the withdrawal is vital, for bees can, to use the scientific term, "smell fear." According to one uncle, who recently returned to the motherland and was charged with his aged mother with the weighty task of tending to the family hive, so powerful were the bees' olfactory capacity to sense his fear, that they swarmed after him, causing him to take refuge in a shed and project fly-spray at them. When his mother was able to appreciate the extent of the massacre, she broke down and wept, piteously.
Napoleon, rumoured to have been of Greek descent adopted the bee as a personal emblem and Nikolaos Glykys, the famous Greek printer of Venice who set up his printshop during the seventeenth century and singlehandedly set about ensuring that some type of Greek scholarship survived the Ottoman conquest, through the production and dissemination of high quality Greek ecclesiastical and ancient texts, also adopted the bee as his emblem but the Greek appreciation of the bee seems to date to primordial times.
The word Melitta, or Melissa, seems to derive from the semitic "Mylitta," who was the love goddess of the Babylonians and the Arabians. Cementing this Middle Eastern connection with the bee as deity is a fragment of Orphic poetry, where Melitta is referred to as the hive of Venus:
"Let us celebrate the hive of Venus, who rose from the sea: that hive of many names: the mighty fountain, from whence all kings are descended; from whence all the winged and immortal Loves were again produced."'
When not acting as a hive, Melissa acted as a protectress. In the guise of a mountain nymph, she was, according to one variant of the story, charged with hiding the infant Zeus from the baby-eating mania of his father Cronus. She was responsible for introducing safe drinking practices to the god, feeding him goat's milk from Amalthea, the bounteous goat and plenty of honey, so much so in fact that the king of the gods developed a permanent taste for it, even after deserting his cave for the luxuries of Mount Olympus. Sadly for Melissa, Cronus apparently became aware of her double dealing and by way of punishment, transformed her into an earthworm. Zeus on the other hand, in his infinite mercy, changed her into a well proportioned bee, the idea of changing her back into her original form having eluded him completely.
Melissa, in her previous nymph-form was, according to the antiquarian Mnaseas, responsible for the preparation of honey as a drink, in the form of mead. According to Mnaseas, Melissa first found a honeycomb, tasted it, then mixed it with water as a beverage. She taught her companions to make the drink and eat the food, and it is for this reason that the bee was named for her, and she was made its guardian. The purpose of this myth apparently was to rationalise the gradual civilization of mankind. Apparently, it was only under the guidance of the good nymph Melissa that men turned away from eating each other, or babies, in the case of the Grandfather of the gods, to eating only the humble but sweet fruit of the bee's regurgitations.
In years to come, honey would become a constant ingredient in libations and rituals to the dead. The ancient Greek philosopher Porphyry stated that honey was a symbol of death, and for that reason it was usual to offer libations of honey to the divinities of the underworld. The Greek historian Plutarch wrote, "Mead was used as a libation before the cultivation of the vine, and even now those.who do not drink wine have a honey drink."
Bees were also used as a symbol of rebirth, in ancient Greek mystery rites. Thus, Porphyry, wrote that the priestesses who served the goddess Demeter, where known as Melissae. These Melissae commemorated a previous elderly priestess of same name, who was initiated into the mysteries of the goddess by none other than the goddess herself. When Melissa's neighbours tried to force her to reveal the secrets given to her during her initiation, she refused to open her mouth. As a result, her neighbours tore her to pieces. Disgusted at the loss of a diligent employee, the goddess Demeter , sent a plague upon them, causing very angry avenging bees to be born from Melissa's corpse. but Demeter sent a plague upon them, causing bees to be born from Melissa's dead body. From Porphyry's writings, scholars have also learned that Melissa was the name of the moon goddess Artemis and the goddess who took suffering away from mothers giving birth. Souls were symbolized by bees and it was Melissa who drew souls down to be born. As Porphyry stated: "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.therefore we must admit that honeycombs and bees are appropriate and common symbols of the aquatic nymphs, and of souls that are married as it were to the humid and fluctuating nature of generation."
Caches of votive metal bees have been found in Greece, at shrines, proving that our desire to leave "tamata" to the gods in exchange for, or anticipation of services rendered, pre-dates Christianity. The fact that here in Melbourne, hundreds of Greek-Australians lovingly maintain hives in their backyards, underscores the age old relationship we enjoy with the bee. Not a few times have I been invited to a nocturnal barbeque, only to be issued with a caution to keep one's voice down and switch of the lights so as to not disturb the bees. In breaking news, it is worthwhile mentioning that we also have our own Macedonian bee. Representatives of various Macedonian hives have commented that they feel fortunate that members of the Former Yugoslav Hive of the same region have not yet been made aware of this, for once they do, they fear that they will claim all the honey from the said hive, as well as the invention of the hexagon. Even as we speak, apian scientists are hard at work proving that whereas Former Yugoslav Hive bees have danced Slavonic dances since the 7th century, the Macedonian bee dances in Hellenic geometric forms, generally around Melissa cake stores. Receive then Apis Mellifera Macedonica, a worthy counterpart of Apis Mellifera Cecropia, the southern Greek bee, in the sure knowledge of the transmigration of the soul, in the shape of a bee, otherwise known in the vulgar parlance, as buzzing off.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 January 2014