Priestesses of the Bee: The Melissae
By Linda Iles
“And not of every water do the Melissae carry to Deo, but of the trickling stream that springs from a holy fountain, pure and undefiled, the very crown of waters.” -Callimachus, Hymn to Apollo
Ancient Greece and Crete
Porphyry (AD 233 to c.304) writes: “The ancients gave the name of Melissae (bees) to the priestesses of Demeter who were initiates of the chthonian goddess; the name Melitodes to Kore herself: the moon (Artemis) too, whose province it was to bring to the birth, they called Melissa, because the moon being a bull and its ascension the bull, bees are begotten of bulls. And souls that pass to the earth are bull-begotten.”
Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921 - 1994) writes of this passage by Porphyry:“...we learn that Artemis is a bee, Melissa, and that both she and the bull belong to the moon. Hence both are connected with the idea of a periodic regeneration. We also learn that souls are bees and that Melissa draws souls down to be born. The idea of a ‘life in death’ in this singularly interesting concept is expressed by the belief that the life of the bull passed into that of the bees.”
How did these titles of Melissa for the Great Mother and her priestesses as Melissae come about? The Melissae may have inherited their title from an old order of nymphs - to this day the larva of bees are called nymphs! The myths of ancient Greece link the Melissae with the god Zeus and the island of Crete. Zeus was born in a cave of bees and was fed by them. Another form of the myth says that Melisseus, king of Crete at that time, discoverer of honey and inventor of bee-keeping, had two daughters, Amalthaea and Melissa, who nourished the youthful Zeus with goat’s milk and honey. Melissa was eventually appointed by her father as the first priestess of the Great Mother and from that time those who served the Great Mother were called Melissae.
The bee-keeping activities of the Minoans of Crete is documented not in myth but by many other ancient sources, including hieroglyphs, representations of actual beehives and engraved images. The Greeks eventually took up bee-keeping due to the example set by the Minoans, and also presumably inherited the mythical image of the Great Mother Goddess as the Queen Bee. She was corresponded with regeneration, divinity, healing, purity and magic potency. To the ancients, the honey bee was not only a messenger but a direct representative of the gods and goddesses of heaven and the airy realms.
Found at Camiros, Rhodes, 7th century BCE.
Eastern European languages, especially Hungarian, contain root words for mother, like ‘anya’ or ‘méh’ which can be found in their words for bee, womb, uterus, to conceive, hive, bee sting, queen bee, cervix, fruit of the womb, apiary, embryo, bee swarm, fetus, and many more similar definitions. In Lithuania, an ancient method of divination was performed by women who poured melted beeswax into cold, pure water. Then they would interpret the fortune of the applicant through the resulting shapes taken on by the wax as it solidified. The ability of bees to create honey was believed to be magical or divine - a kind of natural alchemy. The bee-keepers of Europe believed virtue was required for the production of honey, as bees would never produce unless the keeper was honest and good. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that scientists could explain how properties of flower pollen and the enzymes produced by bees could combine to make honey.
In ancient Egypt the bee represented both royalty, through the Goddess Neith, and the sun, through the solar god Ra. The ancient Egyptian city of Sais in ancient Egypt was the home of a principle temple of the Goddess Neith known as "House of the Bee." Because of Her role as a tutelary Deity of Lower Egypt, and as a protective Deity of the Pharaoh, one of the royal titles of the king was "He of the Sedge and Bee." The ancient Egyptians said bees, or in some versions, honey, were the tears of Ra, a sun god. Bees are seen as solar symbols in many cultures - probably due to the golden amber color of their honey and their seemingly uncanny awareness of the position of the sun in the sky. Ancient Babylonian sacred buildings were erected on ground consecrated by honey, and the Incas of Peru offered honey in their sun temples. In Australia and Africa bees are found as tribal totems.
Bees in Ancient Cultures
Tears of Ra, Tears of Freya
To the Druids, bees came from the paradisal world of the Sun and of the Spirit, and in Celtic myth bees were said to possess a secret wisdom garnered from the otherworld. In German lore, bees came to earth from an underground paradise where they live with the fates. In Norse legend, the tears of Freya were said to be made of bees of gold. It was the golden honey of the bee which brought the ancient drink of mead to humanity. Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world. Made from honey, water, malt, and yeast, it has been brewed for at least 6000 years. It played a central part in the old religious traditions of Europe, bringing the gift of prophesy and song from the Goddess and God.
