History is rife with lost knowledge and traditions whose meaning has blurred with the passage of time. I believe the ‘Bee’ is one such tradition, and that its symbolism was important to civilizations of all ages. Inexplicably, the Bee is dying and nobody is quite sure why. Legend asserts that when the Bee dies out, man will shortly follow. We will review the implications of the Bee’s apparent demise in due course, however in this - our first instalment, we will examine the genesis of the Bee’s symbolism in the mist of prehistory.
The Bee in Prehistory
Thanks to fossilisation, Bees over 100 million years old have been discovered in amber, frozen in time, as if immortalised in their own honey. The Greeks called amber Electron, and associated it with the Sun God Elector, who was known as the awakener. Honey, which resembles amber, was also known as an awakener, a regenerative substance that was revered across the ancient world. The resemblance of honey with amber led to the Bees exalted status amongst ancient man and secured its favor over other fossilized insects. Marcus Valerius Martialis, the first century Latin poet renowned for his twelve books of Epigrams, commemorates the symbolism:
"The bee inclos'd, and through the amber shewn,
Seems buried in the juice, which was his own.
So honour'd was a life in labor spent:
Such might he wish to have his monument."
Bees accompanied Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and during the mythical Golden Age, honey dripped from trees like rain water. In Egypt, Bees symbolized a stable and obedient society, mantras that would later be adopted by Freemasonry – and the United States of America. The Bee’s ability to pollinate was not lost on prehistoric man and contributed to its reputation as a regenerative, transformative and mystical creature. Indeed, paintings from prehistory confirm that the Bee has been revered for tens of thousands of years.
In the Cave of the Spider near Valencia Spain, a 15,000 year old painting depicts a determined looking figure risking his life to extract honey from a precarious cliff-side Beehive. Honey hunting represents one of man’s earliest domestic pursuits and hints at the genesis of the Bee’s adoration in prehistory.
Veneration of the Bee continued in Neolithic Spain, as the highly stylised rendering of a dancing Bee below illustrates. The image underscores the quandary with Bee symbolism; that is, most of us would be hard pressed to identify the image and others like it, as a Bee. The tradition of the Bee worship in Spain has been preserved to this day, albeit under the rather macabre guise of Bull fighting. The modern day ‘sport’ is actually an extension of Mithraism, the ancient mystery school whose rites included the ritualistic slaughter of bulls. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, for to understand how bulls are related to Bees we must examine the Bee in prehistory still further.
The Bee is the only insect that communicates through dance, yet this largely forgotten trait is one of the reasons why Bee imagery from antiquity is often lost on the untrained eye. In her authoritative and oft quoted book, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, Marija Gimbutas examines imagery on artefacts from Old Europe, circa 8000 BC, and concludes that they portray the Bee as a manifestation of the Mother Goddess, as depicted below.
The Mother Goddess is arguably the oldest deity in the archaeological record and her manifestations are numerous, including likenesses of butterflies, toads, hedgehogs - and dancing Bees. In the ancient world, dancing Bees appear to have been special - the Queen Bee in particular, for she was the Mother Goddess - leader and ruler of the hive, and was often portrayed in the presence of adorning Bee Goddesses and Bee Priestesses.
In addition to dancing Bee symbolism, Gimbutas identified images of Bees as stick men, or schematized figures, with their arms arched over their head like the Dancing Goddess motif so common in Sumerian and Egyptian reliefs.
Clearly, the Bee was depicted in manners unidentifiable to the casual observer. And to be fair, this is no wonder, for the Bee was often portrayed in a highly stylized fashion anyway, and occasionally its features were distorted due to the unrefined skill of the artist in antiquity, as well as fact that the artist may have been in a shamanic, drug induced trance at the time the image was created. Furthermore, the image of the Bee was often prejudiced by the surface it was created on, i.e. rock wall, statue or mud brick, etc, and the perspective that this afforded.
So let’s look at several more examples, starting with a well known image that few would associate with Bee symbolism; a 10,000 year old Anatolian Mother Goddess wearing a Beehive styled tiara. The Beehive inspired motif was popular in earliest society and confirmed the Goddesses exalted status as a Queen Bee who ‘streams with honey’, a substance of considerable importance, and status, in ancient times.
Also in Anatolia, this time at the Neolithic settlement of Catal Huyuk, rudimentary images of Bees dating to 6540 BC are painted above the head of a Goddess in the form of a halo. Nearby, paintings of Beehive comb cells adorn rock strewn temple walls, recalling the day when such symbolism was widely understood – and important. In Anatolia, Bee veneration continued for thousands of years, as demonstrated by the 18th century BC Hittites, who relied on honey as an important element of their religious rites.
Catal Huyuk was first ‘discovered’ in 1958 and is widely regarded to be the most important site of its kind in the world. The complex was excavated by James Mellaart between 1961 and 1965 and found to feature two prominent images: the Mother Goddess, and the bull. Together with the Bee, these images comprise the essence of our research, as we shall see. However, images of Bees from antiquity are not limited to Old Europe, for in far away lands such as Australia, Aboriginal cave paintings of Beehives have been dated to 10,000 BC.
In addition to cave paintings, Aboriginals also carved images on the inside of eucalyptus tree bark, including drawings of men with bags of honey over their shoulders.
Similarly, the following images illustrate how the Bee can be misinterpreted as representing other, more esoteric or otherworldly creatures. For instance, spiraling circles appear frequently in rock art, and on occasion have been interpreted to represent planetary alignments or symbols of advanced civilisations. In fact, the image below represents rock art from the sacred store house of Australia Honey Ant shamans, who hunted Honey Ants as the only source of honey in an otherwise dry and arid desert landscape (Spencer and Gillen, 1899). The rocks are located in a valley where shamans performed rituals designed to increase their supply of honey, for the sacred nectar provided a variety of medicinal and nutritional uses. Ironically, the conical images hints at the origins of the ancient Labyrinth design, a structure that played an important role in Egyptian, Greek and of course, Atlantian mythology; cultures that venerated the Bee.
Images from the ancient world are frequently interpreted through modern eyes as representing supernatural or even extraterrestrial events, due to the extraordinary images they portray. This is especially true of images whose symbolism includes figures in flight. Most notably, Zecharia Sitchin, linguist and writer of the controversial Earth Chronicles series, has devoted a lifetime to interpreting Sumerian reliefs and believes they represent extraterrestrial contact on earth.
For example, the Sumerian stele below is one of many believed by alternative history writers to depict figures of alien origin. However, more measured interpretations believe that this scene, and others like it, depict the worship of the Mother Goddess, manifest as a Queen Bee or Bee Goddess; a figure who is frequently adorned by her followers - the Bee Priestesses. Again, this should not be viewed as unusual, for honey was regarded by Sumerian physicians as a unique and vital medicinal drug. In fact, it has been suggested that the Sumerians invented Apitherapy, or the medical use of Honey Bee products such as honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis and bee venom. And least we forget, it was the Bee that led ancient man to the plants whose hallucinogens transported consciousness into the spirit world of the gods. Furthermore, objects cast in Beeswax were discovered in the earliest of Sumerian societies. Why then, should the source of these important byproducts - the Bee, not have been worshipped?
The Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer is believed to have flourished between 5300 - 3500 BC. In addition to producing dozens of cultural firsts – or inventions, Sumerians appear to have been the first to depict winged figures in art, including humans with wings. Might this symbolism be attributable to worship of the Bee Goddess? Could the Bee have been the inspiration for winged figures of all kinds? Was the Bee the archetype for biblical angels? Although alluring, such assertions are rather speculative at this juncture, and so we will reserve judgement until we have examined the Bee and its evocative symbolism in further detail.
Gigantic statues from the Assyrian city of Nimrud - now modern Iraq, and Persepolis - now modern Iran, appear to have continued the Sumerian ‘winged tradition’ by depicting bulls with wings. This is intriguing, for ancient cultures the world over have maintained that Bees are born of bulls, and here we have statues depicting bulls with wings.
The ancient custom of placing a Beehive in the head of a bull was at first a domestic exercise, and enabled the bull’s head to be purified of all matter before being used for practical purposes. Only later did the tradition morph into a highly symbolic ritual where Bees found on the carcasses of dead bulls represented the regeneration of souls. As we shall see, the belief that Bees were born of sacred bulls was especially prevalent in Egypt and Mediterranean cultures such as the Greeks and Minoans. Like the Sumerian reliefs that depicted humans with wings, the representation of bulls with wings will be duly noted and no conclusions drawn - just yet.
The Bee featured prominently in another ancient culture – the Dogon, a tribe from the West African region of Mali whose Nommo ancestors and Sirian mythology were made famous by Robert Temple in his book, The Sirius Mystery. The Dogon belief system is ancient, and until approximately 140 AD, its zodiac featured the Bee as the symbol of the constellation presently occupied by Libra. The Bee’s position in the Dogon Zodiac is significant to esoteric thought leaders such as Cabalists, who recognize the Bee’s role in establishing balance and harmony in the zodiac - and in life. Curiously, two of the most common Dogon symbols resemble schematized figures identified by Marija Gimbutas as Bees; one is associated with vital food supplies and the other with reincarnation. Together, the Dogon images reflect the essence of the Bee’s perceived value in ancient times.
The Bee in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians shared many similarities with the Sumerians and Dogons, including the veneration of Bees. Sophisticated Apiculture, or the organized craft of Beekeeping, was practiced in Egypt for thousands of years. According to Bee expert Eva Crane, whose authoritative book,The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting remains the primary reference work in the genre; “beekeeping was very important before 3000 BC, especially in the Delta.” In other words, the agricultural, nutritional, medicinal and ritualistic value of the Bee and its honey was important in Egypt from pre-dynastic times onwards, as demonstrated by the fact that King Menes, founder of the First Egyptian Dynasty, was called "the Beekeeper”; a title ascribed to all subsequent Pharaohs. Additionally, the Kings administration had a special office called the ‘Sealer of the Honey’, and Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt bore the title "he who belongs to the sedge and the bee”. An image of the Bee was even positioned next to the King’s cartouche.
EgyptologistWallis Budge translated the Book of Opening the Mouth, and in doing so provided insight that confirmed the Bees’ importance in Egyptian mythology. One phrase simply read, “The Bee, giving him protection, they make him to exist”, while another adds: “Going about as a bee, thou seest all the goings about of thy father.” The later may in fact refer to the Ka, or an individual’s soul - or double, who is nurtured after death.
Egyptian mythology contains countless references to the Bee, including the belief that Bees were formed through the tears of the god RA. To put this into perspective, we are informed that the most important god in the Egyptian pantheon had Bees for tears. The ancient writings of Am-Tuat (the Otherworld) explains:
"This god cries out to their souls after he hath entered the city of the gods who are on their sand, and there are heard the voices of those who are shut in this circle which are like the hum of many bees of honey when their souls cry out to Ra."
And similarly, the Salt Magical Papyrus states:
“When RA weeps again and the water which flows from his eyes upon the ground turns into working bees. They work in flowers and trees of every kind and wax and honey come into being.”
The Bee’s association with the tears of RA is interesting, for the ideogram of the Bee has been interpreted by Egyptologists to represent honey, and its eyes the verb, “to see”. Many have studied its meaning, such as the Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner, who featured the Bee in his bookEgyptian Grammar. So did the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe, who believed the Egyptians had forgotten the original word for Bee. Similarly, the Egyptologist Hermann Grapow felt that the Bee’s title was completely "unreadable". The point being, Egyptologists agree that they have yet to ascertain the symbol’s true meaning.
