Honey of Prosperity
And he put forth the end of the rod, and dipped it in the honeycomb. And he carried his hand to his mouth and his eyes were enlightened. (1 Sam 14: 27)
For thousands of years honey has sweetened our food as well as being the chief ingredient in the earliest intoxicating beverages. Looking at the world around us, we may judge the relative health of an ecosystem by its bees, by whether or not the land is "flowing with honey." The abundance of wild bees and the honey they make is evidence of good soil and water and so is an indicator (and hence a symbol of) a prospering environment. The common bee understands the secret of the great alchemical metaphor misunderstood by the alchemists of a hundred ages: the bee collects the nectar of the land unto itself and then produces gold to feed the world.
Honey figures prominently in numerous ancient texts. The Old Testament uses it to describe the land promised to Abraham and his people. Biblical references to honey (Chronicles, Genesis, Song of Solomon and Proverbs, respectively) mention it as a "first fruit" to be offered to God, that it is often sent as a present, symbolic of both "holy speech," and pleasant words, as well as with the acquiring of wisdom. In Judaic tradition, the beginning of a child's education was a marked by dripping honey upon the first page of their book so that the act of learning should always be sweet to them. Also, the Jewish New Year celebrations for Rosh Hashana include the eating of apples dipped in honey to help insure a sweet year, in which gladness and peace would reign. In medieval mystical prayers, Christ is referred to as "the honeycomb." Islamic beliefs holds that honey is the gift of Allah, who said that the bees should, "Take to houses in the mountains, and in the trees, and in the hives they build. Then eat from every fruit and walk in the beaten path of the Lord." and that "There issues from [their] body a draught varying in hue, in which is a cure for man."
Honey was called the "nectar of the gods" and as a sacred food, was used in offerings and libations. Its widespread use is mentioned in Babylonian texts where it is the preferred offering to the gods Ishtar and Marduk in exchange for their help in dispelling witchcraft. The prevalence of such customs is evidenced by numerous later texts abolishing its use. In Leviticus honey's use as a burnt offering is specifically condemned and in later periods, such as during the Synod of Auxerre (585 A.D.), consecrating wine that had been mixed with honey was likewise forbidden.
Ancient Vedic practices recommend feeding honey and butter to newborn boys. A similar reference is found in The Bible when Isaiah consoles King Ahaz by speaking of a child to be born of a virgin who will eat "butter and honey" "that he may know to refuse evil and choose the good." The tears of the sun god, Ra, fell to the earth as bees. A bee was the avatar of the Hindu gods Vishnu, Indra, and Krishna all of whom bore the title Madhava, "born–of–nectar." A bee was also the symbol of Peresphone, the Great Mother, the Ephesian Artemis, and "Melissa" ("bee" from the Latin mel, sweet) was a title of Demeter's priestesses. In the mysteries of Mithras, initiates who were spiritually reborn had honey poured on their hands and applied to their tongues, as it was customary to do with newborn children.
In Greek myth, when Zeus was in his infancy, he was secreted away by Rhea, his mother, in a cavern that is home to hives of sacred bees. There he was fed on goat's milk and honey. Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, recommends honey, ass's flesh, and milk as an aphrodisiac, as well as honey for the curing of skin disorders. Pliny The Elder, the creator of the doctrine of signatures, suggested drinking a cup of honey mixed with cider vinegar each day in order to cleanse the body of impurities and insure excellent health. Romans (as well as others up through World War II) used it to clean wounds, making use of honey's tremendous antimicrobial benefits.
As a general symbol of fruitfulness and fertility, honey is without peer. Croatians would pour honey on the threshold of a house in anticipation of the arrival of a bride and groom. In the Balkans, the faces of the marriage couple were painted with honey prior to the wedding. German weddings might display lovingly decorated beehives at wedding so that man and bee might share their festivities with one another. Though not a widespread custom, some bridegrooms in India are given honey on their wedding day. This and other practices are a memory of earlier times when honey would have been part of the wedding sacrifice, given to propitiate the gods or other spirits who would then bless the rite, or leave it unharmed. Other custom are well known, their language still used to describe parts of marriage custom, even when the actual use of honey has fallen away from fashion. On the honeymoon, couples drink mead, or honey–wine, to insure fertility; to sweeten the marriage bed, a posset of honey, milk and wine was given at the bedding of the bride.
Ironically, honey is also associated with death. A cup of honey used to be placed by the corpse at Russian funerals. Vedic funeral hymns instruct celebrants to give honey as an offering to Yama, the lord of the dead. Other cultures used honey to clean corpses. In Egypt and other lands, the bodies of the dead were preserved in honey, and pots of honey were placed in tombs to ensure resurrection. It is further said that Alexander the Great was embalmed in wax and honey. The Iliad remembers the funeral of Patroclus at which urns filled with honey and oil were placed near his pyre betokening the sweetness of life and the hope that such goodness would follow him into the afterlife. The Greeks also believed that in addition to a coin that must be given to the ferryman on the river Styx, the dead must also carry with them honey cake to give to Cerebus, the guard dog of the Underworld.
The enduring power of honey within the folk imagination is so strong that it even invades the realm of the dream. To dream of honey may symbolize an unexpected triumph over adversity. A monarch who dreams of cracking open a honey comb may plan on receiving riches and joy from his subjects. But if it is a common person who dreams of getting the gift of honey when they had none before, it is an ill omen: wealth will soon be lost.
More generally, the practice of "telling the bees" has been recorded across Europe and the rural United States. All important news from the community and the family must be told to the bees. The understanding here is that the bees are themselves are a valuable and much loved part of the local community, perhaps by virtue of their industriousness and strong work ethic relating to pollination. The bees themselves are tied to a 'village,' the hive, and don't willingly move away from it. No new project would begin without telling the bees. Likewise, all deaths and births in the family were duly reported to them. It is likely that such continuing beliefs are echoes of older practices and periods when bees were, as we've seen, considered messengers of the gods, or avatars of the gods themselves. Simply, telling the bees establishes strong connections to place, which, if broken, diminish the land's ability to produce for human communities. When bees are left to thrive, so do certain plants which in turn are used by people along with the honey the bees produce. When treated like kin, things in the natural world become family both literally and symbolically. More importantly, such creatures are then afforded status in human communities, insuring their survival in a world where, even in early times, the advance of civilization often progressed to the detriment of the natural world.