Melissae, also known as The Thriae (also Thriai), a triad of divinatory Priestesses in ancient Greece, were originally Nymphs.
The Thriae were able to see the future, interpret signs and omens provided by Nature and the Earth. They taught the God Apollo
this art. Their names are Daphnis (Laurel), Kleodora (Famed for Her Gift) and Melaina (The Black).
Priestesses of the Bee: The Melissae
Isis, Lotus of Alexandria Lyceum
“And not of every
water do the Melissae carry to Deo, but of the trickling stream that springs from a holy fountain, pure and undefiled, the
very crown of waters.”
- Callimachus, from his Hymn to Apollo
Bee and the Great Mother
Ancient Greece and Crete
In the time of ancient Greece,
and particularly in the temples of Artemis, Aphrodite, Demeter but also of Cybele, Diana and Rhea, priestesses were called
the Melissae, which translates as ‘the bees.’ The Goddess as the Great Mother was sometimes titled Melissa,
literally, ‘the Queen Bee.’ Some classical sources describe these priestesses as young and virgin, others
tell us the designation of Melissae was a title of honor, bestowed due to devotion and labor for the Great Mother by a certain
individual, which was above and beyond the ordinary. The Pythian oracular priestess at Delphi was known as the Delphic
Bee, and the emblem of a bee was placed on Delphic coins in her honor. Bees sometimes appear on the statues of Artemis,
and the officiates at Eleusis during the celebration of the Mysteries were called Bees.
Porphyry (AD 233 to c.304) writes: “The ancients gave the
name of Melissae (bees) to the priestesses of Demeter who were initiates of the chthonian goddess; the name Melitodes to Kore
herself: the moon (Artemis) too, whose province it was to bring to the birth, they called Melissa, because the moon being
a bull and its ascension the bull, bees are begotten of bulls. And souls that pass to the earth are bull-begotten.”
Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921 - 1994)
writes of this passage by Porphyry: “...we learn that Artemis is a bee, Melissa, and
that both she and the bull belong to the moon. Hence both are connected with the idea of a periodic regeneration.
We also learn that souls are bees and that Melissa draws souls down to be born. The idea of a ‘life in death’
in this singularly interesting concept is expressed by the belief that the life of the bull passed into that of the bees.”
How did these titles of Melissa for the Great Mother and her priestesses as Melissae come about?
The Melissae may have inherited their title from an old order of nymphs - to this day the larva of bees are called nymphs! The
myths of ancient Greece link the Melissae with the god Zeus and the island of Crete. Zeus was born in a cave of bees and was
fed by them. Another form of the myth says that Melisseus, king of Crete at that time, discoverer of honey and inventor
of bee-keeping, had two daughters, Amalthaea and Melissa, who nourished the youthful Zeus with goat’s milk and honey.
Melissa was eventually appointed by her father as the first priestess of the Great Mother and from that time those who served
the Great Mother were called Melissae.
The bee-keeping activities of the Minoans of Crete is documented not
in myth but by many other ancient sources, including hieroglyphs, representations of actual beehives and engraved images.
The Greeks eventually took up bee-keeping due to the example set by the Minoans, and also presumably inherited the mythical
image of the Great Mother Goddess as the Queen Bee. She was corresponded with regeneration, divinity, healing, purity and
magic potency. To the ancients, the honey bee was not only a messenger but a direct representative of the gods and goddesses
of heaven and the airy realms.
|Minoan Bee Goddess, golden plaque, British Museum. Found at Camiros, Rhodes, 7th century BCE.
included illustrations and photos of artifacts which depicted goddesses and bees in her book,
“The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.” Her detailed research provided ample evidence of a Bee Goddess
and many examples of bee symbolism dating well back into the Neolithic period. She believed that bees were held in high
esteem by the Cretans from possibly as long ago as the beginning of the Neolithic period.
Eastern European languages, especially Hungarian, contain root words for mother, like ‘anya’ or ‘méh’ which can be found in
their words for bee, womb, uterus, to conceive, hive, bee sting, queen bee, cervix, fruit of the womb, apiary, embryo, bee
swarm, fetus, and many more similar definitions. In Lithuania, an ancient method of divination was performed by women
who poured melted beeswax into cold, pure water. Then they would interpret the fortune of the applicant through the
resulting shapes taken on by the wax as it solidified.