Intriguingly, Northern Egypt - the land stretching form the Delta to Memphis was known as “Ta-Bitty”, or “the land of the bee”. Similarly in the bible, the Lord promises to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into a land flowing with milk and honey. Poetically, later civilizations referred to the land of milk and honey as a sort of mythical utopia; a bountiful, abundant and fertile region, reminiscent of the Mother Goddess herself.
Bees are portrayed on the walls of Egyptian tombs and offerings of honey were routinely presented to the most important Egyptian deities. Indeed, honey was the ‘nectar of the gods’, and like the Sumerians before them, Egyptian physicians valued its medicinal value in many important procedures. In other words, they too practiced Apitherapy. Egyptian medicine men were often indistinguishable from sorcerers, and Beeswax was an essential ingredient in the creation of effigies used in rituals. In her 1937 book, The Sacred Bee, Hilda Ransome recounts several examples, stating that “One of the earliest instances of the magical use of wax is in the Westcar Papyrus.” In her example, Ransome recounts how a Beeswax effigy of a crocodile comes alive and eats the lover of mans wife as revenge for violating his marriage agreement.
Honey was frequently mentioned in papyri and was even a vital ingredient in Egyptian beer. This linked the Bee to commerce, for beer was often used as a form of wages. In fact, the versatile nectar was so cherished that promises of honey from husband to wife were included in marriage contracts, and even the Pharaoh Ramses III offered up 15 tons of honey to the Nile God Hapi, in the 12th Century BC. The Health Benefits of Honey web site sheds further light on honey’s unique role in Egyptian society:
“The oldest hieroglyphic carvings in temples, on sarcophagi and obelisks sufficiently prove that bees and honey had a vital significance in the daily life of the population of Egypt…Honeycombs, honey cakes, sealed jars of honey and lotus blooms were placed next to the sarcophagi as food for the souls of the dead. In the tomb of Pa-Ba-Sa, in Thebes, the entire wall is decorated by rows of bees. A man is shown pouring honey into a pail, another is kneeling and praying before a pyramid of honeycombs. On the wall of the tomb of Rekh-Mi-Re all phases of the honey industry are depicted; how the combs were removed from the hives with the aid of smoke, the baking of honey cakes, the filling and sealing of jars, etc.”
The Bee is featured prominently in many Egyptian temples, including the pillars of Karnak, the Luxor obelisk now erected on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the 20th Dynasty sarcophagus of Rameses III, a granite statue of Rameses II, the sarcophagus of a 26th Dynasty priest and on the Pyramid of Unas, to name but a few. Additionally, at the temple of Dendera an inscription recounts how Osiris emulated the Bee and provided instructions for knowing the “hsp”, or the sacred garden of the Bee in the other world - a domain believed to contain the tree of the golden apples of immortality. And in the Egyptian Delta, in the ancient Temple of Tanis – which is said to have once housed the Ark of the Covenant, the Bee was its first and most important ideogram. In fact, the Bee is even featured on the Rosetta Stone.
An intriguing source for the genesis of Bee symbolism in Egyptian mythology is the Eastern Egyptian Desert (EED) – a desolate expanse of Wadi’s stretching eastward from Luxor to the Red Sea. The seldom visited land is renowned for its pre-dynastic rock art, etched on barren cliff sides and isolated rock faces. The region has quietly emerged as a leading candidate for Egypt’s pre-dynastic origins, and may hold vital clues as to the genesis of Bee symbolism in Egyptian society.
The importance of EED rock art as an indicator of pre-dynastic Egypt settlement was first observed by two pioneering Egyptologists in the early part of the 20th century; Arthur Weigall in 1907 and Hans Winkler in 1936. The region was later popularized by Egyptologist and New Chronology proponent David Rohl, whose book Legend; The Genesis of Civilization, and subsequent catalogue of EED rock art, rejuvenated the debate over Egypt’s origins and underscored the regions importance in pre-dynastic studies. The essence of Rohl’s hypothesis is that EED rock art depicts the migration of a people who dragged their boats from Mesopotamia across the desert and into the Nile Valley, where they ultimately settled and founded pre-dynastic Egyptian civilization.
Another respected Egyptologist, Toby Wilkinson from Cambridge University, wrote of the importance of the EED in his book; Genesis of the Pharaohs, and drew his own, albeit more conventional conclusions. I toured the region with both men in 1999 and found its evocative rock art to be magical, mysterious, and well worth the journey.
The EED rock art features two images of relevance in our analysis, and each occurs with regularity in the Wadi’s leading westward to the Nile Valley. The first is an exalted looking figure with exaggerated plume-like attributes, as featured in the picture above. The plumed figure appears in both male and female form, and is usually depicted standing in a boat. The unusual lines extending upwards from the main figures’ heads, recall the antenna of the Bee while hinting at the shape of the plumes that would characterize the headdress of Egyptian Kingship for thousands of years to come. They also recall the god Amun, who is frequently shown with two tall plumes rising on top of a crown.
The other image of note is the Dancing Goddess motif, a woman with her hands bowed over her head just as the Bee Goddess had been depicted in Sumerian and Central European reliefs thousands of years earlier. The image is widespread in Egyptian mythology, although its origins remain a mystery. The abundance of Dancing Goddess images in the EED is especially intriguing, for they appear to support two different but equally interesting scenarios. Firstly, that the EED was one of the routes traveled by the Sumerians into the Nile Valley – as argued by Rohl, and secondly, that the EED was the path traveled by the forefathers of the Mormon religion; a group whose mythology is nothing if not obsessed with a legendary man-led migration of Bees across the ancient world and into America – or so its modern founders claim. We shall review the latter further, in our second installment, for the Mormon religion has greatly influenced the adoption of Bee symbolism in America.
With respect to the Dancing Goddess motif, Yosef Garfinkel informs us of an intriguing observation in his book, Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture;
“In the early Neolithic period of the Near East, female figures played the dominant role in dancing, and they compromise 75% of the depictions. In Predynastic Egypt, a similar, high proportion of female figures appears in the dancing scenes (ca 83%).”
Once again, this is especially interesting when we consider that the Bee is the only insect that communicates with dance, and according to scholars, Dancing Goddesses represent Bees – and here in the pre-dynastic EED we find a wide assortment of Dancing Goddess figures.
Still another visual clue is the Egyptian ceremonial dress, which has certain stylistic similarities with the Bee, namely the headdress, or nemes, and alternating yellow and dark horizontal stripes. This visual synchronicity is discernable in many reliefs and sculptures but is perhaps best illustrated in the death mask of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh, Tutankhamen. Before dismissing the possibility that the Bee inspired Egyptian ceremonial dress, it is interesting to recall the Beehive tiara of the 8th millennium BC Turkish Bee Goddess discussed earlier – a motif agreed by scholars to represent the Bee. In this light, does the Egyptian Bee motif seem so far fetched?
Once again, Marija Gimbutas provides a valued perspective: “The image of the goddess in the shape of a Bee or some other kind of insect has a very long history.” With this in mind, the notion of the Mother Goddess manifest as Queen Bee is interesting, for Bees are the definitive example of a true matriarchal society. The Queen Bee rules, and is viewed as the ‘mother’ of all bees in the hive. She’s fierce, and her power is absolute. The Queen Bee is developed in a pouch while the worker and drone Bees develop in the traditional a 6-sided honeycomb cell, and she develops in 16 days – approximately days 5 faster than other Bees. As a young Bee, the Queen in waiting is fed ‘royal jelly’ – a high protein substance derived from the heads of young Worker Bees. The young royal is groomed to become the sole, mated Queen in the hive, and is expected to kill all competitors that stand in her way. Her success as a ‘warrior princess’ is facilitated by the fact that unlike her rivals, her grooming has enabled her to sting repeatedly without dying.
If the Bee Goddess was a manifestation of the Mother Goddess, then we must ask; why is its symbolism not more visible in Egyptian mythology? One possibility, is that the Mother Goddess manifest as a ‘Queen Bee’ or Bee Goddess, morphed into another deity altogether. Another possibility is that the tradition was later suppressed - but why? We shall now review each scenario in more detail, in hope of finding some answers.
There are several candidates for the Egyptian deity that the Mother Goddess turned Bee Goddess morphed into, including the Egyptian God Min, who was known as the ‘Master of the Wild Bees’. Min was a pre-dynastic Bee Master, dated to 3000 BC, or even earlier. Min is traditionally depicted dressed in feathers with Bee like antenna plumes and an erect penis, and his symbols include a white bull and an arrow. Although Min is in fact a strong candidate, upon closer inspection, it appears that the Egyptian Goddess Neith is in fact the deity that the Mother Goddess turned Bee Goddess morphed into, for Neith was a warrior goddess with fertility symbolism and virginal mother qualities; all attributes of the Mother Goddess – and the Queen Bee.
Neith was an important deity from the First Dynasty (3050 – 2850 BC) whose cult was based in Sais, a town in the Western Nile Delta. Sadly, Neith’s temple is now lost from history, but fortunately some interesting accounts have survived. We are informed by the 5th century Greek Historian Herodotus, in his work Histories, that the temple had ‘pillars carved so as to resemble palm-trees’. We shall discuss the significance of palm trees further in our second installment, for they appear to be related to Bees. Herodotus also informs us that the gateway to the temple was;
‘an astonishing work, far surpassing all other buildings of the same kind in both extent and height, and built with stones of rare size and excellency’.
The Romans later revived the cult of Neith and reenacted rituals symbolizing her summer return – on a boat, like the Bee Goddess was portrayed in the EED, as it migrated from eastern lands. In Sais, Neith was regarded as the Goddess of the ‘House of the Bee’ and the Mother of RA; the ‘the ruler of all’. Neith’s House of the Bee bore a very curious inscription, indeed, as first century historian Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus recounts;
“I am All That Has Been, That Is, and That Will Be. No mortal has yet been able to lift the veil that covers Me.”
The 18th century author and philosopher of early German Romanticism Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg – more commonly known as Novalis, paid homage to the inscription in his riddle;
“There was one who arrived there. He lifted the veil of the goddess at Sais. But what did he see? Wonder above wonder, he saw himself.”
Neith was known as the Veiled Goddess, and thus the reference on her temple inscription to ‘lifting a veil’ is intriguing, for Bees are often calledhymenoptera, stemming from the word hymen, meaning “veil winged”, representing that which concealed the holy parts of a temple, as well as the veil or hymen of a woman’s reproductive organ. Only later did the veiled wing become associated with the goddess Isis.
Equally as curious, Herodotus tells us that the Egyptian god Osiris – whose many symbols included the Beehive, was buried behind the ‘House of the Bee’, which is tantalizing on several levels. Firstly, Osiris is associated with the bull and the Bee, representing the transformation of souls from one to the other. Secondly, the Temple of Neith is where Plato recounted the legend of Atlantis, as relayed by Egyptian priests to the Greek law-giver Solon. Validating Plato’s account some 300 years later, a philosopher by the name of Crantor traveled to Sais to investigate the legend for himself. As Simon Cox and Mark Foster recount in An A to Z of Atlantis;
“Crantor says that he saw the columns in the temple on which the hieroglyphic inscriptions recounted the destruction of the civilization of Atlantis.”
The entire legend is interesting, for the location most commonly believed by scholars to be Atlantis is a Minoan island known in ancient times asThera, or modern day Santorini. We will discuss the Minoans in more detail in our second installment, but suffice to say their culture shared many similarities with the Egyptians, including the veneration of Bees. Although speculative, the notion of Atlantis as a centre of bull and Bee worship is alluring, and based on the evidence, not entirely unfounded.
