The Honey Bee and Apian Imagery in Classical Literature
Carlson, Rachel D.
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This work is a cultural and literary history of the bee and apian imagery in ancient Greece and Rome, and seeks to offer a better understanding of how apian imagery is used throughout antiquity. In three chapters, I explore such diverse topics as the nature of women, the erotic, politics, prophesy, poetry, and the divine, using natural historical, scientific, and agricultural texts, as well as fables and proverbs, to shed light on the conceptualization of the hive in ancient literature. Building on the more narrowly focused scholarship already written on apian imagery, this project offers a comprehensive and unified study, which brings together mythology, science, and literature to look at the ways in which authors as diverse as Hesiod, Xenophon, Virgil, and Varro use the bee to explore human nature and the relationship between humans and the divine, and how these authors draw on a shared core understanding and set of assumptions, when using the image of the bee. The first chapter examines Greek and Roman mythology involving the bee. It builds on the influential work of Cook, which argued that myths involving bees created a conception of the insect in the mind of an average Greek as being a chthonic creature, particularly associated with the soul. My examination looks at both Greek and Roman mythology, as well as some cultic practices and literary associations, and reveals that the nature of the bee in mythology is not only associated with the underworld, but that it is also tied strongly to the earth and fertility, as well as the heavenly sphere. It suggest that the bee was conceived of as a creature that could cross the boundaries between different realms and mediate between the world of the divine and the world of humans, serving as a liminal creature with strong associations with ancient earth goddesses and the will of Zeus. The second chapter looks at political imagery involving the bee and the ways in which hierarchical organization of the hive influences the popular conception of the bee, as it is manifested in the literature of Greece and Rome. An examination of natural historical texts reveals that the organization of the hive was conceived of as political in nature. This conception led to the use of bees, broadly, and apiculture, specifically, as a means of discussing and exploring politics. Apicultural texts such as Aristotle, Pliny, and Columella were influenced by what they conceive of as political activity within the hive, while literary authors such as Varro and Virgil used literary tropes associating the bee with politics to develop complex allegories for the Roman political system, employing the language and methods of apicultural and natural historical texts. The final chapter examines the connections between woman and bees in Greek literature, as well as the erotic implications of bees, which are often connected to women. In it, I note that a proverb (found in Sappho) and a fable (recorded by Phaedrus) both depict the bee as a species made up of good and evil. The workers and the honey are the good, which the hive provides, while the lazy drone and the bee's sting are the evils that exist alongside the good. This makes the bee an apt image for women and eros, as conceptualized by Hesiod, Semonides, Sappho, Pseudo-Theocritus, and an Anacreontic poem. This chapter also examines how the lore surrounding bees helps to enhance depictions of the female ideal, such as chastity and diligence, though the works of Hesiod and Semonides use the bee to cast doubt on the existence of this ideal. It ends with an examination of the Oeconomicus, in which Xenophon builds on these previous bee images and reworks them to recast economic prosperity as the highest good a woman can achieve, to the exclusion of more traditional virtues, which the bee images was used to enhance.