Ancient Greece – Founded Upon Honey!
Bees have been mythologised by cultures around the world, and references to bees and honey are littered throughout the scriptures of most major religions. However, it is difficult to imagine a civilisation that is more intrinsically linked to bees than that of ancient Greece.
According to ancient Greek mythology, Apollo was reared by three nymphs or ‘bee maidens’ – known as the Thriae – who possessed the heads of women and the bodies of bees. They were later credited with instructing Hermes in the art of prophecy. It is quite possible that both ambrosia and ‘nectar’, the two forms of sustenance consumed by the Greek gods, were in reality types of honey, which was believed to have been discovered by another nymph, Melissa (her name is synonymous with the Greek words for bee and honey), who fed the substance to the infant Zeus.
There was even a god of beekeeping, Aristaeus. After he was inadvertently implicated in the death of Eurydice, her sisters exacted their revenge by killing all his bees. He was advised to sacrifice four bulls and four cows in memory of Eurydice, and when he did so, swarms of bees arose from the animals’ corpses to repopulate his hives. This story has a number of parallels in other writings, including Samson’s riddle, a tale found in the Book of Judges. One of the last leaders of Israel prior to the institution of the monarchy, Samson was once said to have killed a lion with his bare hands, and when he later returned to the scene, found bees swarming from the carcass.
The bee was also the symbol of Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo, who was the goddess of the hunt, wild animals and chastity. A powerful cult of Artemis existed in Ephesus; the bee motif appeared on Ephesian coins for centuries and girls who served in the temple were referred to as bees. The high priestess at the important shrine of Delphi was also commonly known as the ‘Delphic bee’.
The ancient Greeks believed that bees provided a link to the afterlife, perhaps because they sometimes lived in caves, which were envisaged to be portals to the underworld. Bees were also widely held to be able to predict rain. This is borne out by a recent university study in Nanchang, China, which concluded that bees spend more time foraging on days that are immediately prior to rain!
Honey was a vital sweetener in Greek and Roman cuisine; Greek beekeepers would move their hives considerable distances to take advantage of regional vegetative cycles and optimise production, and by the 6th century BC, beekeeping had become so widespread in Greece that a law was passed to regulate the location of new hives.
Honey was an important ingredient for savoury recipes and sauces and was an integral component of Greek desserts. Dinner typically began or ended with tragimata, which was composed of fruits, nuts and sesame seeds either caramelised with honey or served with it. The combination of honey and cheese was extremely popular; plakountas were a form of pie created by the fusion of these ingredients. Likewise, honey and cheese were the basis of cheesecakes that may have appeared as early as 2000 BC. Atheneus recorded a recipe for cheesecake in 230 AD. The cheese was pounded to a smooth consistency and then mixed with honey and wheat flour. It was heated and then allowed to cool prior to serving. Cheesecake was common fare at Greek weddings as a form of wedding cake and was served to athletes at the first Olympic Games in 776 BC as a form of energy food. Mead, or
hydromeli, a fermented beverage also made from honey, was a staple drink in ancient Greece, the virtues of which were discussed by Aristotle in his treatise Meteorologica.
Honey was also incredibly important in early Greek medicine. Hippocrates, the ‘father of modern medicine’ credited with establishing a scientific basis for early physicians, extolled the therapeutic value of honey and was well acquainted with its antiseptic and anti-microbial properties, which were utilised to treat sores and ulcers, as well as cuts, burns and other wounds. Oxymel, a concoction made from honey and vinegar, was used for pain; other preparations were used to treat a variety of conditions. Hippocrates also advocated the consumption of honey in order to maintain health.
The ancient Greeks’ fascination with bees and honey extended to an analysis of the honeycomb structure. As early as 36 BC, the Roman scholar Marcus Varro reported that Greek geometricians had determined that the hexagonal shape makes the most efficient use of space and materials.
Today, honey remains an essential component of Greek cuisine. Pine honey, an exquisite dark honey with a distinctive taste, forms the bulk of Greek production. Derived from honeydew, pine honey is highly prized, and exhibits enhanced anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, as well as being rich in antioxidants.