It’s worth noting that the Western Oasis of Siwa is where Alexander The Great visited the famous Oracle of Amun; the Egyptian god with the Bee antenna inspired plumes on his crown. This is of interest, given the fact that Alexander was believed to have been wrapped in honey before his burial, a common custom throughout Egypt and Assyria. Once again, it is Herodotus who comments on the tradition when he reports that; “Babylonians buried their dead in honey, and had funeral lamentations like the Egyptians.” Might the use of honey in ancient burials hint at the earliest forms of mummification?
An Egyptian monument that inconspicuously exhibits Bee symbolism is the Saqqara step pyramid, which boasts 6 levels above ground and 1 very special level below - the Apis Bull necropolis known as the Serapeum. On the most fundamental level, the step pyramid recalls the 6-sided shape of a Bee’s honeycomb as well as the 6th god of the Egyptian pantheon – Asar, the god of life and death whose symbol is the Djed pillar, and who was often depicted as a ‘green man’.
The Serapeum was discovered northwest of the Step Pyramid in 1850 by the explorer Auguste Mariette, who became interested in Saqqara after traveling to Egypt to study Coptic texts. The story goes that Mariette observed the head of a Sphinx protruding from the sand near the Step Pyramid, which ultimately led him to the entrance of the necropolis where he discovered a burial hall of sacred Egyptian Apis bulls.
Herodotus described the Apis bull as sacred, stating that the;
“Apis is the calf of a cow which is never afterwards able to bear young. The Egyptians say that fire comes down from heaven upon the cow, which thereupon bears Apis.”
Furthermore, Herodotus distinguished between the fate of the male and female bull;
“it was only the black bulls with special marks – a white disc between its horns being one of the most important – who were really entitled to the name Apis.”
Hilda Ransome adds;
“the females, who are sacred to Isis, are thrown into the river (Nile), but the males are buried in the suburbs of the towns with one or both of their horns appearing above the surface of the ground to mark the place. When the bodies are decayed a boat comes, at an appointed time, from the island of Prosopitis, which is a portion of the Delta, and calls at the various cities in turn to collect the bones of the oxen.”
The description is fascinating, and underscores the ritualistic significance of the Apis bull in Egyptian religion and society. It also highlights that only certain bulls were revered, namely the Apis, which was all black except for a white triangle on its forehead, and a bull with a white body and a black head called Muntu, which was sacred to the Bee master god Min. The cult of the god Apis dates to the First Dynasty and possibly earlier, for the constellation of age of Taurus began in 4530 BC. Like the Apis bull itself, the constellation has a distinctive triangle on its forehead, with a prominent star – Alderbaran, in the location of the “third eye”, which represents with the 7th chakra, or the passage through the abyss and the notion of transcending time. Clearly, the Egyptians were obsessed with the veneration of the bull. The question remains, was their obsession intrinsically linked to the Bee?
Egyptologists believe that the Apis Bull was bestowed with the regenerative qualities of the Memphite god Ptah – the Egyptian god of reincarnation. They also believed that those who inhaled the breath of the Apis bull received the gift of prophesy, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Egyptians believed that the bull was transformed into Osiris Apis, after death. ‘Bee’ in Latin is ‘Apis’, which may have derived from Sipa / Asipa in Mesopotamia; Sipa meaning ‘Great Shepherd in the Sky’ and Apis meaning Osiris. This relates to the belief that after death, the Pharaoh’s soul joined Osiris as a star in the constellation of Orion. Alternatively, some believe it became a Bee star in the constellation of Cancer. And of course Sipa is Apis spelt backwards.
The god Apis was related to Osiris / Asar and carried the title WHM, meaning repetition of births. It is worth mentioning that Osiris is neither associated with regeneration - the concept of starting over at the beginning of the cosmic ladder of births, nor with reincarnation, - the progression forward or backward in the cosmic ladder based on the virtue of ones actions in this life. Rather, Osiris represented resurrection, or the obtainment of total consciousness and awareness of all that has been and will be, by willingly stepping off the ladder after death and terminating the process of reincarnation. And this required preparation, intent and ritual.
Curiously, Osiris’s birth was announced by three wise men – or stars, his flesh was symbolically eaten in the form of communion cakes and he was murdered under a full moon before being resurrected. Because of these, and other similarities with the life of Jesus Christ, Osiris is regarded by many as the archetype savior. And as we will discuss in our second installment, Jesus was regarded as an Aetherial Bee and the Qumran Essenes – as King Bees. So both Osiris and Jesus are linked to Bees – once again the question is; by association, were Bees also connected with the concept or resurrection?
The worship of the bull in ancient cultures predates its veneration in Egypt by thousands of years. In Old Europe – and the South of France in particular, caves deep underground depict sacred bulls, such as the 17 foot bull painted on a wall in the ‘Hall of the Bull’ at Lascaux. And in the ‘Temple of Bull Heads’ at Catal Huyuk, bulls appear to have provided an important ritualistic function, as the archeologists’ rendering below illustrates. Might the significance of the bull be related to the Bee, in each instance?
As previously noted, the Bee was regarded as sacred due to its multi-purpose nectar and ability to process pollen; a substance regarded as a life-giving ‘dust’ since time immoral. Lands that were graced with Bees flourished – those that were not frequently languished. However, the regenerative symbolism of Bees born from bulls appears to be the aspect the Egyptians revered most, for we are told that an Apis Bull produced 1000 Bees, and that the Bees represented souls. It is unclear where the number 1000 comes from, or for that matter, precisely where and how the concept originated. Nevertheless, the symbolism appears fully formed in Egyptian society from its inception, and in this context is it any wonder that bulls were held sacred? Bulls provided an important domestic function, this is beyond dispute, but could the fact that an Apis bull produced 1000 Bees (souls) have been the real reason why the bull was held sacred in the first place, like it had been 4000 years earlier in ancient Turkey and even earlier in France?
Much speculation has occurred about a statue of an Apis bull found in the Serapeum and the object between its horns in particular. The conventional belief is that it represents the Solar Disc, as depicted between the horns of the Goddess Hathor – the patroness of Alchemy, pictured below. However, another school of thought is that it represents the collective wisdom of Bees in the form of a bowl of honey. As we shall see, the belief that Bees and Beehive’s represented a ‘library’ of knowledge was quite common in the ancient world.
The knowledge that Bees were born of bulls leads us to suggest that the underground necropolis known as the Serapeum may have been a ritualistic centre of regeneration designed to recycle souls from the heads of bulls, and not a mausoleum for sacred Apis bulls in and of themselves. The reader will recall that it was a Sphinx submerged in the sand that led Mariette to unearth the Serapeum in the first place. Poetically, this account recalls an earlier passage from the works of Antigonos of Karystos, a philosopher and writer circa 250 BC who recorded a hauntingly similar custom in ancient Egypt;
“In Egypt if you bury the Ox in certain places, so that only his horns project above ground and then saw them off, they say that bees fly out; for the ox putrefies and is resolved into bees.”
So, the Saqqara Serapeum may have been a ritualistic centre for regenerating souls via Bees born of bulls. In our second instalment, we will explore the manner in which the bull was slaughtered and suggest that the Serapeum many have been a ritual centre for what later surfaced as Mithraism; an ancient mystery school with rites involving the slaughter of bulls.
At this juncture it is worth recalling that the Bee was the symbol of Egypt, and that Beekeeper was the title given to the Pharaoh, and honey was an offering presented to the gods in the afterlife. With this in mind, I believe that evidence suggests that one of Egypt’s most iconic images – the Djed Pillar, may also be related to the Bee. Before revealing how and why, it is necessary to review another Egyptian image of great renown – the Ankh.
With respect to the Ankh, www.Answers.com informs us that; “The original meaning of this Egyptian symbol is not known.” Like so many evocative images, the Ankh has been ascribed a wide spectrum of origins, ranging from the knot of Isis, a woman’s womb, the sunrise, a penis sheath, the royal cartouche, and a plethora of other new-age inspired associations. Refreshingly, the Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner observed that the word for sandal strap resembled the word Ankh, and that the loop around the ankle of the sandal resembled the very image of the Ankh. For adherents of Occam’s Razor – the supposition that the simplest explanation is likely to be the correct one - this interpretation resonates, as does a variation on the theme that suggests that the Ankh was a camel shoe. Both interpretations highlight the fact that objects central to everyday life were held sacred for the domestic, yet vital service they provided.
Similarly, I noted in an earlier writing that the Ankh – whose definitions include ‘The key to the Nile’, may represent an Anchor. The two names are linguistically similar and their respective designs are visually striking.
I believe that the stability of any sea or river faring society would be indebted to the service that an anchor provides. And Pharaoh, who is often portrayed with two ankhs; one in each hand, may have symbolically been grounding himself in this life, and the next. Further, first century Saints in Rome had Ankh-like anchors carved on their tombs and the image appears frequently in the catacombs. Could the Ankh have been an anchor? Occam’s Razor seems to at least support the possibility.
Just as the Ankh may have been an anchor, or some other rudimentary object, the function of the Djed Pillar, arguably the most enigmatic of all Egyptian symbols, may also have its roots in domestic use. The Djed, like the Bee, is strongly associated with the concept of stability. It’s also associated with the god Osiris, creating the belief amongst many scholars that the Djed is ‘the backbone of Osiris’. As previously discussed, Osiris is associated with bulls, regeneration and the Bee. In fact, Djedu is the Egyptian word for Busiris, an ancient centre of Osiris worship. Ultimately, this symbolism has prompted some to suggest that the Djed is actually the sacrum of a bull’s spine – a common offering in ancient animal sacrifices. And in fact, Sacrum in Latin is sacer, or "sacred", a translation of the Greek hieron, meaning sacred or strong bone.
Still others have associated the Djed with the Tree of Life, due to the myth that Osiris was imprisoned in a Tamarind tree, and that the Djed resembles a tree. This is understandable, as the Djed played a vital role in the ‘Renewal’ or ‘Sed Festival’, which was sometimes known as the ‘Festival of the Tail’. During the Sed Festival, Pharaoh would run around an outdoor temple with a tail of a bull affixed to his regalia, stopping to shoot arrows in all cardinal directions in order to symbolically mark the boundaries of his kingdom.
With respect to bow and arrows, it is interesting to note that as a warrior Goddess, Neith is associated with archery – and arrows, as is Min, the pre-dynastic god whose titles included ‘Master of the Wild Bee’. The Sed Festival, which was typically held on the 30th anniversary of the king’s reign, was held throughout Egypt, although Luxor and Saqqara – site of the Apis bull necropolis of regeneration - were arguably the most special (see previous picture of Step Pyramid and the court where the Sed Festival was held).
The Sed Festival featured the Djed, which was ceremonially raised as a symbol of the potency and duration of the pharaoh's rule. We have already noted how honey was believed to prolong life and was a vital ingredient in drinks used for magic and ritual. Not surprisingly then, the Djed is frequently depicted being presented to the Pharaoh’s mouth in various reliefs and stele. And herein lays a clue to its possible function.
The raising of the Djed is depicted in many places and perhaps most notably at Abydos, where a secretive Passion Play took place in the presence of the King. Another centre known for its Djed raising rituals was Memphis – the domain of the god Ptah, who was known as “the Noble Djed’. Memphis is also known to have had a sanctuary dedicated to the Bee where the most noble of women served as priestesses of the goddess Neith. Reliefs showing the raising of the Djed often depict the Djed with plumes, recalling the image of a Bee-like antenna, as earlier discussed, and illustrated below in a relief from Abydos.
So, we have learned that Egypt was the Land of the Bee and that the King was the Beekeeper and that honey was the Nectar of the Godsoffered to the deities in the afterlife. In this context, might the Djed have simply been the instrument that administered honey – the ‘nectar of the gods’, to the actual Gods. Might the Djed have been a form of Honey Dripper? Even the most callused of observers can observe the similarity in design, function and context.
