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Bee legends and myths

Medieval Bee Hives

Medieval Bee Hives

Bees have been around along time, at least a hundred million years. Their ancestors were wasps that ate other insects and the shift to collection pollen may have been triggered by eating insects covered in pollen: as if humans had eaten burgers for millennia and lost the taste for meat but found the buns sufficient. Beetles pollinated flowers before bees but bees are specialised for the task.

Bees may be solitary or live in communities with a variety of social arrangements. The best known is the colony with a queen, female worker bees and male drones. The drones are there to fertilise the queen and once this is done they are driven out of the nest and soon die.

The Honey Bee is the one most important to humans. Honey has medical properties, tastes good and can be fermented to make Mead. Possibly as a result of this bees have been worshipped and or assumed to have prophetic powers. And naturally there were Bee Gods and Goddesses.

The worldwide prevalence of bee myths and veneration for bees suggests possibilities including very early interaction and veneration of bees, or that bees represent a Jungian archetype. Investigating bee lore reveals apparently chaotic layers of legend, a selection of these being presented here


In Ancient India and Ancient Greece lips anointed with honey have been associated with eloquence and even prescience, while the bee colony has often been taken as a model of society.

The bee is also sometimes a symbol of immortality and resurrection and more often of industriousness. In ancient Egypt bees were regarded as the tears of the Sun god Ra while some consider the Fleur de Lys as derived not from the lily but as a stylised representation of the bees associated with the goddess Artemis.

Colloquially the low level operatives of a company are sometimes referred to as “worker bees”, though managers are not called “drones” (perhaps because they seldom generate anything new) and the CEO is never referred to as the Queen, even though they may fly off to start a new colony.

The Bee Maidens

In the Greek Homeric Hymn to Hermes written down in the eighth century BC, the god Apollo talks of three female seers as three bees or bee-maidens, who like himself, practiced divination. These sacred bee-maidens with their gift of prophecy, who sometimes told truth and sometimes lies, were Apollo’s gift to Hermes who had first tricked Apollo out of his cattle then charmed Apollo into giving him the cattle.

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 Parnassos.

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 the truth;

but if they be deprived of the gods' sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together

Apollo did not however give everything to Hermes, the Oracle at Delphi was known as the Delphic Bee and it seems one of the Thriae was named Daphnis (Laurel) after the laurel leave used to create her intoxicated prophetic trance.

The bee maidens were usually identified with the Thriae, a trinity of pre-Hellenic Aegean bee goddesses, also identified and three prophetic nymphs on Mount Parnassus, by whom Apollo was reared, and who were believed to have invented the art of prophecy by means of little stones (thriai), which were thrown into an urn [5]. They are examples of a trinity that crops up in many places: the Maiden, Matron and crone of Wicca, the three Norns, the three furies, the three witches in the Scottish play, and the Three Fates.

In the 3rd century a neoplatonist called Porphyry mentioned the use of Honey in Mithraic ritual, and said that the ancients used to call priestesses of the earth mother, who were here initiates, Bees and called the earth mother herself “Bee like” . They also called the moon the Bee, as lady of Generation, and especially as the exalted moon is the Bull (slain by Mithras) and bees, souls about to be born, are Ox-born. It is pure speculation at this point but the Bee Maidens given to Hermes may have been relics of an earlier tradition which, my unsubstantiated personal gnosis suggests, may have come from Crete

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The Kalevala

In Finland the Kalevala tells how a mother implored the bee Mehilainen to fly three times to gather honey to bring her dead son Lemminkainen back to life. On the third flight the bee brought honey back from heaven and when spread on the son's body the son came back to life. The son's death and resurrection have a parallel in the death and resurrection of Osiris. The son was killed and cut into eight pieces after an unsuccessful trip courting and his mother reassembled all the pieces. Similarly Osiris was killed by Set who cut the body into 14 parts and scattered them. Isis gathered 13 of the parts and eventually resurrected Osiris. Similarly in some shamanic initiations the new shaman is torn to pieces by spirits and put together again. Some modern shamans experience the same thing, in one case having bees extracted from inside them.

The same epic describes the mythical origin of the bee [3] as created when a young girl, Osmotar, who had failed to get ale of barley and hops ( a true beer ) to ferment picked up a pea plant and rolled it in her hands and with her thighs till a bee was born. She then instructed the bee to fetch honey and the honey started the fermentation.

The Bible and Greek Mythology

There are some parallels between bible tales and greek mythology that tantalisingly suggest a common origin or some degree of mutual influence, hence these two regions are considered together. There are relatively few bible references to bees as such, but plenty of references to honey. Since the religions of conquerors tend to make demons of the religions of the conquerors and bees themselves are mentioned only in the context of enemy armies one can speculate that the earlier inhabitants of Israel gave bees a special regard but could not be demonised because honey was economically important to the Israelites. However the Greeks also viewed bees as wild not tame, for example Homer saw bees as wild, never tame, as when the Achaeans issued forth from their ship encampment "like buzzing swarms of bees that come out in relays from a hollow rock" (Iliad, book II). The bee is also seen in a number of Aegean and Near Eastern names. Jewish historian Josephus noted that the name of the poet/prophet Deborah meant "bee". The same root dbr gives "word", "indicating the bee's mission to give the Divine Word, Truth" according to one author.

Moses led his people to a land flowing with milk and honey and the infant Zeus was fed on Milk and Honey. Like Moses and Jesus Zeus was hidden from those in power who would destroy him then, like Jesus, grew up as a God.

