P EOPLE HAVE ALWAYS LOVED TO RATE ANIMALS.
Doves and butterflies? Good. Snakes and spiders? Bad. Not that these ratings have been all that consistent. Monkeys, for example, have had a bad time of it in the West—where they’ve generally been seen as symbols of lust and greed—while earning high praise in the Far East as embodiments of wisdom and spirituality Some animals change in people’s eyes, becoming more or less favored with the passage of centuries. Dogs often got short shrift in biblical times, while today they are seen as the essence of love and devotion. (Man’s best friend.)
But some animals—a very few—have come in for high praise no matter what people, or what period of history is in question. And high on this select list—so high that it might be the most consistently praised animal in the world.—is the bee. From the Stone Age to the present day, in every corner of the world where they appear (and they appear almost everywhere), the bee has been singled out for compliments. There is hardly a human virtue—from beauty to charity to industry to modesty to chastity—that some ancient or not-so-ancient writer hasn’t been ready to see the bee as embodying.
Bees warrant respect too. In many parts of the world, it is a tradition to tell the bees of all matters of import. If a birth, or a death, or a wedding occurs, someone is to go out to the hives and pass on the information at once. If they don’t, bad luck is sure to follow From Virgil, who found in them “a particle of the divine intelligence to Shakespeare, who wrote in Henry the Fifth of “singing masons building roofs of gold,” bees have never been short of admirers.
In some ways, all this gushing seems a little odd. After all, bees are hugs—not exactly the most personable group in the animal kingdom. And on top of that, they sting. The list of stinging animals that come in for compliments in the world’s legends and literature is short indeed. In fact, the bee is the only one on it. So why have so many people loved bees so much for so long?
The short and simple answer is honey and wax. Though it’s hard to fully appreciate the fact in our age of electric lights and refined sugar, human history literally would not be what it has been without these two substances. Beekeeping to obtain them is at least as old as the ancient Egyptians, who floated beehives stacked in a pyramid shape on rafts so that they could visit spots on the Nile where the flowers were blooming thickest. Mead—fermented water and honey—was one of the world’s first alcoholic drinks, and played a central part not only in daily life, but also in the religious ceremonies of many ancient peoples. The term ‘‘honeymoon refers to a Northern European tradition where newlyweds drank a daily cup of mead for a month after their wedding.
Important as ceremonial mead was, milk and honey were often even more greatlyprized. When Exodus characterized the Promised Land of Canaan as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” it was using an image of heavenly fulfillment that would have been immediately familiar to the Israelites’ neighbors.
The early Christians incorporated milk and honey into their baptism ceremony (where it remains to this day among churches like the Coptic and the Ethiopian). In Luke, the risen Jesus shows his astonished disciples that he has truly returned by eating a piece of honeycomb. And while honey’s role in ceremonial beverages eventually faded away in most of the Christian churches, bees remained right at the center of Christian life, thanks to the key importance of the wax that, in the form of candles, lit the world before the arrival of electric light . In the Middle Ages huge quantities of candles were burned on church altars each year . The demand was so great that some people paid their taxes in beeswax.
Few monasteries were without wax-and-honey-making hives, and the monks learned many a life lesson from their hardworking inhabitants. Well-run monasteries were often compared to beehives by medieval writers, and the connection survives to this day in the word “abbey,” a word that suggestively echoes abeille, the French word for bee. A legend from Eastern Europe that was probably born in medieval times says that the devil, jealous of God for creating the bee, decided to try his hand at making one himself. He ended up with a wasp: a bee that never stops stinging and makes no honey
But as admirably hard as bees work, and as crucial to human history as their products have been, none of this entirely accounts for just how beloved .they are. You don’t have to be a beekeeper to know that there is something special about the bee. Something that sets them apart from the other creatures of this earth.
So what is this special something? In her book The Sacred Bee,. historian Hilda M. Ransome cites a story from an apocryphal fifth-century book called Joseph and Asenath that has some hints . In the story, Archangel Michael pays a visit to a woman named Asenath, who has been praying for forgiveness of her sins. Asenath offers her visitor bread and wine, but he asks, instead, for a honeycomb.
Apologetically, Asenath tells the angel she doesn’t have one. But Michael begs to differ, telling her to go look in her storehouse. Asenath does as directed. Sure enough, there on a table she finds “a honeycomb full of honey, that was as the dew of heaven.” Asenath brings the comb back to Michael, and he says, “Blessed are all who cleave to =the Lord God in penitence, because they shall eat of this comb. This the bees have made from the dew of the roses of life that are in the Paradise of God, and of it eat the angels and all the elect of God and all the sons of the Most High.”
Michael breaks off a piece of the comb and takes a bite . Then he gives the rest to Asenath, saying: “Lo! Now thou hast eaten the bread of life and hast drunk the cup of immortality” Bees swarm from the honeycomb, encircle Asenath, and make another honeycomb on her mouth. “And all the bees ate from the comb that was upon Asenath’s mouth. And the angel said to the bees, ‘Go, now, to your place.’ Then the bees rose and departed to heaven.”
Within the images of this story, the answer to the allure of the bee is hiding . The bee, in truth, is not earth’s, but heaven’s creature, just as we are. Through its labors, it provides us with products that have made the world better. But it also provides us with a metaphor of the destiny that we all are heirs to, and which we, like the bee, are called to work toward each day of our lives.
All of us are, as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once put it, “the bees of the invisible.” This world and the sorrows and joys it holds, are like the nectar scattered in a field of flowers, waiting to be patiently collected and transformed into honey The honey that, as the Archangel Michael showed Asenath, tastes unmistakably like heaven.
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