The ability of bees to create honey was believed to be magical or divine - a kind of natural alchemy. The
bee-keepers of Europe believed virtue was required for the production of honey, as bees would never produce unless the keeper
was honest and good. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that scientists could explain how properties of flower
pollen and the enzymes produced by bees could combine to make honey.
Bees in Ancient Cultures
of Ra, Tears of Freya
ancient Egypt the bee represented both royalty, through the Goddess Neith, and the sun, through the solar god Ra. The ancient
Egyptian city of Sais in ancient Egypt was the home of a principle temple of the Goddess Neith known as "House of the Bee." Because of Her role as a tutelary Deity of Lower Egypt, and as a protective Deity
of the Pharaoh, one of the royal titles of the king was "He of the Sedge and Bee."
The ancient Egyptians said bees, or in some versions, honey, were the tears of Ra, a sun god. Bees are seen as solar symbols
in many cultures - probably due to the golden amber color of their honey and their seemingly uncanny awareness of the position
of the sun in the sky. Ancient Babylonian sacred buildings were erected on ground consecrated by honey, and the Incas
of Peru offered honey in their sun temples. In Australia and Africa bees are found as tribal totems.
To the Druids, bees came from the paradisal world of the Sun
and of the Spirit, and in Celtic myth bees were said to possess a secret wisdom garnered from the otherworld. In German
lore, bees came to earth from an underground paradise where they live with the fates. In Norse legend, the tears of Freya
were said to be made of bees of gold. It was the golden honey of the bee which brought the ancient drink of mead to
humanity. Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world. Made from honey, water, malt, and yeast, it has been
brewed for at least 6000 years. It played a central part in the old religious traditions of Europe, bringing the gift of prophesy
and song from the Goddess and God.
the God Vishnu is often seen with a blue bee resting on his forehead or he is depicted as a blue bee sitting on a lotus blossom,
which represents the Goddess. Bees are the symbol of the gentle Soma, Goddess of the Moon. They form the bowstring of
the god Kama, symbolizing the sweet pain of love, while Siva is represented as a triangle surmounted by a bee. Just as
they were in ancient Greece, honey and milk are foods of the gods, a symbol of abundance, life and sweetness. There
is a traditional blessing of a newborn baby in India which says:
“I give thee this honey food so that the Gods may protect thee and that thou mayest live a hundred
autumns in this world.”
The Sweet Essence of Inspiration
“primum ens melissae”
Muses blew a ‘honeyed breath of life’ into those whom they favored - which was the source of all knowledge and
the arts. The term ‘source of knowledge' as first used by the Alexandrian court poet Callimachus in his Hymn
to Apollo, is an extension of a word whose literal meaning translates as a fountain, a stream or a river: “And not of every water do the Melissae carry to Deo, but of the trickling stream that springs from a holy fountain,
pure and undefiled, the very crown of waters.”
So the epithet of Bee in ancient Greece, applied not only to
priestesses, prophetesses, or Goddesses like Demeter and Artemis - it was also bestowed upon poets, musicians, artists and
philosophers - anyone touched in some way by divine inspiration. Neoplatonists regarded honey as a symbol of wisdom gained
through experience over a period of time. They recognized that certain gifted human beings could collect and extract
the pure essence of wisdom and spiritual truth from ‘the flowers of experience.’ They reasoned the essential
quality of life, the spiritual or universal nature of ever-being or ever-existing, which they called “primum ens Melissa” (the spirit of the bee), was captured in the thoughts and teachings of highly
evolved individuals - ‘collected’ in a similar manner as bees collected honey from the flowers and the blossoms. To
them, these “Spirits of the Bee” were just as divinely inspired as the Melissae of the temples. All these forms
of higher inspiration and the honey of the bee were called “astron” meaning
Praesepe, Stars of the Bee
star to the right and straight on ‘til morning”
There is a group of stars, visible this time of year (July - August) called the Bee Hive Cluster,
whose Latin name is Praesepe, meaning “manger.” Praesepe is an ‘open cluster’ which spreads out, similar
to a swarm of bees over a large area of the sky, with more than forty stars visible to the eye as a cloudy patch at night.
