The Melissae in Greek Myth and Legend
As I began to read more about the name Melissa, I found that the word popped up throughout Greek mythology. Sometimes it refers to all bees. Sometimes it refers to cave-dwelling bees (which were thought to be good souls about to be born). Sometimes the name was attached to a particular nymph. Sometimes it referred to all the nymphs who tended the infant Zeus. Sometimes it referred to the bees who provided Zeus with his food. Sometimes it referred to the priestesses who guarded the Oracle of Delphil. Sometimes the word referred to priestesses of Demeter, of Persephone, and of Artemis. Indeed, Aphrodite even included “Melissa” as one of her sacred names, as well as did Artemis in her role as a moon presiding over childbirth! Persephone, too, had a name, Melidodes, that shares the same root as Melissa. Clearly the bee meant something powerful to the Greeks!
As I later learned from Hilda M. Ransome’s 1937 book The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore, the Greek fascination with bees predates their advent of apiculture, which explains why many early myths featuring bees have them being found in remote, secret caves instead of domestic hives.
This wildness of the bee features prominently in the different accounts of Zeus’s birth and infancy. In Hesiod’s Theogony (composed around 700 B.C. and written in Homeric Greek), the rough account is that Rhea, the “mother of the Gods” asked her parents–the deathless, primordeal Gods Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Heaven)–to help her conceal the birth of her youngest child, Zeus, from her husband, Cronos, the Titan God of the Sky. Gaia and Uranus had once told their son that one of his own children would overthrow his reign just as he had overcome Uranus, so Cronos swallowed each of his children as soon as they were born in order to prevent the prophecy from coming to pass. Rhea appealed to her parents, promising that her youngest son would be the one to seek retribution on Cronos for the loss of his elder siblings and for the insurrection against Uranus. So Gaia and Uranus sent Rhea to Crete when her labors began, and Gaia took the infant Zeus from Rhea to raise in Crete. Gaia hid her grandson in a remote cave there and gave her son Cronos a swaddled stone to swallow instead of his child.
Hesiod makes no mention of Zeus’s time in the cave–he says only that “the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly”. But many other accounts of this time share two traits: that there was stationed about the cave a band of protectors named the Kuretes or Korybantes, and that Zeus was fed honey and goats milk either from the bees (Melissae) and goat (Amaltheia) themselves, or by nymphs or priestesses who were known as either Melissae or Meliae. Ransome writes that Diodorus Siculus related that Zeus later rewarded his nymph nurses by changing the color of bees to a bright gold to protect them from the harsh, cold climate of the mountain caves, and set the goat Amaltheia in the sky as the star Capella. Ransome also quotes Lactantius (an early Christian author who lived between 240-320 C.E.) as giving the following summary of these myths:
Didymus in his commentary on Pindar says that Melisseus, king of the Cretans, was the first who sacrificed to the gods and introduced new rites and ritual processions. He had two daughters, Amalthei and Melissa, who nourished the youthful Zeus with goat’s milk and honey. Hence the poetic fable derived is origin, that bees flew to the child and filled his mouth with honey. Moreover, he says that Melissa was appointed by her father as the first priestess of the Great-Mother, from which circumstance the priestesses of the same mother are still called Melissae.
What I’ve gleaned from this collection of myths, and of some of the Bee stories surrounding Artemis, Demeter, and Aphrodite, is that bees stood as a sort of symbol of the chthonic Gods–deities in, of, and beneath the earth. According to Ransome, a cave–the first Grecian home of the bee–“was a mysterious, sacred place to the ancients, a place often connected with the Netherworld, as were also the Mother-goddesses, and if bees hived in the cave, they would also be considered sacred to them.” It is certainly the case that when “Melissa” is used as the title of a priestess, this priestess invariably serves a Goddess, and one of the Great-Mothers–Gaia, Cybele, Rhea, or Demeter and Persephone. I take this to mean that, at some level, the bee stood as a sort of liminal figure between these Goddesses and man. They could bring us the undistilled sweetness of the divine, and they could carry worldly cares back into the earth and deliver them to the deities.