Bee Mythology

In the ancient Near East and throughout the Aegean world, bees were seen as a bridge between the natural world and the underworld. Bees were carved on tombs. The Mycenaean tholos tombs even took the form of beehives.

Gold placques embossed with the winged bee-goddesses, 7th century BCE (British Museum)
Gold placques embossed with the winged bee-goddesses, 7th century BCE (British Museum)

Winged, armed with toxin, creators of the fermentable honey, seemingly parthenogenetic in their immortal hive, bees were emblems of Potnia, the Minoan-Mycenaean "Mistress" older than Demeter, who might sometimes be called "the pure Mother Bee." If ever it is doubted that Demeter and the archaic Artemis as she was honored at Ephesus were Hellenic embodiments of the Great Mother.[1] it should be recalled that "Not only the priestesses of Artemis at Ephesus were 'Bees', but also those of Demeter", as Jane Ellen Harrison noted [2] "and, still, more significant, the Delphic priestess herself was a Bee".
The Jewish historian Josephus correctly noted[3] that the name of the poet and prophet Deborah meant "bee". The Homeric Hymn to Apollo acknowledges that Apollo's gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee-maidens, usually identified with the Thriae. Pindar too remembered that the Pythian pre-Olympic priestess of Delphi remained "the Delphic bee" long after Apollo had usurped the ancient oracle and shrine. "The Delphic priestess in historical times chewed a laurel leaf," Harrison noted, "but when she was a Bee surely she must have sought her inspir ation in the honeycomb"[4]

Beekeeping was a Minoan craft, and the fermented honey-drink was the old Cretan intoxicant, older than wine. Ernst Neustadt, in his monograph on Zeus Kretigenes, "Cretan-born Zeus", devoted a chapter to the honey-goddess Melissa. The proto-Greek invaders, by contrast, did not bring the art of beekeeping with them. Homer saw bees as wild, never tame, as when the Achaeans issued forth from their ship encampment "like buzzing swarms of bees that come out in relays from a hollow rock" (Iliad, book II). Long after Knossos fell, for two thousand years, the classical Greek tongue preserved " honey-intoxicated" as the phrase for "drunken."[citation needed]


The Thriae who offered Apollo the gift of prophecy were a trinity of pre-Hellenic bee-goddesses in the Aegean. The embossed gold plaque, one of a series of identical plaques recovered at Camiros in Rhodes[5] dates from the archaic period of Greek art, in the seventh century, but the winged bee-goddesses they depict must be far older.


The name "Merope" seems to mean "honey-faced" in Greek, thus "eloquent" in Classical times, but surely at an earlier level her "face" was a bee-mask. Cretan bee-masked priestesses appear on Minoan seals. One of the mythographers recalled the tradition that "Merope" was the "bee-eater" in the old Minoan tongue, before the Hellenes came to the Aegean.

Orion was a suitor of Merope. His birthplace was Hyrai in Boeotia, an ancient place mentioned in Homer's catalogue of the ships that set forth to fetch Helen home from Troy. According to Hesychius, the Cretan word hyron meant 'swarm of bees' or 'beehive'[6]. Like some other archaic names of Greek cities, such as Athens or Mycenae, Hyrai is plural, a name that once had evoked the place of "the sisters of the beehive."

This name Merope figures in too many isolated tales for "Merope" to be an individual. Instead the "Merope" must denote a position as priestess of the Goddess. But surely Merope the "bee-eater" is unlikely to be always a bee herself. Though there is a small Mediterranean bird called the Bee-Eater, which was known under that name to Roman naturalists Pliny and Aelian, this Bee-Eater is most likely to have been a She-Bear, a representative of Artemis. The goddess was pictured primitively with a she-bear's head herself, and the bear remained sacred to Artemis into classical times. At a festival called the Brauronia, pre-pubescent girls were dressed in honey-colored yellow robes and taught to perform a bear dance. Once they had briefly served Artemis in this way, they would be ready to be married. In later times, a Syriac Book of Medicine recommends that the eye of a bear, placed in a hive, makes the bees prosper. The bear's spirit apparently watches over the hive, and this was precisely the Merope's role among the Hyrai at Chios.


  • Other aspects of the Great Mother are detectable in Rhea the Earth Mother and Anatolian Cybele
  • Harrison 1922:442.
  • Ant. Jud. 5.200.
  • Harrison 1922:442.
  • One was illustrated in a line drawing in Harrison 1922:443, fig 135
  • Kerenyi 1976:42-3


  • Cook, A.B. "The bee in Greek mythology" 1895 Journal of the Hellenic Society 15 pp 1ff, noted by Harrison 1922:443 note 1.
  • Harrison, Jane Ellen, 1922. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek religion, third edition, pp 91 and 442f .
  • Kerenyi, Karl 1976. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Princeton: Bollingen Press)
  • Neustadt, Ernst 1906. De Jove cretico, (Berlin). Chapter III "de Melissa dea" discusses bee-goddesses and bee-priestesses in Crete.
  • Scheinberg, Susan 1979. "The Bee Maidens of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes" Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 83(1979), pp. 1-28.

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