Online Review: Book

Melissa: Archeologia delle api e del miele nella Grecia antica

Jane Francis


By Marco Giuman (Archaeologica 148). Pp. xv + 287, figs. 23, pls. 23. Giorgio Bretschneider, Rome 2009. €170. ISBN 978-88-7689-213-3 (paper).

In the past four decades, an enormous amount of archaeological data about bees and beekeeping in antiquity has emerged. Ceramic beehives are frequent finds at sites in Greece and pre-Roman Spain, and ancient references to these subjects by authors such as Columella and Pliny are now well known. Ancient awareness of the importance of beekeeping by-products—namely honey and wax—however, far predates the identification of the first beehive, and their multifunctional nature is well entrenched in scholarly literature, though much of the data is spread throughout numerous publications. Giuman's Melissa brings a great number of these together and analyzes the cultural, religious, and iconographic role of honey, bees, and wax in antiquity.

This volume is organized thematically into six substantial chapters, each with subsections. The bulk of the evidence presented is literary, although some iconographic images are analyzed, especially vase paintings. A bibliography, figures, and black-and-white plates (all of good quality) are collected at the end.

The book begins with a presentation of the bee in antiquity, from Linear B tablets at Knossos to possible renderings of the nymph Melissa on an Attic kylix. The nature of the bee is then equated with characteristics of the donna ideale in literature, where, in contrast to undesirable traits of other animals (and women), the bee is praised for its industrious nature, selfless hard work, and loyalty. Penelope is cited as the prime example of this type. The concept of the male in the hive and his attendant drones is then explored within the context of ancient male-dominated society; the gender of the ruler of the hive was still a subject of debate into the 18th century. The chapter concludes with an examination of the seemingly spontaneous birth of bees from rotting oxen, as described by authors such as Aelian and Vergil.

Chapter 2 addresses the myth and meaning of bees at the intersection of Greece and the Near East. Representations of bee-like figures from the Orientalizing period are identified as a version of Artemis brought to east Greece from Anatolia. The role of bees in the Hittite myth of the god Telepinus is considered. Giuman then turns to evidence from Crete (an area rife with bee imagery) from the prehistoric through Hellenistic periods. The final section considers the connection between bees and caves in literature, the most important of which was probably the myth of Zeus, who hid in the Dictaean cave and was attended by the daughters of Melisseus.

Chapter 3 addresses honey. Its medicinal properties are explored, and then Giuman briefly notes the physical evidence for apiculture, namely the ceramic beehives identified throughout Greece. Other themes include the use of honey, not only in the veneration of deities and heroes, but also in funerary associations from both literature and the archaeological record, such as the tomb at Poseidonia in South Italy where bronze vessels preserved chunks of honey. The final section of this chapter addresses honey as a metaphor for the voice of the poet.

Chapter 4 presents an in-depth examination of bees/honey and Greek heroes, focusing mostly on the life of Aristaeus, the patron god of apiculture; literary references and possible artistic renderings are explored. Another hero connected with honey is Glaukos, who drowned in a cask of honey and was later reborn, and Giuman compares several literary accounts of this myth and the role of honey within each. The last hero is Trophonius, whose oracular cave in Boeotia required honey-cakes to fend off guardian serpents; pilgrims were led to the site by swarms of sacred bees. The final section explores the role of honey in mythological rebirth, beginning with Dionysos, who as an infant was saved and nourished with honey by the daughter of Aristaeus. Discussion then shifts to Cypselus, tyrant of Corinth, whose very name means "beehive." The myth of Demeter is also considered, in the context of her attendants, who are often called melissae.

The connection between bees (Melissae) and Demeter is picked up in the next chapter, now in connection with the Thesmophoria celebrations of the goddess. Bees and Artemis are next considered geographically: Crete (Artemis and Britomartis, Diktynna), Boeotia (Artemis Hymnia), Ephesos (Artemis Ephesia, the "Great Mother"). Giuman also argues for the use of honey in offerings at the Artemis sanctuary at Brauron through the existence of kraters from the site that are painted with bees. The bees of Delphi and their role in the temple of Apollo are next explored, followed by a consideration of the enigmatic object, the Delphic omphalos, which resembles, among other things, a beehive.

The final chapter comprises themes concerning bees and honey that do not appear to fit within preceding chapters: the vase painter Sotades, whose works depict an interest in mythological figures connected with honey and bees, such as Aristaeus and Glaukos; the role of the cicada, especially compared with that of the bee; and the worship of Zeus Melichios, whose name can be translated as "honeyed."

This book contains an almost overwhelming number of ancient sources on bees, honey, and wax. Some themes are linked in more tenuous ways than others, and some are considered from multiple viewpoints. Iconographic evidence is introduced on occasion, but information about the technology and practice of beekeeping in antiquity is lacking. The title is thus misleading; this is more a book about ancient attitudes toward bees as expressed in culture, myth, and literature than the archaeology of beekeeping. For this topic, one should still turn to the publications of Crane (e.g., The Archaeology of Beekeeping [London 1983]). With this slant in mind, however, one may still appreciate Giuman's volume, and one takes from it a clearer understanding of how the ancients viewed bees: perplexing, mysterious, enigmatic yet compelling, associated with heroes and deities, connected with death and rebirth—practical creatures who furnished necessary honey and wax. The mystery of the bee in antiquity has not been solved, but Giuman's book does much to illuminate its often complex and multifaceted meaning.

Jane Francis
Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics
Concordia University
Montreal, Quebec H3G 1M8


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