The Bees of Mythology

Aristaeus

“Slight though the poet’s theme, not slight the praise. Of air-born honey, gift of heaven, I now take up the tale.”  ~ Virgil Georgics Book IV

Consider the mythic tale of Aristaeus.  Aristaeus, the son of Apollo, was a beekeeper among other things. He treasured his bees and taught the art of the management of the hive.  Upon finding one day that all of his bees had perished, he went to seek help from his mother.  She advised him to consult Proteus, an old prophet who lived in the sea.  After a struggle to gain his cooperation, Aristaeus asked Proteus to tell him the nature of the bees demise and what he could do to remedy it.  Proteus replied, “Make a sacrifice of four bulls and four cows, for you have angered the nymphs, companions of Eurydice, for whose death you are to blame.”  Aristaeus obeyed and when he returned nine days later, he discovered that a swarm of bees had made their hive in the carcass of one of the animals.  Aristaeus happily returned to his beekeeping.

Throughout all mythologies bees can be found dripping with meaning and coated with symbolism.  Honey – the drink of the gods of Mt. Olympus – gave Pindar the gift of poetry and Pythagoras the gift of science.  The bees themselves gave Apollo the gift of prophecy.  Egyptian mythology tells of the origins of bees from the tears of the sun god, Ra.  The story goes that when his tears hit the earth, they were transformed into bees and began producing honey. Could the association of bees with the sun gods have something to do with the golden sun-like honey they produce?

The tiny bee is huge in its symbolism.  There are two that come to mind most readily.  One is industry, the other is communication.  Bees are always working – collecting pollen , taking care of the hive, protecting the queen – and labor tirelessly until their death.  They are extremely productive and so can indicate an increase of productivity in our own work and lives or the need to pay more attention to that part of us to work harder to get things done.  Many people have heard of the “dance of the bees”.  Bees “dance” to communicate whether it’s the most abundant and accessible source of pollen or the ideal location at which to build a new hive.  Bees can indicate a need for more communication with people in our lives or tell us the time is right to communicate our ideas to others.

To dream of the bee is to encounter a wealth of symbolism. Take your pick while interpreting this dream, but in most cases, I can assure you, the meaning will be nothing but positive.

Winter’s Gold

I had a wonderful dream one night
Of silvery bees and skep
Metal reflecting sky and light
And beauty while I slept.

bee skep

And while in stillness there I lay
My dreams spun honey-gold
Enough to keep my fears at bay
Through winter’s dark and cold.

Until I wake to morning-spring
And winter’s work revealed,
I’ll wait to see what day will bring
And pray what’s torn is healed.

I had a wonderful dream last night
Of silvery bees and skep
A place of fantasies and light
Where winter’s gold is kept.

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5 Responses to The Bees of Mythology

  1. danroberson says:

    My first four published magazine articles were in the American Bee Journal. Reading your poem brought back memories. I’m still keeping bees although not in skeps. Thanks for sharing. btw there’s a new theory about the decimation of bees.

    • I have fond memories of my grandfather’s bees. My husband and I hope to have our own someday.

      I assume you are talking about colony collapse disorder and other things which are taking their toll on the bee population? I didn’t even think of the connection between the story of Aristaeus and the current demise of bees. A parable for these modern times, perhaps?

  2. wordcoaster says:

    Enjoyed your connection of the old and the new very much here–I was wondering how Aristaeus had angered the nymphs. I’m sure there’s a story behind that. I don’t think I’ve ever had a good dream about bees before; the only one with bees I can remember is one where I was running up a hill and I fell and a swarm of bumblebees all landed on me and stung me. (It was pretty terrifying). But I found your poem beautiful nonetheless. Thank you so much for subscribing! :D

    • How did Aristaeus anger the nymphs? Of course there’s a story! We’d have to go back to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to find out. You might be familiar with the story of how Orpheus attempted to bring his wife, Eurydice, back from the dead – and almost succeeded. We have to bring Aristaeus into the picture if we want to learn how she died and to answer your question. I’ll quote from Bulfinch’s Mythology: “Eurydice, shortly after her marriage, while wandering with the nymphs, her companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus, who was struck with her beauty and made advances on her. She fled, and in flying trod upon a snake in the grass, was bitten in the foot, and died.” You can see why the nymphs were a little miffed at Aristaeus and took it out on his bees. Nothing short of a sacrifice would appease them. Thanks for the question. I think I’ll have to write about Orpheus and Eurydice soon.

      And I stand corrected about bee dreams always being sweet. (pun intended) Your dream does sound terrifying. I accidentally threw a shovelful of dirt on top of a bumble bee hive in the ground while I was gardening and got chased and stung a few times. (This was real, not a dream.) It was pretty terrifying and it hurt. Bumble bee stings are the worst. Try metallic bees next time, like in my dream. They are much more pleasant. :)

      • wordcoaster says:

        Yes, please write about Eurydice and Orpheus! I would love that! I have gotten stung/bitten by many things (jellyfish, bees, spiders), but my true life bumblebee story is that I was playing in the loft of my grandparents’ barn with their barn-cat and got stung behind the ear. I looked a lot like Dumbo for a while, it swelled up so much. I found it really affected my hearing–one ear facing forward and the other facing out normally. Not so fun. Metallic bees are forever marred by the Bradbury story in his Martian Chronicles where they are used as bullets. Still, your silver bees are shiny and harmless and happy. I like them :)

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