The references in the Bible to honey indicate that, as in Egypt, it was an honoured gift. John the Baptist survived on Wind Honey and locusts and honey is mentioned in Revelations. The Song of Solomon compares the taste of a woman to that of honey and when Jesus first appeared after the resurrection he asked for food and was given a honeycomb.

Some Greek and Roman Snippets

A few snippets from [10]

  • Aristaios was worshipped by peasants as the guardian of beekeepers.
  • The Greeks referred to Artemis as the bee goddess
  • The Pythia at delphi was called the Delphic bee.
  • In Greece, it was thought that good souls come back as bees.
  • Like Zeus Dionysus was fed by bees as a baby.
  • Dionysus was said to have made the first hives and showed his people how to gather honey.
  • As the legend goes: Melissa (meaning bee) cared for the infant Zeus while he was being hidden from his father, Chronos, the king of all the gods. Melissa fed Zeus a diet of stolen honey. When discovered, she was turned into a lowly form of an insect.Bees were considered a higher form of an insect. And Zeus knew she kept him alive, so he turned her into a bee. According to Wikipedia however Zeus was nursed by the bee-man Melissus.
  • Pan and Priapus protected and kept bees.
  • Mellonia was the Roman goddess of bees.

Samson, Hercules and Dionysus

In the Bible Samson slew a lion and later observed bees had bred in the carcase, Greek Mythology has the tale of Hercules slaying the Nemean lion, a lion with an impenetrable skin. In the ancient Mediterranean region it was believed that bees could be spontaneously generated from the carcase of a cow if a certain ritual was followed [6], and these rituals may have been present in the myths of the bull god Dionysos [9] where a bull was sacrificed at the rising of the star Sirius and the bees were believed the resurrection of the bull's spirit.

The Samson tale was much discussed by ancient and modern writers. Aristotle stressed the bees' dislike for strong odours and decayed matter making it seem improbable that bees would use a carcass as a nesting place. On the other hand, in tropical countries at a certain season of the year the heat is so intense that it dries up all moisture and the carcass will not decompose. In the desert dead camels remain mummified for a long time and their bodies are entirely free from offensive odours. Indeed exposure to the desert sun was a way poor people could be mummified for free. Often jackals, vultures and dogs gnaw off the soft parts leaving only the skeleton in which the bees may build combs: in the West of the United States (Montana) skeletons of oxen have been found which the bees had converted into nests.

The mythological associations of bees and honey are a confusing mess that needs sorting out, but I note that the prefix “me-” appears in the Kalevala and in Greek Mythology and is associated with bees and their most valuable product, honey, suggesting a pre-Indo-European term for bees and honey.

Wrapping up

I have had to omit a lot, for example Chinese and South American Bee lore in order to keep this to a reasonable length without over-shortening and distorting things.

Bees have been around for a long time and human-bee interaction started thousands of years ago. Honey is their most valuable product, though beeswax is also valuable. In the Mediterranean and Near East there are similar legends about bees and as similar prefix in the Kalevala and Greek legend suggests a possible pre-Indo-European terminology for bees, or that the Kalevala was influenced by Greek sources.

The universality of bee veneration may also mean that the bee is an archetypal symbol, though this is speculation at this point. The fact that bees are seen in some Shamanic journeys tends to confirm this hypothesis but more research is needed.

Bees were apparently regarded as divine messengers and it was believed that the soul could sometimes take the form of a bee before death (Fortean Times 53 p.24 no sources quoted) and in May 1989 A women in Kent wrote to the UK Daily Mirror that a bee came into her house and would not leave. It flew around as if it were trying to tell her something then lay on the window sill as if dying. Then her brother came in to tell her her sister had died (Fortean Times 53 p.24 again). Together with the English custom of telling the bees of important family events and the three bee maidens again hints at a long term association of bees with death and other important events: fir example bees would not only be told of a death but mught be invited to a wedding

Bee lore presents a confusing mix of sources and a lot of work needs to be done to be able to make sense of it.



[2] The target for this link no longer exists.


[4] Includes reference to the Bee Maidens

[5] The Thriae


[7] Hub Pages consider this source a prohibited site. Complain to them not me.

[8] This link has vanshed from the internet

[9] The Bee Goddess

[10] Bee Lore



AlexK2009 (author) from Edinburgh, Scotland on January 20, 2013:

Thanks sparkster, It was fun researching it and comments like this motivate me to keep writing as my traffic declines.

Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on January 20, 2013:

Not sure how I missed this hub (may have been homeless at the time it was published). However, all I can say is WOW! Voted up, useful, awesome and interesting.

dialogue on May 24, 2012:

I feel the above hub is interesting and informative. I must vote up this Well written, Thanks for sharing :)

AlexK2009 (author) from Edinburgh, Scotland on May 24, 2012:

Thanks UnnamedHarald: I hope to go into more detail on some areas later. Bees are interesting, though not my favourite companions

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 24, 2012:

This is a very unique subject and I read it with interest. I believe bees are very underrated but had no idea they were so venerated in ancient times. I worked at a place where the CEO occasionally referred to herself as the queen bee, implying we were worker bees-- not drones. She even dressed up as a bee on Halloween.

AlexK2009 (author) from Edinburgh, Scotland on May 23, 2012:

Thanks Markbennis. As I say I had to miss out a lot. One day I will start collecting related hubs to make an ebook but not just yes. Probably not tthis year.

markbennis on May 23, 2012:

Wow. That was a fascinating collection of bee history and their association with us and throughout our own history. The ancients past on much wisdom down through the ages by integrating useful knowledge and incorporating it, into a story so it will always be remembered.

To be honest, I have certainly learned more than one piece of history through your hub, so congratulations and voted up!

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