Did you know that bees were around for more than one hundred million years, whereas we as a species (homo sapiens), have only been around for about 100 000 of it?
It is only fair then that the bee has a place in myth too.
In this particular case the Greek myths, as told by Stephen Fry at least. You see dear reader, from time to time I do some reading too, and friends always go on and on about how nice it is to listen to audio-books instead of reading them themselves.
Because I’ve been meaning to read the book Mythos, after seeing him do a bit of it on the Graham Norton show. I decided that what better way to start with audio-books, than with Greek creation.
And disappoint it does not, obviously as is the case with many myths, the author has a bit of leeway, and can make their own spin on it. I enjoyed the whole book but since I always liked bees, the one about the bee and her sting was quite nice.
In this particular story, it’s Zeus and Hera’s wedding, a wedding anticipated by all the gods. Other than it being the first wedding in all time, there was also a bit of competition added to it.
Whomever that could come up with the most interesting and original wedding dish, could ask Zeus for a favour, a wish as it were.
As things were at the time, everyone was quite excited about this, and thus creatures and gods of all kinds had prepared something for the banquet.
There were salty dishes, sweet ones, bitter, sour and savoury. They tasted many dishes until they came across a tiny amphora, a vase as it were, you can think of it as a small as a thimble, made by a creature called Melissa.
It was filled all the way to the top with a sticky and sweet-smelling goo, which Zeus thought was pine resin as he stuck his finger in it.
After tasting it Zeus knew that it was nothing like he had ever tasted before. “Something new, gloopy without being unguent, slow-mowing without being stodgy, sweet without being cloying and perfumed with a flavour that drove the senses wild with pleasure.” Melissa’s name for it was Honey.
When Hera took a spoonful and tasted it “it seemed as if the loveliest meadows and mountain herbs danced along the back or her mouth”
Both Hera and Zeus knew at this point that honey took first place.
Melissa went up to Zeus, she was very small but looked even smaller while hovering near Zeus’ head. I’m sure you have your own image of Zeus in mind, mine usually comes with that of the Disney’s Hercules one. So, I just imagine him, with a bee next to his face.
She buzzed to him “Great lord, I am pleased that you like my delicacy. But I must tell you that it is quite extraordinary hard to make. I have to zoom from flower to flower to collect the nectar deep inside. Only the smallest amount can be sucked out and carried. All day, for as long as Ether grants me light to see by, I must sip search and return to the nest. Often traveling huge distances, even then at days end I will only have the tiniest possible amount of nectar to convert, into the confection that has so pleased you. This little amphora took me four and a half weeks to fill, so you can see that this is a most labour-intensive business.
The smell of honey is so intense, so ravishing that many come to raid my nest. They do so with impunity, for I am small, and all I can do is buzz angrily at them.
Imagine, a whole week’s work can be lost with one swipe of a weasel’s paw, or one lick of a bear cubs’ tongue.
Only let me have a weapon, your majesty. You have equipped the scorpion with a deadly sting, and the snake a venomous bite.
Give me, great Zeus, such a weapon, a fatal one! That will kill any who dare to steal my precious stock of honey.”
As is normal in these myths, Zeus obviously did not like this request, he had no patience with self-pity, how dare this tiny creature demand a mortal sting. He decided to show her the folly of such a request. “How dare you demand such monstrous a prize. A talent like yours should be shared out, not jealously hoarded.” Unfortunately for her, Melissa couldn’t keep her mouth shut and expressed her annoyance at him, He had given His word, she was supposed to get whatever she wished for.
At this point dark clouds had gathered and Zeus looked angrily at the small flying creature in front of him, stating that he said they could ASK him a favour, not that he would grant it.
“From this moment forward, the gathering of your honey will be made easier. By my decree you shall not labour alone. You will be queen of a whole colony, a whole swarm of productive subjects. Furthermore, I SHALL grant you a fatal and painful sting.”
At this point Melissa’s wings piqued up perkily “But!” Zeus continued “While it will bring a sharp pain to the one you sting. It is to you and your kind that it will bring death. So let it be!”
At this point the sky cleared up and Melissa felt something within her, looking down she saw something long, thin and sharp pushing its way out of her abdomen. It looked somewhat like a lance, a needle as it were, with barbs on the end of it.
Melissa is even still part of the scientific name for the honey bee ‘Apis mellifera’, in Greek Melissa means bee, which in turn Meli does honey.
Here in Belgium, we even used to have a park called “Meli Park” now that will make whomever is from around here feel old because it shut down back in 1999.
A little thing that is “wrong” as it were about this myth though, is that in the way Stephen Fry talks about the myth, Melissa as the queen also got a barbed sting.
But the queen bee as we know them doesn’t actually have a barbed sting. She can sting as many times as she wants, not that she ever does, queens are quite docile. Usually at least. When a virgin queen bee emerges, she goes out to seek out the other virgin queens and tries to kill them by stinging them. When she’s the only one left she’ll mate and begin laying eggs. A mated queen doesn’t usually leave the laying chamber and won’t sting again. I’m sure that there are beekeepers out there that have provoked their queen in such a way to feel the stinger. Or not, I’m not sure, that’s something to look up.
But there we have it dear reader, a bit of myth for you as we go into the weekend.
Today I’m putting the last layer of paint on the hive, so hopefully by the next time I write, I’ll have set it up and have bees in it.
Stay tuned o7
This blog adapts parts of Mythos by Stephen Fry, go grab it, it is well worth your time.