Reading The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore was a departure from the typical beekeeping book that I would pick up, but something about the word ‘sacred’ in the title drew me to these pages. The scientist in me is always looking for the kind of information in a book that will improve my stewardly behavior in the Apiary. This book initially seemed to be just a history lesson on folklore, but I ordered it from Amazon anyway. Having said that, I am glad I picked it up.
Hilda Ransome wrote and first published this book in 1937 in London, and my copy, published in 2004, is an unabridged republication of the original work. As a result, the ‘English’ written on these pages differs in structure with that same language spoken in presentday North America. The photographs, plates and other diagrams are also 1937 vintage, providing low quality/clarity images. These however are the only weaknesses of this text. The Author starts out her work by quoting Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie, 1609:
“ The chiefest cause, to read good bookes, That moves each studious minde Is hope, some pleasure sweet therein, Or profit good to finde. Now what delight can greater be Than secrets for to knowe Of Sacred Bees, the Muses’ Birds, All which this booke doth showe.”
Hilda Ransome shares immediately that in order to fit in all the reader should learn from this one text, she has not included all the beliefs, rites and customs that she researched. The folklore and beliefs of ancient times covered in this book provide a general theme that these creatures which we modern scientists and beekeepers find so fascinating have been fascinating people from all walks of life for thousands of years.
The book provides good description of the beliefs of many peoples as far back as 6th Century BC, where some cultures (Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, and Assyria) all held the Honey Bee as a special creature in the animal kingdom. According to Ransome,many cultures believed that the Honey Bee was the only animal that came directly from Heaven to earth. Some of these cultures believed that the Honey Bee would go up to Heaven (just behind the moon) to retrieve honey for the Gods and the Royalty on earth.
Another theme in the book for many ancient cultures was that of the “harmless bee.” This theme can be best described by taking a quote from Ross Conrad’s book Natural Beekeeping, where he states, “The bee is the only creature in the animal kingdom, that I am aware of, that does not kill or injure any other being as it goes through its regular life cycle. Apis Mellifera damages not so much as a leaf. In fact Honey Bees take what they need in such a way that the world around them is improved.” In many ancient cultures, Honey Bees were regarded with this high esteem; not hurting a soul when conducting their daily routine, in spite of the potential use of a sting for protection and defense. One culture mentioned in the text has a legend that the Honey Bee became arrogant with its ability to create Heavenly food (honey), and asked God to give it a sting so it might kill anyone trying to steal the royal sweetness. In response, God does give the Honey Bee a sting, but tells the bee, because of its arrogance, anytime she decides to use the sting, she herself will die, not the victim of the sting!
A third theme in the book that resonates in many cultures, especially in the middle ages, was that beekeeping was a very significant industry. We don’t tend to think of beekeeping as having been well-organized 1000 years ago, or any time before Langstroth’s great work and discoveries for that matter. However, Ransome notes that in one single cathedral of the middle ages, 34,000 beeswax candles were required annually for all services planned during the year. I am sure it took more than a few hives to produce this quantity of wax for just one cathedral! Honey and wax were also used to pay taxes in many regions across the earth in ancient times. Many coins from various cultures depicting Honey Bees, Honey or Bee Hives on the face of the coin were described in the text. The author describes the act of “telling the bees” (about the owner’s death or a family member’s death) as an important rite in many cultures. She describes the different methods and additional activities associated with this old custom from several different cultures.
One of the more interesting beliefs in ancient times was that of Honey Bees originating from the rotting carcass of oxen. If one wanted more bees, they were to take an ox, kill it, and bury it. After a time, it was believed that Honey Bees would come forth from the carcass…okay…so some of these old tales weren’t so great! Other cultures believed that when a person died, their spirit took the form of a Honey Bee and flew back to Heaven, from whence it came long ago.
Ransome included rites, rituals, lore, legend and general beliefs from India, China, Greece, Ancient Rome, Germanic countries, Finland, France, the British Isles, and also the New World in this text. All of them—in some way, shape, or form—have a very high regard for the Honey Bee, beekeepers, and give extremely high value to the products of the hive. This high regard is shown in these cultures in many ways; not the least of which, Ransome describes, is the naming of numerous towns and villages in each region after the Honey Bee, or the beekeeping activity therein.
Many religious rites from a multitude of cultures were described by Ransome in this book as well. One of particular interest to me was that of the Roman Catholic Church from the 4th to the 6th Century. During this time period, the rite of Baptism was celebrated at Easter. When people were baptized, they would not only receive the transubstantiated Body and Blood of Christ in the appearance of bread and wine as Eucharist, but would also receive a chalice filled with “extremely holy” milk and honey. According to the rite, this inferred that those who had received the Body and Blood of the Lord would also receive the “land of promise,” and therefore on this commencement of their journey (Baptism) were fed like sucklings with very holy milk and honey.
In this report I have touched upon only a few of the interesting rites, rituals, legends and folklore regarding the Sacred Honey Bee in past times and cultures that are described in good detail by Hilda Ransome in her book, to give the potential reader an idea of what is to come from the pages of this text. The Author has done a very good job of providing footnotes and verified sources for each of the topics covered, should one decide to research any of these legends further. When teaching beekeeping classes, it is always nice to have a tidbit or two to describe what beekeeping used to be like “way back then.” Ransome’s book provides a multitude of legends and habits in cultures to choose from for that purpose.