More Greek Myths Regarding Bees. This Time with Gods!

Aristaeus holding a beeskep.

Aristaeus holding a bee skep.

What I find incredibly interesting is that while the Greeks associated Goddesses and female figures with bees while they were wild in caves, male deities are aligned with the bee when it comes to learning apiculture. Two figures are especially prominent in this field: Dionysus and Aristaeus. There’s some interesting overlap of their stories and Zeus’s, and of their tales alone. For example, Aristaeus is sometimes said to be Dionysus’s foster father and competed with him on whether mead or wine was the better drink. Alternately, Aristaeus is sometimes said to have been initiated into Dionysus’s mysteries.

While Dionysus is more frequently thought of as a god of wine, his worship is older than viniculture, and he most likely earned this later attribution through his alignment with beekeeping, as one of its major products was a honey wine. Ovid says that Dionysus learned this apiculture when he noticed swarms of bees were attracted to his satyr’s clanging cymbals. This allowed Dionysus to collect the bees and put them into a hollow tree. Later, Dionysus taught man this skill along with other agricultural innovations. Interestingly, Dionysus has other relationships with bees, including one birth story that is quite similar to Zeus’s. In this tale, the infant Dionysus is given to Makris, the nymph daughter of Aristaeus and Autonoe, who lived in a sacred cave and fed the young god upon honey. Another bee-related tale of his involves the god taking the form of a bull who was then torn to pieces and subsequently reborn as a bee (the ox-born bee, as I later found out, is a pervasive legend for how bees came to be).

Aristaeus has a somewhat similar birth story to Dionysus and Zeus’s, too. The son of Apollo and Cyrene, Hermes took him as an infant to Gaia, and her nymphs fed him on ambrosia and nectar to make him immortal. These nymphs then taught him the “useful arts.” They taught him to guard flocks and to make cheese, to breed olive trees and press their fruit, and to tame the bees into hives. Aristaeus then taught these skills to man, and they honored him accordingly. At one point when his bees died, he returned to these nymphs (or, in other versions, Proteus) and was taught that he could repopulate his hives through a sacrifices of bulls and heifers. From their carcasses, new swarms would arise after nine days.

I don’t entirely know what to make of the wild bees/female deities, cultured bees/male deities divide, but I do think it to be a wonderful point for meditation.  And I am glad to learn more about Dionysus, a divinity I have felt an affinity towards for a long, long time.


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