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The History of Bees in Antiquity & Medieval Memories
BBC – “…Rosslyn Chapel 2010, and renovations are taking place at the 600 year old chapel, said by some to be the resting place of Mary Magdalene. As the roof is repaired, two pinnacles are opened, and an extraordinary find is revealed. A deserted ancient beehive, full of comb, whose tiny entrance was a hole through the centre of a rose. The bees have gone, but huge swathes of honey comb remains…”
The ancient Greek word for bee is Melissa. Ancient Greek priestesses of Demeter Kore were also called Melissa. Demeter, the Mother Goddess of abundance, nurture, and the harvest. The Kore, her maiden daughter, stolen away to the Underworld, to become the bride of Hades, and to come into her goddess power of Queen of the Underworld and intercessor with the souls of the dead. The ancients believed bees to be messengers of the gods and psychopomps that escorted the new souls into the world and took away the souls of the dead.
But Melissae priestesses can be traced back much further to the Anatolian goddess Cybele, and serves many other goddesses, in particular, the goddess of love and sexuality as well as Artemis of Ephesus, a virginal goddess thought to have been descended from Cybele. Melissae were (and still are) devotees of the worship of the Divine Feminine.
The Melissae of antiquity were bee shamans, observing the way the bee lived, its talents and skills, and they sought to emulate it in their own lives. Pertinently, the ancient Greek city state – the Polis – was based on the idea of a beehive. Aristotle, in Politics, compared aligned the hierarchy of rulership in society with the hive. (1) Interesting, for a society we have been told was mostly oppressive for women, that a hive is mostly a female dominated society, and it would appear that Melissae priestesses stood at the hem.
Rosslyn Chapel famously sits on the Rose Line. The rose lineage has another meaning, the Venus line of goddesses, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Astarte, Asherah, Innana, each of whom have been worshipped as bee goddesses.
* The priestesses of Aphrodite at Eryx (in Sicily) were called Melissa and were said to have fed the goddess her fetish of honey comb. The legendary temple stood high on a cliff face and was the first thing seen by sailors as they rounded the horn of Africa.
In bee shamanism we say The Bee Mistress is The Queen of Synchronicities, and there are indeed more strange coincidences that cross between the religions.
In 392 CE, when the emperor Theodosius closed pagan sanctuaries in his ardour to create a Roman Catholic state. To all intents and purposes, the time of the priestess was over, however we are told by historians that there was one area where the people were reluctant to give up their traditions. Priestesses were still posted at gravesides to weep for the souls of the dead.
Magdalene, as we know, was a myrrhophore, a death doula who prepared the bodies of the dead. Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped his body, and the three Marys went to the tomb on the third day of Jesus’ burial was to anoint his body with special spiced prepared for the purpose. (Mark 16:1). Luke 24:1). Again, this aligns with the bees taking ritual care of the soul. I often think of how Mary Magdalene is said to have been the first to see Him resurrected. Was she too, a Melissa who had stayed to pay vigil to his departed soul? (Remembering too, that this would have been traditional practice of a priestess at that time.)
I think of how we are introduced to Mary, as the woman who had endured seven exorcisms. What sadness smothered her? What demons haunted her dreams? Did she speak in riddles and strange oracular tongues like Melissa Delphis, the venerated Delphic Bee or as we better know her, the Oracle of Delphi?
Since the bee has many attributes, (and indeed, so many species of bee,) there are many forms a Melissa’s devotion could take. As we have seen, the priestess of Demeter Kore was involved not only in the health of the spiritual hive of Athens, its fertility (both human and agrarian) but also the care of the souls of the dead.
In Asia Minor, in what is now modern day Turkey (at a site where Cybele was previously venerated) Artemis of Ephesus was worshipped in the guise of the queen bee at full and new moon.
Her unusual garb is covered in bees, as indeed were the coins and the shields of the hoplite soldiers there.
Her priestesses – the Melissonomoi- were chaste and served the virginal goddess for a year. Ephesus was a cosmopolitan rainbow city full of all genders creeds and colours. Priestesses travel the local areas collecting up abandoned children and returning them to the safety of the temple. These foundling children were raised under the protection of Artemis until they were old enough to enter service. (4)
There’s almost a sense that the priestesses were emulating sterile worker bees, suddenly able to miraculously produce children.
The queen bee lays eggs in the wax comb created by the workers. She lays fertilized eggs into small hexagon cells which will develop into female bees. She lays unfertilized eggs into larger cells, and these develop into male bees known as drones..
Communication in the hive is done through dancing and pheromones. The queen continually secretes QMP (Queen Mandibular Pheromone). Her attendants feed her royal jelly, and as they touch her mouth she transfers QMP onto them, which they then circulate around the hive. As long as the bees can smell QMP, they know not to raise any more queens. If the queen dies though, thirty minutes after the last QMP, worker bees’ physiology changes. QMP keeps them sterile. In its absence, their ovaries switch on and they are able to parthenogenetically give birth. But of course, these virgins can only give birth to sons.