It is located in the seasonal sign of Leo and in the constellation of the Crab (Cancer). The best way to find Praesepe - first
locate the twin stars Pollux and Castor, then look left (or east) to locate Regulus. It lies between Pollux and Castor and
Regulus. According to Pliny, when the stars of the manger were visible at night, it was a prediction of good weather and ease
There is considerable esoteric symbolism
attached to this group of stars, including remembrance of our divine essence. Reflecting on our past to create our future,
and to recognizing everything is interconnected and leads back to the source or center of All Things. As part of the constellation
of the Crab (Cancer) Praesepe is located in the gate of the emergence of life. Recognized by the Platonists of ancient Greece
as the highest point of heaven, this was the “Gate of Men” though which
souls descended to earth from heaven. It is the opposite of the “Gate of the Gods”
found in Capricorn, where souls of the departed ascended back to heaven. All of this ties in neatly with modern day Hermetic
teachings - the sphere of the Moon, planetary ruler of Cancer being the final realm in which souls preparing to incarnate
take on their shape and form before birth. And in the sphere of Saturn, ruler of Capricorn, we find the final region in which
ascending souls are freed of earthly influences at death.
it coincidence that the ancients associated this cluster of stars, situated in the “Gate of Men” with the Bee
Hive and therefore with the Great Mother and Her Priestesses? No, it is not. The constellation of Cancer has few stars. It
was known as the “dark sign” (astronomy and astrology were one science in ancient times). The single most distinguishing
feature of the constellation of the Crab (Cancer) was the swarm-like starry cluster of Praesepe. The darkness of this
sign or constellation was regarded as ‘feminine,’ representing the darkness of the womb which gave birth to human
souls. It was also the birthplace of illumination of heart and mind through divine inspiration. The observation written
down by Pliny was true both in the physical sense and metaphysical sense.
are classified as members of the ‘hymenopteran’ class of insects, which means ‘veil-winged.’
A veil traditionally covered the entrance to the inner shrine of the holy of holies of a temple. The Melissae were associated
with diligence and they were also associated with purity. This is probably because bees only feed on the pure nectar of blossoms.
The Melissae are always referred
to as pure and virgin. They had to maintain a ‘ritual purity’ through a specific set of practices. These Priestesses
of the Bee used an entheogen, which is a psychoactive substance used within a religious context. The term ’entheogen’
is derived from two words of ancient Greek, entheos (“full of the god, inspired, possessed”) and genesthai (“to
come into being”). They used a ‘toxic honey’ to heighten their perceptions - referred to as "green
honey." It contained grayanotoxins; which were collected from oleanders, rhododendrons and other members of the Heath
family of plants. Normally, because the honey bees evaporated most of the water from these toxic substances automatically
become denatured when they transformed them into honey, which is viscous (17.4% water). But “green honey” is "unripened,”
or “uncapped” honey with a water content of 50 to 75 percent. So these psychoactive substances do not get denatured,
and the honey can be very toxic.
Priestesses at Delphi
were also known to take entheogens. They used laurel leaves or sat on a stool within a subterranean chamber that issued a
poisonous gas. The Pythian pre-Olympic Priestess of Delphi was named “The Delphic Bee” and continued to be known
as such long after the shrine was dedicated to the God Apollo. He acknowledged the gift of prophecy of the three bee-maidens
or Melissae in a Homeric Hymn to Hermes:
“But I will tell you another thing, Son of all- glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius
of the gods. There are certain holy ones, sisters born -- three virgins gifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with
white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus. These are teachers of divination apart from me … From their
home they fly now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through
eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods' sweet food, then they speak
falsely, as they swarm in and out together.” (Homeric Hymn 4, to Hermes, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White,
beginning line 550)
In the hymn quoted above, Apollo
makes a gift of the three bee-maiden priestesses to the God Hermes. Why? Because Hermes was guide to the souls of the dead
not only out of life but also back into it again.
“The etymology of the word ‘fate’ in Greek offers a fascinating example of how
the genius of the Minoan vision entered the Greek language, often visibly, as well as informing its stories of goddesses and
gods. The Greek word for ‘fate’, ‘death’ and ‘goddess of death’ is ‘e ker’
(feminine); the word for’heart’ and ‘breast’ is ‘to ker’ (neuter); while the word for
‘honeycomb’ is ‘to kerion’ (neuter). The common root ‘ker’ links the ideas of the
honeycomb, goddess, death, fate and the human heart, a nexus of meanings that is illumined if we know that the goddess was
once imagined as a bee.” (Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, “The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.”)
