Bless air’s gift of sweetness, honey
from the bees, inspired by clover,
marigold, eucalyptus, thyme,
the hundred perfumes of the wind.
Bless the beekeeper
who chooses for her hives
a site near water, violet beds, no yew,
no echo. Let the light lilt, leak, green
or gold, pigment for queens,
and joy be inexplicable but there
in harmony of willowherb and stream,
of summer heat and breeze,
each bee’s body
at its brilliant flower, lover-stunned,
strumming on fragrance, smitten.
let gardens grow, where beelines end,
sighing in roses, saffron blooms, buddleia;
where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.
–Carol Ann Duffy
The other day, Dame Fate cast into my lap a slim pamphlet bearing the suggestive title Mellis Caelestia dona by Martha Kearney, a UK broadcaster, beekeeper, and Classics fan. The text is a transcription of a lecture delivered to the Classical Association of the UK earlier this year. Kearney surveys the lore of beekeeping in the ancient (mainly Graeco-Roman) world, assembling some fascinating facts and nuances as glittering and golden as any honeycomb. The landscape she surveys ranges from the lore of Pindar, Plato, Pliny and Virgil, to recent research at the University of Wales on the use of manuka honey (from New Zealand) in treating the “superbug infection” MRSA.
Kearney also invokes the shadowy eidolon of the Melissa, the Bee Priestess. The lore about the work and play of the Melissa has always been elusive; even more obscure is the role of the Melissus, her male counterpart. Kearney recounts: “The Delphic priestess herself was described as a bee–Melissa Delphis, according to Pindar. We can hear their role described in this Homeric Hymn to Mercury, translated by Shelley, about the maiden priestesses at Delphi.
There are three Fates, three virgin Sisters, who
Rejoicing in their wind-outspeeding wings,
Their heads with flour snowed over white and new,
Sit in a vale round which Parnassus flings
Its circling skirts–from these I have learned true
Vaticinations of remotest things.
My father cared not. Whilst they search out dooms,
They sit apart and feed on honeycombs.
They, having eaten the fresh honey, grow
Drunk with divine enthusiasm…
Such descriptions make one wonder whether Diotima, the much-venerated Teacher of Sokrates himself, may have been such a Bee Priestess. In her classic work Fifty years in the Faery Tradition, Cora Anderson describes the Melissa as single, and quite bisexual. Starhawk gives further lore about these Priestesses in one of her novels.
I do sometimes see the bees at their work in a garden near a bus stop where I wait for my daily commute. And I speak to them and sometimes share my thoughts. The Druids used to say tell any news you have to give to the bees, a saying that survived in some Gaelic traditions. Their whirring wings fan the seasons of light and dark as we Witches turn the mighty Wheel of the Year.