Rabu, 25 Mei 2011




Bee Symbolism Beyond the Mediterranean

Beyond of the Mediterranean, Bee symbolism spread quickly, ensuring that the ancient traditions were not forgotten. For instance in Africa, Bantu tribes lived in Beehive shaped houses – as did Zulu tribes, amongst many others, and Bees were common symbols on totem poles. In fact, in Egypt Beehive shaped huts were constructed in memory of the chest or basket that housed the relics of the Egyptian god Osiris | Asar - namely his head, which was thought to reside at the temple of Abydos. One of Osiris’s symbols was a Beehive, and like the head of Osiris, the Beehive is said to represent the collective wisdom of mankind. Similarly, many stone houses across the ancient world were designed in the shape of Beehives, including some notable Bronze Age huts in southwest Ireland, called Clochán’s. Not surprisingly, Ireland’s Beehive inspired huts recalls the thalamus tombs in ancient Mycenae.

Elsewhere in Africa, Ethiopians have a saying that Christ; “is born from the voice of his father, like the bee is born from the Queen” and believe that the Bee once defended the throne of God. In some parts of Africa, the ant is regarded as sacred, just as the fly is revered in other parts of the ancient world. In fact, many subject area experts consider the fly and the Bee to be part of the same ‘category’, and sure enough, occasionally one is mistaken for the other. An example of such a ‘mistaken identity’ can be found in 17th century astronomy.
In 1603, the German astronomer Johann Bayer labeled the previously known but unnamed constellation in the southern hemisphere, Apis, meaning “The Bee”. Inadvertently, Bayer had misidentified identified an image of a fly on his sky map as a Bee. Bayer’s naming convention lasted a couple of centuries before it was replaced by Musca Australis vel Indica, or the Southern Fly, which distinguished it from the now obsolete Musca Borealis, or the Northern Fly. Again, in many places such as Africa, the Bee and the fly are interchangeable and equally sacred, due most likely to the fact that they are sometimes indistinguishable.

Musca, the Bee, as mistakenly identified by Johann Bayer

The Bee was also worshiped in Scandinavian cultures, such as Finland, where the insect is thought to transport the prayers of ordinary people up to the creator in the sky. In certain parts of Scotland and England, Bees were said to make a buzzing sound at precisely midnight on Christmas Eve. And in ancient Welsh traditions, taxes were paid in measures of honey, and in the Welsh Bardic Triads, a sow belonging to the Anglo-Celtic sow goddess Henwen is said to have given birth to a Bee. Further, the Triads recall that Ireland was famous for its swarms of Bees and copious supplies of honey. The texts also state that Britain was known as the “Island of Honey” and that the Beehive was considered to be an example of orderly British society, as depicted in various satires of the day, such as the illustration below by the English caricaturist, George Cruikshank.
George Cruikshank’s 1867 cartoon – a political satire

On the Isle of Man - just off the English coast, it was considered a capital offence to steal Bees. Even William Shakespeare got in the act, stating “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.” Some even link the phrases “to be or not to be” and “so more it be” – to the Bee. However the tradition of the Bee in Britain goes back much further than Shakespeare. Bee expert Eva Crane observed that objects found near the River Thames were constructed with Beeswax as far back as 3000 BC. And in 488 AD, the Irish Saint Bridget is said to have visited Glastonbury, which according to legend is the home of the Holy Grail and a church built by Joseph of Arimathea - and visited by his nephew Jesus Christ. Here Saint Bridget took up residence on the ‘Island of Beckery’, which translates as the ‘Beekeepers Island’.

Beckery Island, Glastonbury – the Island of Beekeepers © www.gothicimage.co.uk

The ancient city of Wells is but a few short miles from Beekeepers Islands and boasts a 12th century cathedral with the most spectacular gothic west facade in all of Britain. Curiously, in the spring of 2008 a swarm of Bees gathered outside of the cathedral in the form of a crucifix, leaving local clergy and Beekeepers alike bewildered – no pun intended. The story was reported by the Daily Mail, the largest newspaper in the country, whose tongue in check headline read; ‘May the Lord bee with you’.