Suggesting that the Djed may have been a real or symbolic honey dripper does not deny that it, or for that matter the Ankh, did not have a deeper, more spiritual, and esoterically important meaning. It only suggests that its origins may very well have been rudimentary and ordinary, and from that foundation sprang more sacred associations.
Lastly, before concluding our review of Bee symbolism in Egypt, we would be remiss if we did not explore the controversy surrounding the image of the Sphinx, for amazingly enough, it too may be related to the Bee. The image depicted on the Sphinx has long been the source of speculation. A lioness is the most popular theory, and is supported by the legend of the gods Akeru; two lion guardians who preside over the east / west axis, and hence the rising and setting sun. The gods are related to Horus – the god of the East, RA - the god of the midday sun and Asar – the god of the night sun. The legend of two lion guardians has in recent times given rise to the belief that a second Sphinx may exists beneath the sands of the Giza Plateau, although this remains to be seen.
Others believe the image of the Sphinx portrays the dog Anubis – or Anpu, and curiously, the vital force of Anpu’s skin is frequently represented by Bees. Anubis was also known as the ‘Lord of the Hallowed Land’, meaning necropolis, and his cult is thought to predate Osiris. And of course, we have the possibility that the 4th Dynasty King Khafre (2558 - 2532 BC) had the Sphinx re-carved in his own image, or obscured its identity – perhaps in an attempt to usurp an earlier matriarchal rule. After all, the Goddess Neith was worshiped more than most other Egyptian Gods at the time of the King’s reign.
Alternatively, as Khafre’s pyramid most closely aligns with the Sphinx, and as he was the son of Khufu, whose pyramid was the grandest in all of Egypt, perhaps he re-carved the Sphinx in his own image in an attempt to ‘one-up’ his father. Or, was it just the opposite? Might Khafre have re-carved the Sphinx in the very image of his father as a form of ancestor worship? Irrespective of these rather speculative suppositions, we may very well find a clue to the true identity of the Sphinx in its name.
The Sphinx was known by the ancient Egyptians as Hun nb and most of us forget that it was the Greeks who named it Sphinx, a word believed to stem from the Greek verb σφιγγω, or sphiggo, meaning "to strangle". As this definition is somewhat ambiguous to our 21st century minds, we will examine what other ancient cultures knew the Sphinx as in hopes of gaining further insight.
For a start, the Sphinx was known as Abul-Hol in Arabic, which has been translated as ‘Father of Terror’. The Sabians called it Hwl, which equates to the Egyptian Hu. Furthermore, the stele in front of the Sphinx refers to Hor-em-Akhet-Khepri-Re-Atum and Atum-Hore-Akhet, with Thutmosis being described as the Protector of the Horakhti. Egyptologists have often translated Hor-em-Akhet and Horakhti as Horus of the Two Horizons, which harkens back to the two guardian gods Akeru. In short, these are the names of the Sphinx in the language of those whose monuments shared the plateau or who visited the site in antiquity. But has that helped us understand the true identity of the Sphinx? Just possibly the answer involves another culture altogether – that of the Minoans.
We will explore the Minoans in the context of the Bee in our second installment, but suffice to say they existed in the same time and in some instances, in the same place as the ancient Egyptians. The Minoans were experts in Beekeeping – or Apiculture, and we know that the Greeks adopted their knowledge of the craft from them. And again, it was the Greeks who named the rock hewn statue ‘Sphinx’ in the first place. So how does all this relate to the Bee? The Minoans had a word for Bee, and they called it ‘Sphex’ (Hilda Ransome, The Sacred Bee P64, 1937).
So what can we conclude from this revelation? The civilization that educated the Greeks in the craft of Beekeeping used the word ‘Sphex’ to describe the Bee – and the Greeks named the rock statue ‘Sphinx’. Entertaining the scenario for a moment; does this mean that the Pharaoh Khafre re-shape the Sphinx with the intent of concealing its Mother Goddess influenced origins? Could the 4th Dynasty have involved an attempt to suppress the cult of the Mother Goddess and conceal the importance of the Goddess Neith – the Goddess that existed before the other Gods? Was the Sphinx already present when Menes first established Kingship and was it known that the Sphinx represented the Bee, hence the Pharaoh’s title, Beekeeper?
The analysis is speculative, and further etymological work is required. At a cursory glance, the Online Etymology Dictionary states that the definition of ‘Sphinx’ includes: “Monster, having a lion's (winged) body and a woman's head.” Further, ‘Sphex’ in ancient Greek and contemporary language refers to Wasps – a form of Bee. Once again, expert etymological work beckons, but the implication that the Sphinx might in some way, shape, or form, represent the Bee remains highly intriguing, and as we shall see in our second instalment, legends of lions and bees and winged sphinx’s are quite common in the ancient world.
Further in the next installment, we will explore the decidedly feminine and winged Sphinxes of the Greek tradition in more detail, for lo and behold, they resemble Bees. We will also discover that another pyramid building culture may shed further light on the matter – the Mayans; a civilization that worshiped the Bee like few others. We will also review the veneration and importance of the Bee across many different cultures and epochs, right up to modern times. Not surprisingly, the lost esoteric significance of the Bee appears to be quite prevalent and significant. But is the Bee, like its once powerful symbolism, at risk of becoming extinct?
My research into the Bee has revealed that this omnipresent creature has been held sacred since the year dot. Along the way I’ve chronicled how the diminutive insect has been incorporated into religion, government, art and literature, as well as how its symbolism – still prevalent in modern times - has largely been forgotten or misinterpreted as something else altogether. In this, the final part of the trilogy, I will review the events that have led to the Bee’s present condition, and contemplate its fate in the light of its most formidable adversary yet; 21st century man.
Forefathers of the American Revolution incorporated the symbolism of the Bee into the very fabric of their government. This should not be regarded as unusual, however, for early American statesmen shared a bond with other more time-honoured nations that enabled Bee symbolism to be transmitted across the globe and into a new era. And that conduit was Freemasonry. The Bee remains an important symbol in Freemasonry and was especially pervasive in Masonic drawings and documents of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the heart of the Masonic tradition are the concepts of industry and stability, virtues that were important to the Egyptians - as well as other ancient civilisations - before being adopted by the United States of America. The recurring theme stems from the stable, regular and orderly society exhibited in a Beehive. In Freemasonry, the Beehive represents all that is proper in society and could arguably be the organisation's most enduring symbol.
Bee symbolism is a vital component of Masonic ideals, although its application within the craft is not without paradox. For instance, the‘Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry’ informs us that the Bee is important to Freemasonry for the same reason it was important to the Egyptians, because of all insects; “only the Bee has a King.” The quote is peculiar for reasons already discussed; namely because the Bees society is matriarchal. Are Masons refereeing to the King Bee – as in the Egyptian pharaoh who bore the title of ‘Beekeeper’, or do they know something we don’t? Could the ‘male only’ tradition of Freemasonry be an extension of the movement that appears to have suppressed or at least tempered goddess worship back in pre-dynastic Egypt? The notion is speculative, but intriguing nonetheless.
The ‘Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry’ provides many references to the Bee, including the fact that honey is used to illustrate moral teachings. In this regard, the Masonic initiate is instructed to;
“Go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and what a noble work she produces; whose labour kings and private men use for their health. She is desired and honoured by all, and, though weak in strength, yet since she values wisdom she prevails.”
Similarly, we are told that;
"The bee hive is an emblem of industry, and recommends the practice of that virtue of all created beings…Thus was man formed for social and active life, the noblest part of the work of God; and he that will so demean himself, as not to be endeavouring to add to the common stock of knowledge and understanding, may be deemed a drone in the hive of nature, a useless member of society, and unworthy of our protection as masons.”
Clearly, Freemasonry is an important reminder of the virtues that early society valued most. And this accounts for the fact that many early American Presidents were Freemasons, such as George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and James Buchanan – to name a few. In fact, most Masonic presidents were Grand Masters of their lodges at one time or another, and as such, would have been installed into the symbolic chair of King Solomon, the historically evasive king who is said to have secured the love of the Queen of Sheba after consulting with a Bee. The Masonic regalia of early American presidents reflects the craft's admiration of the Bee and include a Masonic apron with a prominently positioned Beehive that signified the wisdom and industry of man. The Beehive is positioned directly above an image of a coffin, a vital element of the Masonic 3rd degree ritual, and appears to allude to the Bee's association with resurrection.
So, the forefathers of American government were stimulated by the ideals of Freemasonry, an institution that incorporated Bee symbolism into its philosophy and maintained an invisible hand in the politics of most nations. Historians inform us that French Freemasonry was particularly influential in guiding the ideals of early American statesmen, such as the political philosopher Thomas Jefferson, who shared a peculiar bond with Marquis de Lafayette, a French military officer with strong Masonic affiliations and who served in both the American and French Revolutions.
Masonic ideals permeated the genesis of American society, as they did the French Revolution, and in each instance the symbolism of the Bee was chosen to illustrate the ethos and vision of the nation. In fact, just five years after the death of George Washington, France would crown a new leader who would restore the long and illustrious legacy of the Bee in his country. I speak of Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1804 was crowned Emperor of France in a coronation robe decorated with 300 gold Bees.
The Bee was a hugely important icon of Napoleon’s reign, and his obsession with its symbolism led to his inevitable nickname; The Bee. Napoleon would have grown up with the symbolism of the Bee ingrained in his psyche, for his homeland of Corsica was required to pay the Romans an annual tax equivalent of £200,000 in Beeswax. The young emperor ensured that the Bee was widely adopted in his court as well as on clothing, draperies, carpets and furniture all across France. By choosing the Bee as the emblem of his reign, Napoleon was paying homage to Childeric (436 - 481), one of the ‘long haired’ Merovingian Kings of the region known as Gaul. When Childeric’s tomb was uncovered in 1653, it was found to contain 300 golden jewels, styled in the image of a Bee. And of course, these are the same Bees that Napoleon had affixed to his coronation robe. Sadly, of the 300 Bees only two have survived.
Fortuitously, the tomb of Childeric contained other artefacts that help put the golden amulets into a broader ritualistic context. In addition to Bees, it contained items of divination such as a crystal ball and a bull's head made of gold, amongst other unusual objects, such as a severed horse's head. Childeric’s hoard was entrusted to Leopold Wilhelm von Habsburg, a military governor of the Austrian Netherlands who was believed to have been a descendent of the Merovingian dynasty. Six years after his coronation, Napoleon married Marie-Louise, the daughter of Francis II, the last Habsburg to sit on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire.
Napoleon’s choice of the Bee as the national emblem of his imperial rule speaks volumes about his desire to be associated with the Carolingians and Merovingian’s; the early French kings whose funeral furniture featured Bee and cicada symbolism as a metaphor for resurrection and immortality. And as we reviewed in Part 2, the Bee and cicada represent dualism, with the Bee producing the sound of day and the cicada the sound of the night. The Bee was also a vital symbol of French industry and one of the most prominent emblems of the French Revolution (1789–1799).
From a civic perspective the Bee was a popular emblem of Napoleon’s rule, and more than 60 cities throughout France and Europe selected an officially approved heraldic shield that included three Bees as part of its template.
Of his many impressive feats, Napoleon is probably best remembered for a campaign he led prior to his coronation; his 1798 invasion of Egypt, a country that was a province of the Ottoman Empire at the time. One can only muse at the irony of the man they called The Bee riding horsebackin the land of the Bee, staring at an image that may have been named after the Minoans word for Bee; ‘Sphex’.