In India, the God Vishnu is often seen with a blue bee resting on his forehead or he is depicted as a blue bee sitting on a lotus blossom, which represents the Goddess. Bees are the symbol of the gentle Soma, Goddess of the Moon. They form the bowstring of the god Kama, symbolizing the sweet pain of love, while Siva is represented as a triangle surmounted by a bee. Just as they were in ancient Greece, honey and milk are foods of the gods, a symbol of abundance, life and sweetness. There is a traditional blessing of a newborn baby in India which says:
“I give thee this honey food so that the Gods may protect thee and that thou mayest live a hundred autumns in this world.”
“primum ens melissae”
So the epithet of Bee in ancient Greece, applied not only to priestesses, prophetesses, or Goddesses like Demeter and Artemis - it was also bestowed upon poets, musicians, artists and philosophers - anyone touched in some way by divine inspiration. Neoplatonists regarded honey as a symbol of wisdom gained through experience over a period of time. They recognized that certain gifted human beings could collect and extract the pure essence of wisdom and spiritual truth from ‘the flowers of experience.’ They reasoned the essential quality of life, the spiritual or universal nature of ever-being or ever-existing, which they called “primum ens Melissa” (the spirit of the bee), was captured in the thoughts and teachings of highly evolved individuals - ‘collected’ in a similar manner as bees collected honey from the flowers and the blossoms. To them, these “Spirits of the Bee” were just as divinely inspired as the Melissae of the temples. All these forms of higher inspiration and the honey of the bee were called “astron” meaning “star-fallen.“
“Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning”
There is a group of stars, visible this time of year (July - August) called the Bee Hive Cluster, whose Latin name is Praesepe, meaning “manger.” Praesepe is an ‘open cluster’ which spreads out, similar to a swarm of bees over a large area of the sky, with more than forty stars visible to the eye as a cloudy patch at night. It is located in the seasonal sign of Leo and in the constellation of the Crab (Cancer). The best way to find Praesepe - first locate the twin stars Pollux and Castor, then look left (or east) to locate Regulus. It lies between Pollux and Castor and Regulus. According to Pliny, when the stars of the manger were visible at night, it was a prediction of good weather and ease of passage.
There is considerable esoteric symbolism attached to this group of stars, including remembrance of our divine essence. Reflecting on our past to create our future, and to recognizing everything is interconnected and leads back to the source or center of All Things. As part of the constellation of the Crab (Cancer) Praesepe is located in the gate of the emergence of life. Recognized by the Platonists of ancient Greece as the highest point of heaven, this was the “Gate of Men” though which souls descended to earth from heaven. It is the opposite of the “Gate of the Gods” found in Capricorn, where souls of the departed ascended back to heaven. All of this ties in neatly with modern day Hermetic teachings - the sphere of the Moon, planetary ruler of Cancer being the final realm in which souls preparing to incarnate take on their shape and form before birth. And in the sphere of Saturn, ruler of Capricorn, we find the final region in which ascending souls are freed of earthly influences at death.
Is it coincidence that the ancients associated this cluster of stars, situated in the “Gate of Men” with the Bee Hive and therefore with the Great Mother and Her Priestesses? No, it is not. The constellation of Cancer has few stars. It was known as the “dark sign” (astronomy and astrology were one science in ancient times). The single most distinguishing feature of the constellation of the Crab (Cancer) was the swarm-like starry cluster of Praesepe. The darkness of this sign or constellation was regarded as ‘feminine,’ representing the darkness of the womb which gave birth to human souls. It was also the birthplace of illumination of heart and mind through divine inspiration. The observation written down by Pliny was true both in the physical sense and metaphysical sense.
Bees are classified as members of the ‘hymenopteran’ class of insects, which means ‘veil-winged.’ A veil traditionally covered the entrance to the inner shrine of the holy of holies of a temple. The Melissae were associated with diligence and they were also associated with purity. This is probably because bees only feed on the pure nectar of blossoms.