Bees form a crucifix outside of Wells Cathedral

In nearby Devonshire it is believed that Good Friday is the only safe time to remove Bees from a hive and that all other days would prove fatal. And then there is an old English adage that advises one to; “Ask the wild bee what the Druids knew.” It was even believed that druids danced like Bees in celebration of the sun’s vital life force. In Ireland, druids kept sacred commandments known as the Brehon Laws that were protected by Bees, and an ancient Irish text suggests that residents from the county of Munster were likened to Bees, as many of their family crests suggest.

Bees and Beehives were common images on Coat of Arms across the British Isles

Ireland was renowned for its consumption of mead, a beverage known in the ancient world for its ability to intoxicate; sort of a precursor to Guinness. At Tara, home of Ireland’s ancient kings, there was a residence called ‘The House of Mead Circling’, whose very name implied that mead was used in ritual. And there are even romantic tales of mead, such as the source of the phrase ‘Honeymoon’, which is derived from the tradition of providing newlyweds with one moons supply – or approximately 31 days worth - of mead so that the couple might relax and be successful in procreating while on their honeymoon. Today, mead honey wines have undergone a resurgence in popularity – as have honey based beers. Ironically, both are known for their harmony and balance, traits which we will discover in our third installment, that are associated with the Bee – and the Holy Grail.

Mead Honey Wine and Fullers Honey Dew Beer

Another country that understood the intoxicating qualities of mead is Germany, where an entire industry evolved around the olden custom of using honey to create intoxicating beverages. It’s interesting to note that the German word for beer is Bier, and that the Latin word for wine and honey is mulsum, and mel – meaning honey, was frequently translated as beor. While honey festivals and the Bee based beer industry grew in popularity in the south, aided in no small part by grants to the mead brewers by Rudolf Habsburg and his powerful descendents, northern Germany was quietly developing its own Bee legacy. And here the symbolism of the Bee is open to some educated speculation.
In northern Germany in particular, the legacy of the Bee and its importance in everyday life has been preserved by a plethora of place names starting in ‘Biene’ and ‘Immen’, meaning Bee. The later – Immen, is linked to the German Bee god Imme, and refers to sacred trees in the forest where Bees were once kept. This is interesting, for northern Germany is known for its sacred irminsuls; curious wood or stone carvings that are believed to date from the 8th century or earlier and which commemorate the veneration of sacred trees in antiquity – tree stumps in particular, which the irminsuls distinctive shape appears to recall.

The German researcher and writer Jurgen Spanuth wrote a series of provocative yet well researched books in the 1950’s that featured irminsuls. The theme of Spanuth’s work centered on ‘The Atlantis of the North’ and recounted how irminsul’s were known by the Saxons as ‘the All-Pillar that holds up the Universe’, as well as how their shape was traceable back thousands of years. Spanuth found the likeness of irminsuls in brooch’s, bowls, pillars and staffs from around the world, especially the Mediterranean. He also identified references to the ‘Pillars of the North’ in Egyptian texts, including one from the time or Ramses III that spoke of ‘upholding gods who stand in the darkness (the far North), and that Ramses III believed that the North Peoples came from ‘the pillars of heaven’. Further, Spanuth identified how the irminsuls were in fact the true Pillars of Hercules and the gateway to Atlantis in the north. Albeit fascinating, what does this have to do with Bees?
We know that Spanuth traced the design of the irminsul back to the ancient Mediterranean and found references to the ‘pillars’ of the north in Egypt, but perhaps most intriguing to our discussion is the fact that he identified the function of the irminsul as being a device used to rest the bulls head upon before slaughter, thus linking the irminsul, albeit indirectly, with Bees. And this brings me to the following hypothesis. Trees, and tree stumps in particular are common destinations for Bees that have unexpectedly swarmed. With the introduction of a new Queen in the hive, the old Queen abruptly departs, taking with her roughly half of her Worker Bees – tens of thousands typically, while the remaining Bees pledge their allegiance to the newly appointed Queen. The migrating Bees are in desperate need of a new home, and Beekeepers from antiquity were keenly aware of the opportunity that this drama provided. The practice of preparing a tree trunk in anticipation of such an event is common in Beekeeping even today, as the photos below affirm. Could the Pillars of Hercules have been irminsuls – and could irminsuls have been tree stumps prepared to house the creatures whose service ensured the vitality of the land and the health and well being of its people? Were irminsuls regarded by the Saxons as the ‘All Pillar’ that held the universe together because they provided a home for Bees?