Astonishingly, it is thought that the Bee was the precursor to the Fleur-de-lys; the national emblem of France to this day. The theory is supported by many, including the French physician, antiquary and archaeologist Jean-Jacques Chifflet. In fact Louis XII, the 35th King of France, was known as ‘the father of the pope’ and featured a Beehive in his Coat of Arms. Disappointingly, his efforts to have the Bee adopted as the Republic’s official emblem were rejected by the National Convention due to their belief that “Bees have Queens”. Nevertheless, the Bee remained a prominent element of French culture throughout the First and Second Empire (1804 to 1814, and 1852-1870) due to the enthusiastic patronage it had previously received.
As an aside, the researcher Robert Lawlor studied the design of the Bee and Fleur-de-lys in his book; ‘Sacred Geometry’ and concluded that the 1:√ proportion of the Fleur-de-lys is also found in the design of the Islamic Mosque. Intriguingly, the mystical dimension of Islam known as Sufism maintained a secret brotherhood called Sarmoung, or Sarman, meaning Bee. Members of the organization viewed their role as collecting the precious 'honey' of wisdom and preserving it for future generations.
The Fleur-de-lys is not unique to France and has in fact appeared in Egypt, Rome and Israel, amongst other places. However in France, the Bee and the Fleur-de-lys were iconic and embodied the essence of the Merovingian dynasty. And not only are the Merovingian’s purported to be decendants of Jesus Christ, they also linked with a popular modern day mystery involving treasure and heretical secrets in the South of France. I speak of the mystery of Rennes-Le-Château, a curious story that has inspired hundreds of books, including Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’. The legend of Rennes-Le-Château is largely beyond the scope of our discussion, but for a few exceptions – and needless to say they are peculiar.
Rennes-Le-Château is an unassuming yet sombre hilltop hamlet in the shadow of the French Pyrenees. Here, at the turn of the 20th century, a group of priests – most famously Berenger Saunière - aroused suspicion with their curious behaviour and apparent wealth, leading many to speculate that they had discovered a great heretical secret – possibly involving Mary Magdalene, the treasure of Solomon, hoards of the Visigoth’s, or a cache hidden during the French Revolution.
Although the legend of Rennes-Le-Château has struck a chord with modern audiences, its roots stem from the Merovingian kings so revered by Napoleon. And the origins of the legend go something like this: Childeric I fathered Clovis I, who succeeded his father in 481 as king of the region that now borders Belgium and France, and in the process became the first ruler to unite the previously hostile and independent Frankish tribes. A line of descendants leads to Dagobert I, king of the Franks from 629–634, who fathered Sigelbert III, who in turn fathered Dagobert II, who married Giselle de Razes, the daughter of the Count of Razes and the niece of the king of the Visigoths. The two were said to have married at Rhedae, a stronghold widely believed to be Rennes-Le-Château, although the association remains unconfirmed. Years later, in 754 AD, Childeric III died childless, marking the end of a dynasty that had been in decline since Dagobert II was assassinated near Stenay-sur-Meuse on December 23rd, 679 AD.
The belief that the Merovingians were special, and that they represented a royal bloodline, led Napoleon to commission an extensive analysis of their lineage. Fascination with the mysterious line of kings continued into the 20th century when a Frenchman by the name of Louis Vazart founded an organization based in Stenay-sur-Meuse called ‘Cercle Saint Dagobert II’, that specialized in the study of the Merovingians and Dagobert II in particular. For its logo, Vazart chose an image of a Bee inside of a 6-sided cone, or Hexagon – the shape of a Beehive cell, surrounded by a circle. The design recalls the Mayan deity Hu-Nab-Ku, whose name means ‘magical body’ and whose symbol was a square / pyramid shape within a circle.
Vazart’s selection of the Bee is entirely consistent with the subject matter his organisation was studying, for France is known as l'Hexagone, due to its natural 6-sided shape. Coincidently, the centre line of l’Hexagone closely mirrors the old Paris Meridian, passing near Paris in the north and Rennes-Le-Château in the south. The Paris Meridian - an imaginary arc that measures the hours of the day – was later replaced by London’s Greenwich Meridian as the international standard for time keeping. However, in recent years the Paris Meridian has been romanticized and somewhat merged with the notion of the Rose-Line, a mythical sort of ley-line that allegedly connects esoterically significant sites from Roslyn Chapel in Scotland to Saint Sulpice in Paris, and on to Rennes-Le-Château in the South of France. Despite its spurious invention, it is worth mentioning that the two sites that top and tail the Rose-Line; Roslyn Chapel and Rennes-Le-Château, each feature Bee symbolism in rather bizarre ways. And while we have only begun to unravel Rennes-Le-Château’s connection with Bees, it would be a shame if we did not pause long enough to first discuss its Rose-Line counterpart in the north.
Roslyn Chapel was founded by William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, in the 15th century and is renowned for what many believe to be an elaborate display of Masonic symbolism. In fact, some believe that the chapel contains treasures of the Knights Templar or even the Holy Grail itself. Hyperbole aside, Roslyn Chapel does in fact contain a splendidly carved column known as the Apprentice Pillar, or the Princes Pillar as it was called in more ancient accounts. The pillar, which stands to the right of the church altar, is adorned with what is generally regarded as Tree of Life symbolism; two dragons of Yggdrasil – the World Tree according to Norse Mythology - reside at its base while a masonry vine spirals vertically around the column, drawing our attention to the ceiling. The Tree of Life symbolism has its roots – no pun intended – in the Jewish Cabala, a discipline that has much to say about the Bee, as we shall soon see.
Recent theories put forth by Alan Butler and John Ritchie in their book; ‘Rosslyn Revealed: A Library in Stone’, suggest that the ceiling above the Princes Pillar represents “paradise” on earth. And serendipitously – or allegedly by design - on the roof of chapel we find a curious stone Beehive with a lone flower petal entrance that was home to Bees for as long as anyone can remember – as least until they were removed in the 1990’s. However, the existence of the Beehive in the proximity of the vine recalls a biblical account of a staff that grows into a great tree, with; “a vine twisted around it and honey coming from above." As is often the case, hundreds of years on the original intent of such symbolism is often forgotten. And in this instance, one is forgiven for speculating that the design of the roof, ceiling and Princes Pillar were intended to reflect the role of Bees and honey in the greater context of Paradise and the World Tree of Life.
Curiously, the association of the Tee of Life with hexagonal Beehive symbolism is not unique. In fact, it is featured on the new Euro coin, reinforcing the importance of the ancient symbolism to this day.
From Roslyn Chapel in the north, the mythical Rose-Line reunites with Rennes-Le-Château in the south, the village with alleged Merovingian origins. History informs us that the Merovingian dynasty died out with Dagobert II. However, this has not prevented others from claiming descent, such as Pierre Plantard, a Frenchman who in the later half of 20th century promoted his association with the Merovingians - as well as with Rennes-Le-Château, and was regarded by some as the last direct descendant of Jesus Christ. Plantard also claimed to have been a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, a controversial society with considerable interests in the Merovingian lineages commissioned by Napoleon. Curiously, Plantard’s family crest featured both the Fleur-de-lys and the Bee - eleven Bees in fact – an important number in Rennes-Le-Château mythology.
The Plantard family crest is strangely reminiscent of images of Jesus Christ crucified on a 6-sided Fleur-de-lys cross, complete with 11 stars – similar to Plantard’s 11 Bees. The artistry recalls the hexagonal symbolism of the Beehive as well as the Bee itself, the very image that the Fleur-de-lys is thought to conceal in the first place. Does Plantard’s family crest hint at a bloodline leading back to Jesus Christ, as symbolised by the Bee and the Fleur-de-lys - a hidden bloodline that the man himself promoted throughout his lifetime? To this day, as many believe this to be true as do not.
One of the more interesting links between the Bee and Rennes-Le-Château involves Henry Lincoln, co-author of the 1982 book ‘Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ – the international bestseller that put Rennes-Le-Château on the map with English speaking audiences around the world. Back in the early days of the mystery, Lincoln had been in contact with the French author Gerard de Sède, whose 1967 book ‘The Accursed Treasure of Rennes-Le-Château’, had catapulted the story to national prominence. The story goes that Lincoln purchased de Sède’s book while on holiday in France and succeeded in deciphering one of it’s peculiar parchments, giving spark to the flame of the mystery that still burns today; that is, just what - if anything - do the coded parchments conceal? Lincoln later came across a ‘Book Club’ version with a strange photograph of Bees that was not referenced anywhere in the text. Curiously, the title beneath the photo simply stated ‘Rennes-les-Bains – Thermes Romains’, and no other reference to the photograph was made.
The anomaly is recounted in Lincoln’s book, ‘The Key to the Sacred Pattern’. Essentially, the photo depicts a wooden panel on a dining room door with four Bees, one in each corner, and in the middle, a winged female standing on a globe holding a wreath above her head like an Egyptian dancing goddess – a motif we now associate with Bee goddesses, as identified by scholars. Later, de Sède provided Lincoln with material for his BBC television special about Rennes-Le-Château, including photos taken by Plantard that de Sède’s had used in his book.
In his book, Lincoln recounts how the back of the photos were simply stamped with a seal saying “PLANTARD”, along with notation that revealed that the woman in the centre of the photograph was named Europa – the legendary priestess who was seduced by Zeus while in the form of a bull, and that the images of Bees represented apiculture. However, it is said that the notation on the back of the photographs also included the phrase; “We are the Beekeepers” - a detail not revealed by Lincoln in his book. The expression recalls the ‘Beekeeper’ title held by Egyptian Pharaohs and begs the question, was Pierre Plantard inferring the he was a Beekeeper – and if so, of what?
Before departing the enigma of Pierre Plantard, it is worth mentioning Philippe de Cherisey, a friend of Plantard’s who many believe created the documents that Plantard used to claim descent from Dagobert II. In any event, de Cherisey founded a magazine called Circuit, whose distribution was said to include the membership of the Priory of Sion. The magazine is of interest, not just for its alluring readership, but for the fact that it featured a hexagon imprinted over an image of France with a sword symbolically piercing its centre, echoing the old Paris Meridian.
So the founders of the Rennes-Le-Château mystery – real or imagined - believed that Bees and hexagonal Beehive symbolism were quite important. They may have even considered themselves Beekeepers – but of what exactly remains to be determined. The notion is serendipitous, however, for the keeper of Childric’s Bees after they were unearthed from his tomb was a Habsburg; a ruling dynasty that governed Europe for centuries and which is tied to the mystery of the Rennes-Le-Château. It is said that Saunière was repeatedly visited by a Habsburg, who ultimately informed the priest where he would find his ‘treasure’. In other words, it was no accident that the priest found what he did. The theory purports that he was simply ‘reclaiming’ a previously hidden artefact, aided by a family of great nobility – the Habsburgs.
In ‘The Key to the Sacred Pattern’, Lincoln also draws attention to a series of Beehive inspired stone huts called “Capitelles”, not dissimilar to the Clochán stone huts in Ireland, as discussed in Part 2. The Beehive structures are found near a village called Coustaussa – site of a macabre assassination of a priest, and friend of Saunière’s, who appears to have become fatally entwined in the cover up of his friends discovery. The Beehive huts, which are largely unexcavated, are part of what is known locally as the “Great Camp”. The curious structures are one of the few artefacts that lend credence to the belief that Rennes-Le-Château may in fact have been the ancient and formidable Visigoth settlement of Rhedae. Additionally, the Beehive inspired huts overlook Perch Cardu, a sacred mountain that has long been the playground of zealous treasure hunters, and which only recently has spawned claims that the tombs of Jesus Christ and / or Mary Magdalene have been discovered there and that the ‘Temple of Solomon’ resides nearby.