Interestingly, a century after the pagan sanctuaries closed, an important conference took place very close to Ephesus, where the Melissonomoi had served. The Council of Nicaea decided which books should be included in the New Testament, and which should be excluded. It was there, that it was decided that Mary would be referred to as Mother of God. (5) In this goddess guise, she took on powers of intercession.
I am not the first to make an association between the Virgin Mary and the virgin goddess Artemis. One such example is depicted in a beautiful 15th century painting on a wall, of a Greek monastery called The Great Lavra. Mount Aros is one of the most important religious areas of modern-day Greece. Its hillsides are covered with no fewer than 100 different monasteries. The Great Lavra is its largest and most impressive. Within its refractory resides a rather remarkable fresco of the annunciation of Mary when Gabriel visited her with news of imminent Holy Child.
Pictures of the annunciation are hardly rare, but this one has a rather haunting significance to the Melissæ. The handmaiden or friend chosen as witness to conversation with the archangel Gabriel, in this depiction is none other than Artemis -Diana. This is not the Huntress Artemis Agrotera, but a lesser-known Artemis-Diana Eulinos/Eulinon, whose name translates as ‘She the clever spinner’ or ‘She who spins well’. Artemis is pictured, with her distaff holding her thread and spinning.
The artist, Theophanes the Cretan was a leading icon painter in the early part of the sixteenth century. By 1535, both he and his two sons had all become monks at the Mount Athos monastery.
The beautiful painting is extraordinary in many ways. Unlike other Byzantine paintings, the Virgin Mary is not shown in the bright reds and blues that usually show oriental influences.
Gabriel enters stage left, and in the middle is Mary just rising from a bench where she has been chatting with her friend Artemis. The pagan goddess is leaving stage right but is turned to hear the salutation of the angel. Despite this, she continues to spin, her thread continually drawing down from her distaff. A plaster plaque in the midst of the painting, housing a giant ear, identifies the goddess for us. Set further back and smaller in the painting (Gabriel and Mary are life size) there seems to be a sense that Artemis recognises it is her time to hand over the reins to the new up and coming Christianity.
The monastery is built directly over an old sanctuary of Artemis Agrotera. In The Pagan Artemis-Diana Attending the Christian Annunciation in a Post-Byzantine Athonite Fresco, Marco Merlini describes how the local monks share a collective memory of somewhere close by, along the Athonite Peninsula, there having been a place set sacrosanct for chaste virgins since antiquity. (6)
Monastic collective and selective memory still preserves remembrance of a city-temple-school inhabited by virgins only. They worshipped Artemis Agrotera and kept a perpetual burning flame, like the Roman Vestals, in a special cave-sanctuary (Merlini, 2017a, 21; Ibid., 2017b). Monk Andreas Simonopetritis and other brothers specify that the consecrated girls were trained on the sacred feminine being destined to become high priestesses to serve and rule “idolatrous” temples throughout ancient Greece (Simonopetritis Theophilopoulos Monk, 1973)85. Monk Andreas Simono of a city-temple-school inhabited by virgins only. They worshipped Artemis Agrotera and kept a perpetual burning flame, like the Roman Vestals, in a special cave-sanctuary (Merlini, 2017a, 21; Ibid., 2017b). Monk Andreas Simonopetritis and other brothers specify that the consecrated girls were trained on the sacred feminine being destined to become high priestesses to serve and rule “idolatrous” temples throughout ancient Greece (Simonopetritis Theophilopoulos Monk, 1973)85. Monk Andreas Simono. (6)
Several sites were reported as possibilities for the site, but Merlini feels the most likely to be a site by the name of Melana which is less than 100 meters above the monastery.
The monks on the side of Mount Athos perceive the Virgin in a very special way. Guarded by the Black Angels, they protect and execute her wishes. They do not see Her as First after The Holy One, nor do they ask her to intercede on their behalf. Their prayers say: “Holy Mother, Panagia, save us”.
She has the power to save, because Panagia means, “Holy” or indeed “Holy of Holies”.
The most holy of the Melissae, those set apart to the serve at the Eleusinian Mysteries, were also known as Panageis. The curtain that separates the Holy of Holies in the temple is known as the hymen, and bees come from the genus Hymenopter. Interestingly, when we usually see depictions of the Virgin Mary spinning at her annunciation, she is spinning a new curtain for altar for the Temple of Jerusalem.
A virgin birth, of course, is something miraculous, but according to a gnostic gospel, the Protoevangelium of James, Mary was not the first woman to have one. Many people erroneously take the term “the immaculate conception” to refer to the birth of Christ, but in fact the term actually refers to Mary’s conception by her mother Anne. Again, this may suggest a cult lineage or set of beliefs.
Mary Magdalene may also have connections to the bee cult at Ephesus.
