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!

"Daughter of the Hive" by Lea Bradovich, 24" x 18" acrylic gouache on panel.  This painting strongly appeals to my inner Catholic girl.

“Daughter of the Hive” by Lea Bradovich, 24″ x 18″ acrylic gouache on panel. This painting strongly appeals to my inner Catholic girl, but there is also something about it that makes me think that this is what the Greek nymphs named Melissa would look like if they were painted today.

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.

Bee Goddess, Q. Cassetti, Trumansburg, New York, 2010, Mixed Media.

Bee Goddess, Q. Cassetti, Trumansburg, New York, 2010, Mixed Media. Given all I’ve learned about bees and the divine, I think this a wonderful modern image of an earth Goddess.

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.

12 thoughts on “The Melissae in Greek Myth and Legend

    • Thanks for letting me know they linked it! I was wondering where all the facebook traffic was coming from. I noticed one of the comments there was wondering “how people continue to dwell in ‘greek mythology’, they rather believe lies than the ‘naked’ truth found in the word of Jehovah God!!!” I hope this doesn’t become a “hate on non-Christians” thing.

    • Very neat! I love Alley’s writing: she is just so evocative! I try to keep up with her posts on Wild Hunt, but I missed that one. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  1. There is evidently a strong connection between archaic Corinth and the cult of the bee-goddess. The enigmatic name of the first tyrant of Corinth, Kypselos, most likely meant “hive”, not “chest” or “jar”, as has often been asserted. Kypselos’ mother, Labda, was a member of the oligarchic Bacchiad clan which seems to have revered the Bee Goddess; Labda herself may have been a priestess of this cult. Kypselos’ son Periander fell deeply in love with, and married, a young woman originally named Lysis; but he himself, with a mixture of fondness and reverence, always called her Melissa, probably because that was precisely what she was: a consecrated hierodule of the Great Mother, in one of her many manifestations.

    There is a strange, thought provoking legend which states that Periander, before his marriage, had sexual relations with his own mother. This is plausibly a confused account of a very ancient ritual marriage in which a priest of the bee-cult (a drone-bee, so to speak) would fecundate the Queen Bee (that is, one of the high-ranking Melissae) in order to ensure the continuation of the species. If Periander’s mother, like Labda before her and Melissa afterwards, was indeed a priestess in representation of the Bee Goddess, then Periander may have joined physically with her in a “Ieros Gamos”: a sacred marriage.

    This is only my interpretation; but the history of the Corinthian tyrants is permeated with references to bees, which brings me to the conclusion that Corinth was a major centre of the bee cult in ancient Greece.

      • I’m doing intensive research on this theme. Will share more information concerning the bee-cult in my next post.

        It’s fascinating that the priestesses of most Earth- goddesses in ancient Greece were called Melissai. The term “melissa” itself is evidently pre-Hellenic; its suffix “-issa” was very common in Minoan Crete…where the cult of the Mother Goddess prevailed…and probably has an Asianic origin.

  2. Thanks for this post! My name is Melissa and I’ve been researching its origins a lot lately, and I like how you neatly and clearly explained everything here. I also made some cool connections between the Melissa in Greek Mythology and my Zodiac sign / other odd beliefs I have! Very cool.

  3. Muito obrigada!!! Adorei a explicação!!!
    Como sempre afirmo, para TUDO nós encontramos a resposta na Mitologia, ela sempre nos mostra a explicação!!!
    Quem posta acreditando na ‘palavra’ de Jeová, deve lembrar que foi um ‘homem’ quem escreveu e não Jeová!!!

    • Sonia wrote her comment in Portuguese. I read Spanish well enough that I was able to understand enough of her comment and appreciate it, but I thought it might be best to also offer an English translation:

      Thank you!!! I loved the explanation!!!
      As I always say, we ALL find the answer in Mythology, it always shows us the explanation!!!
      Whoever puts faith in Jehovah’s word must remember that it was a ‘man’ who wrote and not Jehovah!!!

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