Tree trunk Beehives – Smokey Mountains in the 1930’s © www.nps.com |
UK naturalist Bill Odde with modern tree trunk hives – England, 2008

So we ask ourselves, might the sacred trees that the irminsuls symbolise once have contained Beehives that yielded honey? And might the unexpected arrival of Bees have been viewed as a ‘gift from the gods’, giving rise to the irminsuls sacredness in the first place, as well as the Bee god Imme, or as he was known in ancient times, I-me? The dilapidated ruins in the woods near Obermarsberg marks the spot where an irminsul once stood, and its tower casing appears to have provided shelter for a small cylinder shaped enclosure, suggesting the possibility that this once sacred site was intended as an emergency shelter for swarming Bees. Sadly, irminsuls are no more, as Charlemagne destroyed the pagan-looking structures during his war on Germany in the late 8th century. Whatever their true function was, irminsuls were special and appear to have been pillars of the community in one way or another – and perhaps even quite literally.

Equally as curious and arguably as speculative as the Bee’s possible link with irmensuls is the Externsteine, a dramatic rock formation hauntingly set in the Teutoburg Forest. The picturesque site is believed to have been the centre of religious worship for thousands of years and is most famous for its inaccessible mountain top temple whose alter is illuminated by the winter solstice sun through a circular hole in the cliff wall. The Externsteine’s original name was Ecce (Mother) Stan (Stone) and its deity was known as Achath – the Goddess of the unreachable level of the Absolute and Eternity. Achath, which translates as ‘One is She’, was the goddess before the other gods, and recalls many of the attributes of the Egyptian Bee goddess, Neith.

The Externsteine and the Temple of the Winter Solstice
At the base of the rock formation is an ancient series of carvings whose true meaning remains a mystery. The upper relief is believed to have been carved in the 12th century and the lower relief sometime earlier. And it’s here – on the lower relief, that we see an image of a winged bird or stylized insect whose flight is portrayed as looping towards a human figure, with a toppled irminsul in the relief above. Although the winged figure does not overtly resemble a Bee, the looping outline of its flight hints at the path of the Bee’s unique waggle dance, or the source of the insects unique communication strategy. What other winged creature is known for such aerial behavior? As far as I am aware, only the Bee.

Ancient carvings on the Externsteine | The waggle dance of the Bee?
The Teutoburg Forest is a magical place – even today. In addition to irmensuls and the Externsteine, the German Schutzstaffel - or Protective Squadron, more commonly known as the ‘SS’, established its base here. After some consideration, the SS chose the triangular shaped, 17th century Wewelsburg Castle as the centre of its ritual activity, and in the process paid homage to the Bee in a very deliberate, albeit macabre way. The present castle was built over a much earlier structure and was restored under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, whose titles included ‘SS Leader of the Realm’, and who was undoubtedly the most powerful man in Germany after Adolf Hitler.
Himmler was obsessed with all things esoteric and his renovations reflected as much. For example, he renamed rooms in the castle ‘Grail’, ‘King Arthur’, ‘Aryan’, ‘Henry the Lion’ and ‘Teutonic Order’, amongst others. More significantly, he designed and commissioned the construction of a subterranean ritual centre chamber beneath the north tower of the castle. The damp, circular room was designed with 12 seats centered along the wall beneath a Beehive shaped dome where flames from ritualistic fires scorched a large swastika in the centre of the ceiling above. In the words of the castles tourism guide, the chamber was designed by Himmler; “in memory of the Beehive tombs of Greece.” Curiously, like the north house in Knossos Greece, Himmler’s north tower at Wewelsburg was the site of unspeakable rituals.
The SS ritual center beneath the North Tower – designed in the shape of a Beehive
The SS’s most important rituals were said to have taken place in Wewelsburg’s Beehive inspired necropolis, and the subterranean ritual centre was intended to be the oracle centre of a complex that Himmler quite literally believed to be positioned at the very centre of the universe. Himmler’s reasoning was in no doubt inspired by fact that the Teutoburg Forest was revered for nearly two thousands years as the place where the Germanic tribes united to defeat the Roman legions in 9 AD. And nearby, a 368 meter tall statue called The Hermannsdenkmal commemorates the Battle of Teutoburg, and depicts a heroic warrior figure with Bee-like wings on his helmet.