Henry Lincoln is not the only writer to feature Bees in his books on Rennes-Le-Château. Christopher Dawes, author of the superb Rennes-Le-Château adventure yarn ‘Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail’, inexplicably encountered dead Bees throughout his research for the book. There are many instances of Rennes-Le-Château being linked with Bees, one notable example being the infamous Latin expression that hangs over the door of the village church of Saint Mary Magdalene; ‘TERRIBILIS EST LOCUS ISTE’, meaning This Place Is Terrible. The biblical phrase refers to the words that Jacob spoke when he awoke from his dream about a ladder that reached to heaven. To this end, Genesis 35:1 provides the reference;
“And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God.”
So Jacob recounted that the place was called Bethel and he had a stone erected commemorating the spot where he had fallen asleep. The biblical story relates to the Bee in that Bethel, or Bytal in Hebrew, means ‘House of God’, and the letter ‘Y’ and the letter ‘I’ are interchangeable, rendering the translation ‘Bit-al’, and ‘Bit’ in ancient Egyptian means Bee. The translation also suggests that House of God may represent a repository of knowledge – as in the Beehive. Additionally, and somewhat bizarrely, Bethel carries the same numeric value as the word ‘meteorite’, which harkens back to the notion that Bees are related to sacred stones, and stones from heaven in particular, which we will discuss more fully, shortly.
Finally, our last association with Rennes-Le-Château and the Bee is even more obtuse than the others, for it involves the Holy Grail, an object of desire long associated with the South of France. The well worn legend of Rennes-Le-Château purports that Saunière discovered a heretical secret and / or treasure of considerable importance while renovating his church. As previously noted, he may have been told where to look by a Habsburg; a dynasty linked with Bees. With his new found riches – apparently as a result of his ‘discovery’ - the priest renovated his village and church in a manner that seems gaudy and sensational to our 21st century eyes. The renovations included the encoding of the number 11 - as in the number of Bees found on Plantard’s family crest, and the number 22 – the feast day of Mary Magdalene, and an important number in the Cabala. As part of his renovation, the priest repositioned the statues of Saints in his church in such a way that when connected in an unbroken line, or ‘M’ shape, the first letter of each saints name spells GRAAL – or Grail in French, i.e. St Germaine, St Roch, St Antoine de Padoue, StAntoine, St Luc.
The region around Rennes-Le-Château is ripe with Grail legends. In fact history’s most renowned Grail hunter, the German Otto Rahn, explored the province extensively during the early part of the 20th century. Rahn was inspired by his understanding that Grail Romances such as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival were written by authors who specialized in history – not fiction, and that they portrayed real historical events, places and people. To this end, Rahn believed that the Cathar fortress of Montségur was Eschenbach’s historical Grail castle, the Mountain of Salvationvisited by Parzival as part of his initiation into the mysteries of the Grail. While today’s scholars agree that the region is indeed steeped in Grail legend, most support an alternative site to Rahn’s Mountain of Salvation, and that is Montreal de Sos. The archeologically rich cave is nestled in the side of a rocky outcrop in what is known as the ‘Royal Mountain’, in the nearby region of Vicdessos.
Much has been written about the evocative drawings on the walls of Montreal de Sos, for they mirror many of objects described in the Grail procession of Chrétien de Troyes provocative but unfinished work; ‘Perceval, the Story of the Grail’ – the first ever Grail Romance (1190).
A little known fact is that de Troyes was unable to start until he travelled to Spain and studied with a Cabalist, leading scholars to conclude that the Cabala uniquely enables the understanding of esoteric subjects such as the Grail. Some years later, Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote the Grail Romance ‘Parzival’, and in his account we are told that the Grail is a stone from heaven. This is interesting, given that the word ‘meteorite’ carries the same numeric value (443) as ‘Bethel’ – which translates as Bee in Egyptian.
Montreal de Sos is a double entrance cave in the tradition of the Bee goddess cave on the Greek island of Ithaca, and its location is intriguing, for it faces a peculiar looking stone in the distance known as the Dolmen of Sem, meaning the ‘Palace of Samson’. In Part 2, we discussed how the reference to Samson recalls the legend of Bees coming forth from the body of a lion. Might Bees be associated with the Palace of Samson, too? The stone is curious in several respects. Firstly, it only vaguely resembles a dolmen, and secondly it is positioned in such a way as to point directly at two intriguing landmarks - each in opposite directions. To the Northwest, the Palace of Samson points at a tiny village named Orus. And to the Southeast, it points at a nearby mountain range whose summit is called the Forest of the Grail, and whose valley is known as thePass of the Grail.
The researcher André Douzet wrote about the curious stone in his book ‘The Wanderings of the Grail’, and observed that Orus transcribed asHorus – the name of the falcon headed Egyptian god, when spoken in French, and lest we forget, Egyptian Pharaohs were considered the ‘living Horus’ and carried the title of ‘Beekeeper’. When I explored the mountain a couple of years ago, I discovered that at the centre of the Pass of the Grail, in the middle of the Forest of the Grail, at the top of the mountain in a totally secluded path at the precise point where one would be aligned with the Palace of Samson and the village of Orus in the distance, an apiary - a group of Beehives - obstructed the path.
Although the presence of Bees in the middle of a mountain top path is in itself not significant - as apiaries are frequently positioned in out of the way places such as this - it is serendipitous, for it calls attention to the notion that Bees are not only linked with sacred stones, they are frequently associated with lines; Bee-lines. And as I retreated down the mountain, defeated by my fear of being ‘stung’ should I attempt to manoeuvre past the hives, I reflected on the symbolism of the Bee for the very first time.
The Bee in Esoteric Studies
Many disciplines offer insight into the study of the Bee, such as medicine, science, literature and religion – as we have seen. In the past, these fields of study drew upon equal measures of science, mystery and magic, however today any mystical elements have been relegated to the periphery of the mainstream. The study of these elements is known as the ‘esoteric’; the ancient and often complex decomposition of life’s mysteries. Many ‘schools’ of thought fall within the esoteric genre, but perhaps none as neatly as the Cabala. At first glance, the Cabala the might seem like a curious choice for studying the Bee, however as previously noted, the author of the first ever Grail Romance – Chrétien de Troyes, needed to study with a Cabalist before he was able to write about the Grail. Why? Because many believe that the Cabala is the context by which complicated esoteric symbolism can best be explained.
The analysis of the Bee in the context of the Cabala will be explored more fully on another occasion. However, I have included a couple of examples at this time in hopes of conveying the general approach and method involved. On an elementary level, the Cabalistic tradition places importance on the numeric value of each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The discipline is referred to as Gematria – or the language of numbers, and stipulates that numbers are absolute while words are subject to variations in spelling, language and pronunciation. It also suggests that words with the same numeric value warrant further consideration and study. For example, we previously reviewed the synchronicity of words with the same numeric value when we observed how ‘Bethel’ – which means Bee in Egyptian, carries the same numeric value (443) as ‘meteorite’, a sacred stone from ‘heaven’ that is linked with Bees in mythology and literature.
In our brief examination of the Cabala and the Bee we will review two examples of Gematria; first a letter and then a word. The Hebrew letter Alef | Aleph carries the meaning ‘thousand’ and both the Proto-Sinatic Hieroglyphic and its Pro-Canaanite symbol depict a bulls head, recalling the fact that 1000 Bees – or resurrected souls, are produced by the sacrifice of an Apis bull. Additionally, Christ - the saviour archetype of Osiris, renowned for his resurrection, is written in Hebrew as ‘QRST’ and carries the value 1000. And of course Osiris has strong links with the Bee, as we have seen. The depiction of a Hebrew letter with the value 1000 and an image of a Bulls head, coupled with the theme of regeneration and resurrection, may be coincidental, that is certainly a possibility, but at the same time the synchronicity hints at a knowledge once known to an initiate but now forgotten.
In the previous example we looked at a single letter in the Cabala and now we shall review a word; ‘Deborah’, a biblical figure who may have represented the title / office of Bee Goddess, given that her name in Hebrew – DBVRH, means Bee. The word ‘DBVRH’ carries the value 217 in the Cabala, a number related to the sound ‘Hum’, which in turn is associated with Zumbido, or ‘Zum Zum’ - that which existed first - before the number 1 was created and which represents the infinite; a humming sound related to the primordial act of creation that recalls the sound of the Bee. The word Briah also caries the value 217 and shares a similar meaning with respect to the act of creation, as it known as the ‘world of creation’ and is associated with Archangels – figures with wings whose origins may have been inspired by earlier depictions of Bee Gods and Goddesses. In the Cabala, aspects of Briah and other words carrying the value 217, such as Deborah, would be studied for interrelatedness and further insight.
It is intriguing that the Cabala highlights the sound of the Bee, given that this is one of the most important yet underdeveloped aspects of Bee research. Greg Taylor, author and owner of an esoteric news source known as The Daily Grail, explored the subject in ‘Darklore Volume 1’, and made some intriguing observations. In addition to experiencing the sound of Bees during activities such as Yoga, near death experiences (NDE’s), and alleged UFO abductions, Taylor observed that the sound of the Bee is frequently experienced before and during apparitions. For instance at Fátima, site of the famous 1917 apparition, witnesses such as Maria Carreira recalled hearing the sound of Bees in the presence of what was believed to be the Virgin Mary. Taylor describes the phenomena;
“Maria subsequently described this phenomenon, from the June apparition, to another investigator with these words: ‘Then we began to hear something like this, in the manner of a very fine voice, but what it said could not be comprehended or put into words, for it was like the buzzing of a bee.”
“Another witness described it as “the buzzing of a fly inside an empty barrel, but without articulation of words,” and on another occasion as an indefinable sound, heard throughout the duration of the experience, like that which is heard next to a hive, but altogether more harmonious. And another witness; “I thought I heard at that moment, a little wind, a zoa-zoa sound. While Lucia was listening to a response, it seemed there was a buzzing sound like that of a cicada.”
State changes in consciousness are known to occur naturally in about 2% of the world’s population. Alternatively, they can be triggered by the consumption of organic substances containing hallucinogens, such as mushrooms. This phenomenon is discussed at length in Graham Hancock’s book ‘Supernatural’, which suggests that the shamanic tradition provides a gateway to a consistent, if not repeatable set of otherworldly sights, sounds and sensations. Could ancient man’s initial fascination with the Bee derive from the buzzing / humming sounds experienced during shamanic ritual?
Other schools of esoteric thought provide insight into the Bee, or have incorporated it into their ideological framework, such as Freemasonry, the secret Sufi Society, the Priory of Sion and the Cercle Saint Dagobert II, to recall a few. But perhaps none are as infamous as the Order of the Illuminati, a ‘secret’ society founded by the German philosopher Johann Adam Weishaupt on 1 May, 1776. Curiously, Weishaupt had considered naming his order ‘Bees’ – not ‘Order of the Illuminati’. This was, in all likelihood, due to his strong Masonic affiliations and appreciation of the Greek mysteries, which of course are heavily laden with Bee symbolism. In any event, the goal of the order was nothing less than world domination and consisted of a complicated network of spies acting anonymously in what has been described as a “cell-like” structure, complete with matrix reporting to unknown superiors. Not surprisingly, from about this time onward we begin to see the Beehive depicted as a metaphor for the control of the proletariat, a word in Latin meaning "offspring". The definition is rather appropriate when we consider that a typical Beehive houses tens of thousands of newborn Bees.