Her role in Christ’s life is contested and controversial, but her presence at his side as a disciple is not. The monk and historian Domenico Cavalca (c. 1270 – 1342), described how he found solace in a St Jerome’s suggestion that the wedding that Jesus attended in Canaan was between Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist.
“I like to think that the Magdalene was the spouse of John, not affirming it… I am glad and blythe that St Jerome should say so”. (7)
John the Baptist is believed to have been an Essene, a devout and strict religious sect of Jewish men, whose doctrine excluded women, who are often associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Matthew 3: 1-4 describes the evangelist for us.
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:1-4)
The community at Qumran, associated with The Dead Sea Scrolls, are known to have led acetic lives, embracing poverty. Honey is one of the few foods they were allowed to eat.
One of the reasons for aligning the Baptist to them is the apocalyptic language he uses, just as the scrolls do.
Paradoxically though, the Essene community disputed that Jesus was The Messiah, and were well known for preciously guarding their scriptures within their private communities. John the Baptist, by contrast, evangelised that the Messiah had come, wandering out in the wilderness alone. This seems rather incongruous. In addition, Essenes are thought to have worn pristine white robes, again rather in disagreement to the description.
The term Essenes is also given to priests of Artemis of Ephesus. Essene is the Greek word for King Bee or drone.
Legend has it that Mary Magdalene and Her family left Israel and that she ended Her life in France, in Rennes, now known as Rennes – Le Chateau. The gloriously illustrated St Mary Magdalene Church is testament to the story. So too, according to Henry Gough, author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail are the many stone built beehive huts called capitelos in the Langue d’Oc region.
The bee features prevalently in this area. From being Napoleon’s championed motif, to a tomb was discovered of Childerac, belonging to one of the Merovingian kings, full of hundreds of beautiful gold and enamel bees. (8)
We spoke earlier of how the pagan sanctuaries closed at the end of the fourth century, but that was not the end of the Melissae. Some moved up to Scandinavia to practice worship of pagan gods in safety. Others moved down to Lithuania and Latvia, where bee shamanism remains intact, very much in the same way is it was worshipped in Greece two thousand years ago. Indeed, in England too, the devotees of the Divine Feminine at Glastonbury call themselves Melissae.
It is impossible to take notice of the story of the Magdalene without being brought somehow to Edinburgh’s Rosslyn Chapel, thanks to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Built in the fifteenth century by William St Clair, the chapel is quite probably one of the finest examples of architecture ever built. The windows and carvings are utterly astonishing, and the detail of the artistry is enchanting. The entire chapel is covered with roses and stars. Many of the Melissae meditations are based on the priestess tending her internal garden made up of the same stars and roses.
And is it just me, or does the ceiling seem moulded as if it were a bee skep?
Local Rosslyn beekeepers think the bees may have left their hidden hive when the pinnacles were covered up for a while. The bees returned in 2015, after the renovations had been completed. And perhaps we could have guessed it, because one thing every beekeeper will tell you is Melissae always like to set up home where bees have been before. Just in time, it seems to me, to witness the resurgence of Divine Feminine worship.
1. Aristotle. Politics.
2. Herodatos. Histories.
3. Hislop, Rev. Alexander. The Two Babylons: Or The Papal Worhip Proved to Be The Worship of Nimrod. 1862.
4. Ferguson, Laura. College of the Melissae . Internal conversation . March 2022.
5. Reitveld, James. Ephesus. 2015.
6. Merlini, Marco. https://www.academia.edu/38827937/The Pagan Artemis Diana Attending the Christian Annunciation in a Post Byzantine Athonite Fresco. 2019. https://www.academia.edu/38827937/The_Pagan_Artemis_Diana_Attending_the_Christian_Annunciation_in_a_Post_Byzantine_Athonite_Fresco.
7. Katherine Ludwig Jansen. The Making of The Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion In The Later Middle Ages,. s.l. : page 151, footnote 20ISBN 0-691-08987-6. Citing Cavalca, Vita, 329; Life, 2–3.
8. Gough, Andrew. The Bee and Rennes – Le Chateau. [Online] Feb 2017. [Cited: November 6th, 2020.] https://andrewgough.co.uk/articles_beeinrlc/.
9. Freeman, Fr. Stephen. Mary and The Temple. [Online] September 12, 2017. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/09/12/mary-and-the-temple/.
10. Buxton, Simon. The Shamanic Way of the Bee (p. 28). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition. [Online]
11. Hislop, Reverend Alexander. The Two Babylons: Or the Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod . 1862 : s.n.
Fig 1. The honeycomb from Rosslyn. Chapel contacted re rights. Awaiting a reply. (11.05.22)
Fig 2. Artemis of Ephesus covered in bees. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Efes_M%C3%BCzesi,_2019_11.jpg
Fig 3 Photo of the Great Lavra with grateful thanks for permission to use Marco Merlini and F Battaglia.
Fig 4: Ceiling of Rosslyn Chapel. Chapel contacted re rights. Awaiting a reply. (11.05.22)