The Hermannsdenkmal memorial – a warrior with a winged helmet

Bee veneration in antiquity was closely tied to ritual, and as we have just witnessed, and in some instances this tradition has carried over into modern times. Take for example the symbolic adoration of the Bee in Spain and other Latin America countries. Here, Bee veneration is perhaps unconsciously preserved in the popular, albeit controversial sport of Bullfighting; a spectacle that recalls the ancient mystery school of Mithraism and the ancient practice of ritualistically slaughtering bulls in order to regenerate souls in the form of Bees. In fact, many of Spain’s oldest bullrings are built on or near Mithras temples, confirming the association.

As we are beginning to gleam, Bee veneration was practiced across the globe, in all epochs, and in many different ways. In Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam, the renowned Beekeeper, Le Quy Quynh achieved the status of ‘Hero of the Revolution’ for his honey based healing techniques and patients for victims of severe war related injuries. Still further afield, in Russia, the protector God of Beekeeping was named Zosim, and was believed to be the founder of Apiculture. And in Slovenia, Beehives were hand painted with colourful religious and historical motifs.

In Lithuania, the Bee goddess was known as Austheia, and legend asserts that when the Queen Bee left the hive in search of a new home, families would pack up and follow the Queen’s swarm until the Bees established a new hive, and any families united as a result of the exodus were bound together in a special relationship called ‘biciulyste’. Austheia’s husband was a Bee god named Bubilas, as well as a household god who Lithuanians honoured with honey in hope that the Bees will swarm more effectively – in other words, in the direction of their tree trunk and not their neighbours! The Bee and its by-products were considered gifts in Lithuania, and thus neither Bees nor honey could be bought or sold, as was and still is true in many cultures. Additionally, it was considered improper to leave a dead bee unburied, and if one was discovered, it was expected that one stopped what he or she was doing and bury it in the earth immediately.
Traditional Lithuanian Bee Hive - © www.thebeegoddess.com

The god Indra was the namesake of ancient India and the deity who separated heaven and earth, and is said to have received honey as his first food. Similarly, the Indian Bee goddess Bhramari Devi derives her name from the word Bramari, meaning 'Bees' in Hindi.  It is said that Bhramari Devi resides inside the heart chakra and emits the buzzing sound of Bees, called 'Bhramaran'. Likewise, the sound of a Bee humming was emulated in Vedic chants and the humming of Bees represented the essential sound of the universe all across India.

The Indian Bee goddess - Bhramari Devi

The most ancient of India’s sacred books is the Rig-Veda, and it contains countless references to Bee’s and honey. So do other texts, such as the Atharva-Veda, which speaks at length about the Bee and the twin horseman lords of light known as the Avsvins; “O Asvins, lords of Brightness, anoint me with honey of the bee, that I may speak forceful speech among men.” In Indian mythology, goddesses frequently turned into Bees to ward off demons and purify the land. The god Prana – the personification of the universal life force, is sometimes shown surrounded by a circle of Bees. The goddess is said that to have applied nectar – or honey, to the roots of the ash tree in order to keep it alive and well – and green. Even Krishna, the sacred Hindu deity, was sometimes depicted as the Bee goddess Madhusudana, the divine Bee of loving mellows.

Kama, the Indian god of love, is also associated with Bees, as the famous Indian poet Kalidasa recounts;
“A stalwart soldier comes, the spring, Who bears the bow of Love; and on that bow, the lustrous string is made of bees….Weaves a string of Bees with deft invention, To speed the missile when the bow is bent.”
Kama’s ‘bow of Bees’ is reminiscent of Min, the Egyptian god who bore the title, Master of the Bees and who was also associated with arrows – as was Neith, the Mother | Bee goddess figure whose temple in Egypt was called the House of the Bee. However, the Greek fertility god Eros is associated with arrows more than any other figure from antiquity and was known to have been stung by a Bee on the nose. As an aside, Eros is typically depicted with arrows – and wings, as in the famous statue in London’s Piccadilly Circus, pictured below.