It is interesting to ponder what would have happened had Weishaupt named his society Bees. It’s also interesting to speculate what he intended to convey by introducing the order on the 1st of May. In the Pagan world, the 1st of May represents regeneration and is known in Gaelic as the festival of Beltane. The 1st of May is also the day of Taurus the bull, which of course symbolises regeneration, and is associated with the Bee. However, May 1st is best known as ‘Workers Day’, an important day in the Soviet Union, for instance, whose political and labour structure – Communism, was designed to emulate the order of the Beehive. In fact, May 1st remains the day of the Worker Bee – as it were, and is known as Labour Day in America and International Workers' Day in many other parts of the world.
The inclusion of Bee symbolism in Communist ideals is understandable given the orderly and altruistic model of society that the Beehive represents. However, it is apparent from the heraldic shields of regions that later practiced Communism that the Bee had been an important icon for some time, as the 1777 Russian shield below confirms. The proliferation of Bee symbolism around this time – and across the globe mind you – from France to America and from Russia to Weishaupt’s Order of the Illuminati is astonishing. Might Freemasonry be the tie that binds the almost viral expansion of Bee symbolism at this time?
The work of Weishaupt underwent a resurgence of sorts a century later when the British occultist Aleister Crowley – an important member of occult organizations such as Golden Dawn and Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), rose to prominence as ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’. Not surprisingly, Crowley was renowned for his unusual Beehive inspired headdress, representing the esoteric wisdom of an initiate.
Numerous individuals have incorporated the Bee into their own esoteric framework – not just orders and societies. Crowley was one; another was Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and esotericist who in 1923 presented a series of nine celebrated lectures on the Bee. Steiner was an esoteric master and a social thinker like few before him - or after - and believed that Bees were models of all that was important in life. His fascination, if not obsession with the Bee was evident as early as 1908 when he spoke in Berlin about the significance of the Bee relative to man;
“The consciousness of a Beehive, not the individual Bees, is of a very high nature. Humankind will not obtain the wisdom of such consciousness until the next major revolutionary stage – that of Venus – which will come when the evolution of the earth stage has finished. Then human beings will possess the consciousness necessary to construct things with a material they create within themselves.”
One of the reasons why the Bee is associated with esoteric and spiritual pursuits is that the Bee serves others before it serves itself. The Bee is altruistic to a fault, a characteristic observed by St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century archbishop of Constantinople and early father of the Church whose famous oratory skills earned him the name ‘golden mouth’;
"The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others. Indeed, the bee works unceasingly for the common good of the hive, and obeys without question what sometimes appears to be an inequitable hierarchy.”
In fact, the function of the Bee has been termed the ‘healer of the people’, and what better definition for a shaman, pope or esoteric mentor, whose spiritual guidance and insight is vital to the greater community?
The Bee in Folklore and Modern Society
We’ve reviewed the Cabala and other organizations that have incorporated Bee symbolism into their esoteric framework. However appreciation of the Bee is not entirely lost on society at large. For instance, many of today’s most popular expressions recall the Bee’s importance in folklore and myth. Take for example the phrase ‘Making a Bee-Line’. The Cabala would interpret the Bee-Line as representing the pilgrim’s path, the Duat of the Egyptians and the Labyrinth of the Greeks - the middle path representing balance and the Grail, the path of Osiris and the path linking the terrestrial and the celestial; the path of resurrection. In short, the Cabala would say that the Bee-line is the path of the initiate. But there are other, less esoteric explanations of the phrase.
It is difficult to say where the notion of a ‘Bee-line’ originated, although it most certainly derives from the unique behaviour of Bees. For instance, when a Bee finds a source of nectar it returns to the hive and communicates the location to the other Bees using a technique called the waggle dance, a phenomenon that was first explained by Nobel Prize winner and Bee researcher Karl Von Frisch. Thanks to the waggle dance, other Bees are able to fly directly to the source of the food – which could be as far as 3 miles away, by making a ‘Bee-line' straight for it.
The website ‘Phrase Finder’ tells us that the phrase Bee-line;“is American and all the early citations of it come from the USA.” The source cites as reference the Davenport Daily Leader newspaper from January 1808, which states;
“Gustav Stengel Sr., of Rock Island, was thrown from his sleigh on Third Avenue in that city yesterday afternoon, the horse becoming frightened and turning abruptly, ripping the cutter. The horse made a bee line for home.”
The phrase – which simply means to move directly and without hesitation, remains popular to this day. However, it is unlikely that the phrase is American in origin or a 19th century invention. Quite the opposite actually, for its origins appear to stem from the time of the Phoenicians - the ancient sea-faring people who are said to have released Bees from their ships when approaching land in order to observe the direction that the land sensing swarm would travel. The Phoenicians would then make a ‘Bee-line’ in the direction of the Bees in the hope that land would soon follow. Surely, this would be a more likely candidate for the origins of the phrase, and ancient shields of strategic port cities such as Port Au Prince in Hatti seem to suggest that this may be the case.
Regardless of its origins, the phrase Bee-line appears linked with the custom of ‘Telling the Bees’. The aptly named phrase consists of the practice of promptly informing Bees of a death in the family in order to preempt them from departing the hive once they realize they have lost their ‘keeper’. The customer is more common than you would think, even to this day, as recounted by the American writer Mark Twain in his famous novel, ‘Huckleberry Finn’;
“And he said if a man owned a beehive and that man died, the bees must be told about it before sun-up next morning, or else the bees would all weaken down and quit work and die. Jim said bees wouldn't sting idiots; but I didn't believe that, because I had tried them lots of times myself, and they wouldn't sting me.”
In China, Beehives are turned a different direction after the death of their keeper, hinting at a superstition that harkens back to a more ancient custom. Details vary, but the essence remains the same – tell the Bees, and quickly. In England circa 1840, a woman inquired if the Bees had been informed of the death of their keeper and upon learning they had not, proceeded to prepare a dish of spice cake and sugar and presented it to the hive while jingling her keys and reciting the following rhyme;
“Honey bees, Honey bees, hear what I say!
Your Master J.A. has passed away.
But his wife now begs you will freely stay,
And still gather honey for many a day.
Bonny bees, Bonny bees, hear what I say.”
The notion that Bees and death are closely related manifests in a variety of ways. For instance, when England’s Queen Mother died in 2004, newspapers from across Europe produced illustrations portraying her as a Queen Bee, guided up to heaven on the wings of Bees. The depiction appears related to a superstition from the Middle Ages, and one that is still prevalent in parts of America, England and Germany that states that if Bees were not promptly informed of the death of their master they would fly up to the sky and seek them out there. In a similar vein, the expression “To fall into a jar of honey” is a common metaphor for “to die”.
However, the custom of ‘Telling the Bees’ is not limited to deaths, as any information deemed important must routinely and swiftly be shared with the Bees. The practice is curious and may be a memory of the act of confiding in Bee Priestesses, shamans and priests, as practiced in ancient Delphi, Siwa and other Oracle centres around the ancient world, as well as in modern institutions, such as the Catholic Church’s confessional.
Bee customs continue to play an active role in modern times. For example, the practice of holding a competition called a ‘Spelling Bee’ where each contestant is challenged to correctly spell a word out loud, can be traced back to the early 19th century and remains a popular pastime in English speaking cultures today. Interestingly, the whole concept of a Spelling ‘Bee’ refers to a gathering where a specific function is being performed – i.e. a Quilting Bee - and thus embodies the orderly behaviour that routinely occurs in a Beehive.
Another custom involves presenting a bride with a Bee skep as a wedding present and token of good luck in her marriage. Similarly, it is customary to place a piece of wedding cake at the entrance to the Beehive after the ceremony. Yet another custom relates to death – or at least a funeral - underscoring the perceived relevance of Bees during life’s most notable milestones. In this instance, it is customary to leave a biscuit dipped in wine at the funeral for the Bees to enjoy once the guests have departed. Bees are also believed to be good predictors of the weather, for example, and many have observed that they choose to remain close to the hive when rain is imminent.
Perhaps the most famous Bee folk tale is the expression; ‘The Birds and the Bees’, a phrase commonly used to describe the fundamentals of sexual union, as a parent would share with a child in the context of sex education. The source of the expression is unknown, although many plausible explanations have been put forward, including the 1928 song by the American song writer Cole Porter entitled ‘Let’s do it’, which featured the then provocative lyric; “Birds do it, Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. Let's do it, let's fall in love.”
Upon reflection there might be another explanation for the expression. Birds and Bees are mysterious creatures. For example, Birds are said to have their own language – the Language of the Birds, which is believed to have been a divine and mystical language spoken only by initiates. And with respect to Bees, well we have examined them in considerable depth and their symbolism is nothing if not mystical. Thus, could the expression simply refer to sexual union as something magical and sacred, something that needs to be learned by an initiate and which is unknown to a virgin?
Appreciation of the once sacred Bee has diminished in modern times, save for the odd bit of pop culture. Take for instance the ancient practice of a Beekeeper encouraging its hive to rest on their body as a form of bonding and trust. In recent times the custom has morphed into a contest to see how many Bees an individual can attract and physically sustain, especially on the face. The practice of ‘Bee Bearding’, as it is known, was reintroduced by Peter Prokopovitch, a Russian Beekeeper from the 1830’s. The rekindled tradition was soon mimicked in ‘freak’ shows in American carnivals and remains a genre of dubious merit to this day. In fact, in 1998 an American animal trainer by the name of Mark Biancaniello broke the Guinness Book of Records for "most pounds of bees worn on the body" by successfully wearing 350,000 bees, weighing nearly 90 pounds.
Perhaps the most popular and endearing account of the Bee in the 21st century has to do with a bear, which is somewhat ironic as the bear – known in Saxon times as a Bee-wolf, which later morphed into the epic poem Beowulf, is a natural enemy of the Bee, known for not only eating honey, but the entire hive as well. Bees and all! Of course I speak of the celebrated children’s story ‘Winnie the Pooh’. The popular tale consists of a honey eating bear named Winnie the Pooh and his best friend, a young boy by the name of Christopher Robin. The story is based on the real life account of Harry Colebourn, an Englishman who immigrated to Canada in 1905 and served as a Canadian Lieutenant before returning to England to fight in the First World War. While on his way home Colebourn purchased a bear from a hunter for $20 and named it after the town where he had been living – Winnipeg.
Back in England, Winnipeg became the unofficial mascot of Colebourn’s regiment. However, as war beckoned, Colebourn was forced to donate the bear to the London Zoo. Winnipeg proved to be an exceedingly popular attraction and amongst his many admirers was a young boy namedChristopher Robin Milne, who was so smitten with the loveable animal that he named his own stuffed bear Winnie.
Christopher’s father was Alan Alexander Milne, a successful English writer who had trained under H.G. Wells. Inspired by his son’s affection for the bear, Milne wrote two very successful children’s books that featured the beloved animal - the first of which was published in 1926. After his death, Milne’s widow sold the rights to Walt Disney, who transformed the story of the honey eating bear into an international sensation. For the setting of his Winnie the Pooh books Milne chose a forest close to his home in East Sussex called Five Hundred Acre Wood. Although there are no bears in Sussex, Five Hundred Acre Wood is a natural home to hundreds of thousands of Bees.
In his fascinating book; ‘The Shamanic Way of the Bee’, Simon Buxton recounts his amazing hero’s journey in rural England in a story reminiscent of the 1960’s cult film; ‘Wicker Man’ – only with a happy ending. While walking through the English county of Somerset, Buxton encounters a shamanic society and is soon initiated into the ancient cult of the Bee, better known today as the ‘Path of the Pollen’ or ‘The Forest Way’ in olden times.