The Melissae are always referred to as pure and virgin. They had to maintain a ‘ritual purity’ through a specific set of practices. These Priestesses of the Bee used an entheogen, which is a psychoactive substance used within a religious context. The term ’entheogen’ is derived from two words of ancient Greek, entheos (“full of the god, inspired, possessed”) and genesthai (“to come into being”). They used a ‘toxic honey’ to heighten their perceptions - referred to as "green honey." It contained grayanotoxins; which were collected from oleanders, rhododendrons and other members of the Heath family of plants. Normally, because the honey bees evaporated most of the water from these toxic substances automatically become denatured when they transformed them into honey, which is viscous (17.4% water). But “green honey” is "unripened,” or “uncapped” honey with a water content of 50 to 75 percent. So these psychoactive substances do not get denatured, and the honey can be very toxic.
Priestesses at Delphi were also known to take entheogens. They used laurel leaves or sat on a stool within a subterranean chamber that issued a poisonous gas. The Pythian pre-Olympic Priestess of Delphi was named “The Delphic Bee” and continued to be known as such long after the shrine was dedicated to the God Apollo. He acknowledged the gift of prophecy of the three bee-maidens or Melissae in a Homeric Hymn to Hermes:
“But I will tell you another thing, Son of all- glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius of the gods. There are certain holy ones, sisters born -- three virgins gifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus. These are teachers of divination apart from me … From their home they fly now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods' sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together.” (Homeric Hymn 4, to Hermes, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, beginning line 550)
In the hymn quoted above, Apollo makes a gift of the three bee-maiden priestesses to the God Hermes. Why? Because Hermes was guide to the souls of the dead not only out of life but also back into it again.
“The etymology of the word ‘fate’ in Greek offers a fascinating example of how the genius of the Minoan vision entered the Greek language, often visibly, as well as informing its stories of goddesses and gods. The Greek word for ‘fate’, ‘death’ and ‘goddess of death’ is ‘e ker’ (feminine); the word for’heart’ and ‘breast’ is ‘to ker’ (neuter); while the word for ‘honeycomb’ is ‘to kerion’ (neuter). The common root ‘ker’ links the ideas of the honeycomb, goddess, death, fate and the human heart, a nexus of meanings that is illumined if we know that the goddess was once imagined as a bee.” (Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, “The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.”)
A perennial herb, native to southern Europe, known as Melissa (Melissa officinalis), commonly called “lemon balm” or “bee balm” was a favorite herb in medieval times. It was the main ingredient in ‘Carmelite Water’, along with lemon peel, nutmeg, coriander and angelica. It is still produced as Eau de Melisse de Carmes and is found in Klosterfrau Melissengeist in Germany. Not easily distilled, the expensive, low-yielding oil is often mixed with lemon or citronella. The leaves give off a sweet, soft lemon-like fragrance. In his herbal, Gerard, agreeing with Avicenna, said of Melissa, it “maketh the heart merry, joyful, strengthens the vital spirits.”
“Bees have an ancient reputation as the bringers of order, and their hives served as models for organizing temples in many Mediterranean cultures.” (Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, “The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.”) Community, cooperation, organization, and diligence were also hallmarks of the settlements in which the Goddess reigned in Neolithic Europe. The priestesses of those settlements made many of the beautiful artifacts we have in our museums today. This is evidenced from the archeological record which shows priestesses in temple workshops in those ancient settlements. They knew how to live peacefully with the laws of nature, and maintained balance with the land around them, just as bees work together and offer labor to ensure the welfare of all. Like Melissa officinalis, they brought joy and strength to their communities.
As a bee is capable of inflicting a painful sting when necessary, bees are also agents of healing. There are times when we have to stand strong and protect what we know to be right and true, but aggression is not our predominate attribute as priestesses of the Goddess, any more than it is the primary behaviour of the bee. They manufacture a natural antiseptic called propolis which they smear onto their hives to prevent disease. Propolis has been shown to have remarkable healing properties, as does royal jelly and bee pollen. As Priestesses and Devotees of the Goddess, we stand for healing, strength, divine inspiration, and creative power.
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