The winged Eros – London; stung by a Bee on the nose

In Hinduism, references to the Bee date back to 1500 BC, and it was believed that eating honey would ensure good health and fortify spirituality. Similarly, in Buddhism the festival of Madhu Purnima commemorates Buddha's retreat into the wilderness, where he is fed honey by a monkey. To this day, Buddhists pay homage to the legend by donating honey to monks during the festival. And lest we forget, in India the sacredness of the cow is supreme. Might this be related to regenerative symbolism of the bull and the Bee?
Certainly, one of the more fascinating legends of the Bee is contained in the Mayan tradition. The ancient Maya used honey as a sweetener, and like many other ancient cultures before them, revered the nectar for its medicinal and ritualistic uses. While the Mayan pantheon of gods does not include a Bee goddess, it does include a number of Bee gods, such as Ah-Muzen-Cab, and another known as Mok Chi, a multi faceted figure who is featured prominently in Mayan art and mythology. In the Yucatan, it is believed that the Ah-Mucen-Cab protects the locals from ‘Killer Bees’. And in the relief below, Mok Chi is shown transforming into the Beekeeper god.

The Mayan regarded the Bee as ‘Our Lady’, or sometimes, the ‘Royal Lady’ (kolil kab in Mayan), and shamans preserve the tradition of their ancestors by chanting Bee rituals with lyrics like:
“To the beautiful lady foreign divine queen lord, I wash her wings, I give strength to her wings’, while intermixing the chant with sounds of a bee humming.”
In shamanism, an instrument by the name of the talking drum was known as the “gong of the Bee”. And in the Mayan tradition in particular, shamans were especially attuned to the importance of the Bee and reflected their veneration in ritual and religion. For instance, in the Mayan Book of ‘The Chilam Balam of Chumayel’, the Ritual of the Four World Quarters features wild Bees as the liaisons between humans and sun gods. The work features the Bee god Ah Muzen Cab, known as ‘Great Lord Bee’, who may be related to the Aztec Bee god, Xmul-Zen-Cab. Ah Muzen Cab’s ancestral home can be found at the Mayan site of Tulúm and Coba, where he is depicted guarding the temples’ most sacred sanctuaries. Not surprisingly, the famous and rather controversial Swiss author, Erich von Däniken, questioned the association of Mayan gods with Bees, and in his 1972 book ‘The Gold of The Gods’ stated that he believed the images reflected extraterrestrial origins.

The Bee god Ah Muzen Cab (left) |
A Maya bee god from the Chilam Balam of Chumalaya (right)
© www.sacred-texts.com

One of the most intriguing links between Mayan and Egyptian cultures is the word Hu-Nab-Ku. Ku in ancient Sumer means ‘light’ and in ancient Egyptian Khu means ‘Magical Body’, recalling the Egyptian name for the Sphinx; Hu Nb. And what is the Sphinx if not a magical body? The interesting thing is that Hu-Nab-Ku, whose name is sometimes written as Huun Ab Ku, meaning ‘One is God as Measure and Movement’, was actually a Mayan Divinity who created the concept of Measure and Motion in Mayan mythology. In fact, the Mayans attributed the entire mathematical structure of the universe to his creation, and his work is represented by a square within a circle. The Mayan divinity is also related to the Egyptian God Thoth, who is said to have travelled to South America and shared his knowledge with the local gods in antiquity – possibly the pre-Columbian Olmecs, but certainly pre-Mayan.
Thoth was said to have authored sacred texts on subjects related to measure and movement, and the constellation of Libra, which is sometimes called the Scales of Thoth, was known as the constellation of the Bee in the Dogon cosmology, prior to the second century AD. The synchronicity calls attention to other similarities between the two cultures – such as pyramid building. In fact, the symbol of Hu-Nab-Ku’s mathematical structure of the universe – the square within a circle, is represented in the geometry of the pyramids.

The symbol of Hu-Nab-Ku’s creation; the square within a circle
© www.medwaycropcircle.co.uk

Curiously, the Bee god had another name in Mayan mythology – The Saviour God. And the concept of a Saviour god brings us to our next subject; the Bee in ancient religions.

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