Buxton’s initiation took place at the home of his teacher and was followed by a ritual on ‘The Nightshade Isle’, off the coast of England. Here he was introduced to Darkflight, a psychotropic honey, essential to the shamanic experience. Buxton is founder of The Sacred Trust, an educational organisation concerned with the teaching of shamanism. Intriguingly, some of the workshops now offered provide a glimpse into the Path of Pollen, namely: The Way of the Melissae, The Serpent Flight of the Honeybee and Arte Triptych Melissae. In our private conversations, Buxton has confirmed that the old traditions are alive and well – especially across Europe, albeit entirely underground.
Buxton’s journey into the Path of the Pollen should not to be viewed as ‘new age’ hokum for his experience mirrors that of other initiates, including his former mentor, a man known simply as Bridge, who as Buxton recounts in his book, had much to say about the cult of the Bee;
“The teachings contained within this tradition have been handed down so faithfully that it has never been in danger of extinction. The Bee cutlus was not created, but rather summoned, and the citadel of the tradition is a fortress that can never be taken. To the uninitiated, the cultus - like city of bees itself - is hidden, veiled. Nothing is known of its inner councils, of the debates and decisions, of the governors and officers, of the supervisors who allot the tasks, of the regeneration that occurs and the training that is offered.”
Buxton’s account is intriguing, sincere and encouraging for it affirms that the ancient and shamanic tradition of the Bee continues. And who are we to disagree? The mountain of evidence that the Bee has been the most venerated creature in existence is certainly persuasive. Why shouldn’t its traditions have continued? And anyway, do we really know as much about Bees as we think we do?
There are officially nine families of Bees and almost 20,000 species living on every continent, except Antarctica. The most famous species is the Western Honey Bee, which has been the source of Beekeeping, or Apiculture, for tens of thousands of years. Experts estimate that insect pollination, most of which is performed by Bees, is critical to over one third of the worlds food supply. Bees are remarkably productive creatures, as demonstrated in Nepal and China where the task of pollinating trees requires 25 humans, compared to only 2 Bees. Each Honey Bee produces 1½ teaspoons of honey in its lifetime and requires 50 million visits to the hive in order to produce 1 kilo’s worth. The phrase “Busy as a Bee” is entirely just, as Alison Benjamin and Brain McCallum recount in their excellent 2008 book, ‘A World Without Bees’; “Each Bee will fly around 800km (500 miles) in her lifetime, at times carrying loads equivalent of half her body weight; no wonder she will die exhaustion about three weeks after her first flight.” A Bee’s life is short, indeed, but with more sense of purpose than most humans.
We are only beginning to understand the wonders of the Bee, and Nobel Prize winner and Bee researcher Karl Von Frisch is one of the bright minds who have studied the insect in considerable depth. Von Frisch concluded that Bees can see 10 times more images per second than the human eye, which is consistent with research by Jacob Von Uexkull, whose work in the German Journal Space and Time concluded that a Bees brain can process 200 images per second. However Frisch’s major contribution to the study of the Bee, and the reason he received his Nobel Prize, has to do with his realization that the Bee’s waggle dance communicated location. That is, Von Frisch was able to confirm that the Bee actually registers its complicated flight details and communicates them to the hive, empowering the others to recreate the trip even if the food is miles away; a sort of satellite navigation system for Bees! Sadly, Von Frisch was later removed from his post by the Nazi Party when it discovered that one of his grandparents was Jewish and that his work on Bees was not contributing to the ideological framework of the Nazi Party.
The Bee’s home – the hive - is also of considerable interest. A Beehive is a fascinating matrix of hexagonal cell structures constructed out of Beeswax whose complexities we are only now beginning to understand. The work of respected Bee researcher Jurgen Tautz has revealed that wax – the building block of the hive, is actually a living, adaptive and highly intelligent entity. Tautz observed that cells are initially rounded and only transform into hexagons when the Bee has succeeded in heating the wax to 45C. Interestingly, hexagons frequently appear in nature and are unusually lightweight and stable. Is there something inherently important in the hive's shape? At the end of the day, we have much to learn about the complex and highly evolved creature, and its home – the hive.
What we can say with some certainty is that Bees are big business. In the United States alone, over one-third of fruits, vegetables and nuts are dependent on the Bee’s pollen. What’s at stake? The value to the 2008 economy in the United States is estimated at over $15 billion. And now the Bee is dying, which is curious indeed for there is no illness in a Beehive, at least not until man intervenes. Efforts to increase the size of Bees in the hope that they would produce more honey have in fact been successful; a ‘bigger Bee’ was created, however the Bees internal organs did not increase proportionally and fewer Bees were ultimately produced. In this instance, as in so many others, man's intervention has only made things worse.
Man continues to meddle with the Bee’s natural habitat, and in America the pressure to produce a profit in the trade of Bees has necessitated that honey be substituted with sugar in many hives. Thus, is it any wonder that Bees are dying in America faster than any other region in the world? Literally millions of Bees have disappeared over the last few years alone, and in 2007 30% of the Beehives in the United States – and in some regions as high as 90% - were evacuated virtually overnight. In a recent interview with the New York Times, American Beekeeper David Bradshaw commented on the mystery of the dying Bees, simply stating that; “Box after box after box are just empty. There's nobody home.”
Sadly, the phenomenon of Bees disappearing has given new meaning to the phrase, ‘Buzz off’. Germany’s Spiegel Online recently reported that;"Experts believe that the large-scale use of genetically modified plants in the US could be a factor." Others believe that polluting of the environment is to blame, particularly the use of mobile phones. However, the feeling of many experts is that mites are in fact the culprit – a theory we will explore in more detail. Whatever the cause, the effect is now alarmingly clear; the risk to the world’s food source – and economy, is staggering. A February 28th, 2008 article in the International Herald Tribune entitled; ‘Worries about Bees spread to the boardroom’, featured companies like Häagen-Dazs, whose ice cream is dependent on the Bee for no less than 28 of its products. Häagen-Dazs is raising $250,000 towards research into the epidemic and is not alone in seeking out a cure, if only for its own survival.
In ‘World Without Bees’, Benjamin and McCallum discuss Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – the name given to the phenomena of vanishing Bees, and explain how the Bees Waggle Dance has been rendered ineffectual, causing a breakdown of society in the hive;
“Bees have a sophisticated navigation system that uses the sun and landmarks as points of reference. It allows them to travel up to three miles (5Km) from the hive in search of food without losing their way back home…But in a hive suffering from this strange plague the adult Bee does not return home, leaving their queen, eggs and larvae to starve to death.”
In order to combat the situation, various task forces have been established, such as the Honeybee Health Improvement Project and the Bee Task Force; a group representing farmers who produce 80% of the world’s supply of nuts. Benjamin and McCallum add that;
“With billions of dollars at stake and further expansion of the California almond crop at peril, the U.S. Congress provisionally approved increased funding totalling around $100M (£50M) for research. But apiarists increasingly believe that the scientists are backing the wrong horse.”
Many apiarists believe that the real cause of CCD is a nicotine-based pesticide called Imidacloprid that is breaking down the immune system and causing CCD in the first place. However scientists reject the theory, citing the fact that Bees are disappearing from hives where pesticides are not used and have mysteriously disappeared many times in the past, the first recorded instance being in 1869. As previously mentioned, the most likely culprit is a parasitic organism known as the Varroa mite, which has infested countless Bees around the world as migrating hives introduce the mite to local Bees who have not had a chance to gradually build up their immune system to the new enemy. Benjamin and McCallum describe the horrific scenario;
“Under a microscope, Varroa destructor looks like a cross between a jellyfish and a Frisbee, with hairy legs…To get an idea what it must be like for the honeybee, which after all is only 12mm (1/2 inch) long, to have one of these mites clinging to her, we were told to imagine carrying a monkey on our back.”
The cause and effect debate continues, with Benjamin and McCallum adding; “More than 18 months after CCD was discovered…and billions of honeybee deaths later, what have we learned? Scientist are no nearer to finding the assassin.” The reality is that Bees will up and leave if their environment is hostile in any way, and this ‘self-sacrificing’, or flying away to die so as to protect the hive from the impact of their own stress is precisely what many experts believe is occurring in North America, and elsewhere. The bottom line is that whatever the cause, the world has just rediscovered how vital a role the Bee plays in our lives. And it’s discovered it the hard way.
Oddly enough, there are several legends of man’s destiny being tied to the fate of the Bees – and although each account has been around for many years, their origins remain uncertain. The American Indian is believed to have said that when the Bee dies, man has 4 years left. The same belief was echoed by Albert Einstein, who is attributed with the quote;
"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
The alarming quote is dated to the time of Einstein (1879 – 1955) but curiously has not been confirmed in his writings, prompting some to question its authenticity. The photo below reinforces the skepticism.
Photoshop sarcasm aside, the demise of the Bee is no laughing matter, and at least one scholar is on record as having predicted the demise of the Bee nearly a century ago. That would be Rudolph Steiner, who in his superb collection of nine lectures, simply entitled ‘Bees’, predicted in 1923 that the newly introduced technique of breeding Queen Bees using the larvae of Worker Bees would mean that “a century later all breeding of Bees would cease.” So where does this leave us? Allegedly, we have Bee folklore reinforced by a renowned man of science who predicted that when the Bee dies out, man will shortly follow. This is disturbing, yet curious, for 2008 has seen the death rate of Bees soar, and in 4 years it will be 2012, the year that the Bee worshiping Mayans predicted the world as we know it will cease and a new Golden Age of man would commence. Benjamin and McCallum offer a more optimistic perspective on the pending ‘end of days’, stating;
“If bees continue disappearing at this rate, it is estimated that by 2035 there could be no honeybees left in the US. In the UK, an estimated 25% decline in honeybees is not officially attributed to CCD, but that has not stopped Lord Rooker from warning that all of the country’s 270,000 or so colonies could be gone in 10 years.”
Clearly there is no single view of the problem, the extent of the damage, or the solution. Time is running out on the once beloved Honeybee. Is it any wonder that organizations have formed whose mantra is “Save the Bee, Save the World”?
My research into the Bee has led me on an amazing and unexpected journey of discovery. But what exactly does it all mean? In Prehistory, the Bee was hunted for its honey. In the genesis of society, civilizations such as Sumeria, Ancient Egypt and Greece revered the Bee as a provider of ritualistic, medicinal and agriculturally important by-products. Down through history, the Bee has been venerated as nothing short of a god whose life affirming attributes have been adopted by religions, institutions and governments alike. I’ve labelled the three eras of the Bee;Beedazzled, Beewildered and Beegotten for good reason. The question remains, will there be a fourth era, and if so will it be called Beegone?
Looking back, I wonder what aspect of the Bee first inspired man to regard it as unique and sacred, all those thousands of years ago. Was it something as simple as a Bee's sting? It’s impossible to say really, for any one of the attributes we’ve discussed could easily have catapulted the Bee to its once exalted position within society. My opinions on the matter are far from crystallized, but more and more I keep coming back to sound of the Bee and the notion of Zumbido, or Zum Zum; that which existed first; the buzzing sound of the Bee that has been experienced in shamanic rituals and moments of state changes in consciousness since time immoral. Could the collective unconsciousness of man have internalized the singular importance of the Bee over a period of tens of millions of years? Is that why its sound is experienced during moments of transcendence?
While intriguing, explanations and conclusions on a subject so vast and opaque are nothing if not futile, not to mention speculative. What is less speculative, however, is the fact that the Bee has contributed more to the physical and mental wellbeing of mankind than any other creature, large or small. On reflection, I am reminded of a quote by one of the greatest mythologists of this or any other era – Robert Graves, who spoke of the Bee and the Golden Age of man;
“The Bee has continued through the millennia as a symbol of the soul’s survival after death and limitless existence in the harmony of the Golden age of the World.”
Let’s hope the Bee survives - and thrives, because if it doesn’t, then we only have ourselves to blame.