Balm of the Bee
perennial herb, native to southern Europe, known as Melissa (Melissa officinalis), commonly called “lemon balm”
or “bee balm” was a favorite herb in medieval times. It was the main ingredient in ‘Carmelite Water’,
along with lemon peel, nutmeg, coriander and angelica. It is still produced as Eau de Melisse de Carmes and is found
in Klosterfrau Melissengeist in Germany. Not easily distilled, the expensive, low-yielding oil is often mixed with lemon
or citronella. The leaves give off a sweet, soft lemon-like fragrance. In his herbal, Gerard, agreeing with
Avicenna, said of Melissa, it “maketh the heart merry, joyful, strengthens the vital
“Bees have an ancient reputation as the bringers of order, and their hives served as models for organizing temples
in many Mediterranean cultures.” (Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, “The
Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.”) Community, cooperation, organization, and diligence were also hallmarks
of the settlements in which the Goddess reigned in Neolithic Europe. The priestesses of those settlements made many of
the beautiful artifacts we have in our museums today. This is evidenced from the archeological record which shows priestesses
in temple workshops in those ancient settlements. They knew how to live peacefully with the laws of nature, and
maintained balance with the land around them, just as bees work together and offer labor to ensure the welfare of all.
Like Melissa officinalis, they brought joy and strength to their communities.
Interestingly when nearly finished with the writing of this piece, I remembered that it was the
inclusion of flowers in the earliest found graves of primitive humans which helped scientists to determine their humanity.
This humanity was further evidenced by an awareness and caring for each other, as witnessed in the skeletal remains of individuals
who would obviously have died without daily help. Yet according to the silent record of their bones, they managed to
live for some years after their initial injuries or while suffering a debilitating illness, because other members of their
family or extended community had helped and protected them. It was the only way they could have survived in the harsh
conditions of their daily lives. Scientists were able to determine that these were the remains of ancestors of modern
day humans, in part because of this silent testimony.
a bee is capable of inflicting a painful sting when necessary, bees are also agents of healing. There are times when
we have to stand strong and protect what we know to be right and true, but aggression is not our predominate attribute as
priestesses of the Goddess, any more than it is the primary behaviour of the bee. They manufacture a natural antiseptic
called propolis which they smear onto their hives to prevent disease. Propolis has been shown to have remarkable healing
properties, as does royal jelly and bee pollen. As Priestesses and Devotees of the Goddess, we stand for healing, strength,
divine inspiration, and creative power.
In the calling
out of the litany of the Many Names of Our Mother Earth, we are partaking in a life-giving act. We magically regenerate
aspects of Her Power and Beauty that otherwise might dim and fade. In our words, in our hearts, life is engendered,
like the activity of the bee. As the honey of the honey bee was considered the food of the Goddess, each one of us is
a living temple, our hearts, the holy of holies, enlivening Her creative force through our own loving and diligent activity.
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written material on this page is copyrighted © Linda Iles 2010
About the Author: Linda Iles is an ordained
priestess in the Fellowship of Isis and the Temple of Isis. She is certified and teaches as a head instructor in
all branches of the Fellowship of Isis, including the Adepti Spiral, the College of Isis, Solar Alchemy of the FOI Priesthood,
Noble Order of Tara and Druid Clan of Dana. Linda is a founding member of the Circle of Isis Advisory Board
of the Fellowship of Isis, a member of the Circle of Isis FOI Central Website staff, and a founding member of the Temple
of Isis, Geyserville Chapter of the Muses Symposium and Sister member of the Circle of Pelagia. She is a member of two
of the Foundation Triad Unions of the Fellowship of Isis, the ArchDruid Union of the Druid Clan of Dana and Grand Commander
Union of the Noble Order of Tara. Linda undertakes some of the editorial duties for the Mirror of Isis. She has been
an active teacher, given presentations at FOI events in Los Angeles and Geyserville and contributed articles,
poetry and illustrations for Fellowship of Isis publications since early 1998.