A Traditional Bees-in-a-Bag Prosperity Charm

A man capturing bees in a bag.  An illumination from the "Book of Hours"

A man capturing bees in a bag. An illumination from the “Book of Hours,” c. 14th century.  The full illumination shows the man capturing three bees, but I couldn’t find a great image of that.

I occasionally search for oddments related to bees and witchcraft, and a bit of my web-trawling over the weekend yielded an interesting spot from the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, Cornwall.  One of the items they have on display is a charm taken from a house in Dawlish in Devon, England.  In physical form, it is a faded blue drawstring bag that contains the bodies of three dead bumblebees.  The Witchcraft Museum calls it a charm for prosperity as the Dawlish bag was hung in the best room of the house, and they market a similar version in their gift shop, though this one uses ceramic coins shaped with a relief of a bee, and promise it will “bring health, happiness, and sweet good fortune.”

Now, the Museum doesn’t cite any sources for why they believe the charm to be a prosperity one, and modern witches might question the prosperity association altogether since the bag the bees were found in was blue and we now tend to correlate green with prosperity.  It might be that blue cloth was costlier in times gone by; after all, bright blue colors in cloth were harder to create prior to the creation of synthetic dyes.  Woad and indigo plants were pretty much it for creating blue, and both have their drawbacks.  Creating a consistent blue with woad is incredibly tricky, and–as anyone who has owned a pair of blue jeans can attest–indigo is highly prone to wash-out fading. I can see how one would associate blue fabric with prosperity.

As for the bumblebees, their inclusion might have something to do with folklore tales stating that if a bumblebee is buzzing in your house, it should not be let out again as it brings luck.  Perhaps the owners of the Dawlish charm kept the bodies of their luck-bees after they died for good measure?  Similarly, there is a folk belief that finding a bumblebee in one’s house means that someone would soon visit.  Perhaps that is why the charm comes with the admonition to hang it in the best room of the house; after all, that is ostensibly the room in which one would entertain guests.

In addition to these links between bumblebees and luck there might also be a special connection between bumblebees and witchcraft, too.  In her book The Sacred Bee, Hilda Ransome relates a story of a Lincolnshire witch who employed a bumblebee as a divinatory familiar, and Helen Creighton relates a story in her book, Bluenose Magic: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions in Nova Scotia, of a man purported to be a wizard who killed a cow by sending a snow-white bumblebee to land upon it.  There might also be connections between bumblebees and “mad honey”, or honey made from the nectar of rhododendrons.  Rhododendrons create a series of toxins known as grayanotoxin, and a very little bit of it can contaminate honey and cause poisoning.  It’s rarely lethal in doses found in honey, but it will sure make you feel ill.  Unfortunately for the bumblebee, it loves rododendron blossoms and anything with a fat, cave-like blossom.  They are also predominant pollinators of two plants strongly associated with witchcraft:  foxglove and wolfsbane.  Perhaps there may have been a folk belief connecting witches to collecting bumblebee honey from these toxic plants?

At any rate, I can see taking a page out of the Museum’s book and crafting a bee prosperity bag.  It’s probably best to spare the lives of real bumblebees and opt for something else, be it little jewelry charms or stamped bits of clay or pebbles you paint to look like bees or clay you shape yourself.  Personally, I’d opt for a green bag, and I’d probably throw some herbs into the mix and a few other sympathetic tricks…but it’s a nice idea with some decent tradition and folklore to back it up.

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