Lions and Bees: What’s the Connection?

October 16, 2015
Lions decorate the sleeve of Artemis of Ephesus. From a 2nd century Roman reproduction. Photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta.
Lions decorate the sleeve of Artemis of Ephesus. From a 2nd century Roman reproduction. Photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta.

The following research is related to my next book (in progress) about animal divination.

Most people are aware of the connection between lions and bees through the biblical story of Samson. The hero featured in the Book of Judges was on his way to meet his betrothed when he encountered a lion, which he killed with his bare hands. Some days later he passed the carcass and found a swarm of bees in it, and he scraped out the honey and shared it with his parents without telling them where he found it. The biblical account is quite clear on this point, perhaps to reconcile some inconsistencies in the tale, such as that honey coming from a dead carcass would not have been kosher. A kernel of this story originates in the cult of the bee goddess of Anatolia, as does the myth of Aristaeus recounted by Virgil near the start of the Common Era. Before moving back to Anatolia, let’s look at the Greek myth.

Aristaeus was the child of the huntress Cyrene, who liked to wrestle lions barehanded, and the sun god Apollo. He was fostered by myrtle nymphs, who taught him the cottage industries of olive curing, cheesemaking, and beekeeping. One day he was distressed to find that all his bees were dead or dying. He traveled to a pool of water and asked his mother what to do. She directed him to a seer, who revealed this was punishment for his role in the death of Eurydice. (This occurs in a well-loved tale that is only tangential to this story.) Aristaeus sought his mother’s counsel again, and she instructed him to build four altars to the wood nymphs and on them sacrifice four bulls and four heifers. He was then to leave the sacrificial place and return on the morning of the ninth day, bringing poppies, a calf, and a black ewe. When Aristaeus returned with these offerings, he found bees in a rotting carcass, which rose in a swarm to a nearby tree.

Seated woman of Catal Huyuk. 6,000 B.C.E. Photo: Roweromaniac.
Seated woman of Catal Huyuk. 6,000 B.C.E. Photo: Roweromaniac.

That Aristaeus is raised by myrtle nymphs is significant. It reveals him as a shamanic deity who travels to the underworld to gain knowledge. The myrtle tree is a symbol of love and marriage today due to its association with Aphrodite, who is remembered by most for her love goddess aspect, but myrtles in ancient Greece were used for funeral wreathes. While the flowers and even the leaves have a sweet fragrance, the sweetness was associated with death, perhaps because corpses emit a sweet odor as they decay. The idea of honeybees swarming on a dead carcass of any kind is absurd, although they do gather around the myrtle tree.

Bee and lion imagery in Anatolia goes back to before the fifth millennium. The Seated Woman of Catal Huyuk, who is flanked by two felines usually identified as leopards (which could as easily be lionesses), looks strikingly similar to classical statues of Cybele. The goddess Cybele is unmistakably enthroned between male lions.

Cybele’s myth, as told by the Greeks, starts with her arrival from outer space in the form of a meteorite. Cybele eventually falls in love with the beautiful god Attis, who returns her attentions for a time, then becomes infatuated with another. The infuriated Cybele harasses him ceaselessly until he goes insane. In remorse, Attis tears off his genitals and dies of his wounds beneath a pine tree. Cybele tearfully shrouds his body and buries it at the mouth of her sacred cave shrine, along with the transplanted pine tree.

Perhaps it was Cybele’s fiery form across the sky that first evoked the image of the fierce, fleet, destructive lion. The tormenting Cybele is the angry bee. The emasculation of Attis refers to the death of the drone after copulation. The pine is of a species found in Turkey which draws a type of aphid that sweats a sweet nectar. Bees congregate around this pine, attracted to the aphid nectar. The resulting honey is renowned for both its taste and its healing properties, and it is mentioned in Classical medical literature.

Another healing agent known to ancient physicians is the opium poppy, which strongly attracts bees. The bees gather poppy pollen granules to take back to the hive. Bees, lions, and flowers that could be poppies appear on the statue of Artemis of Ephesus, along with cattle, goats, and the animals of the zodiac. Whatever the name and personality of the mother-goddess as she was first worshiped at Ephesus, she evolved into a goddess exhibiting hybrid traits of Cybele and of Artemis, who had already absorbed many other goddesses by the time the Greeks colonized the Anatolian coast. That the bee is meant to be a significant and not a minor facet of Ephesian Artemis is demonstrated by the coinage of the city-state: deer on one side; bee on the other.

Coin from Ephesus. 4th Century B.C.E.
Coin from Ephesus. 4th Century B.C.E.

It is in Greece that art specifically linking the bee and the lion first appears, yet the association seems to have been imported from Anatolia. The swarm of bees arising from the heifer/bull sacrifice rather than from a lion is a Greek permutation of another myth. Normally bees are assumed to be linked exclusively with bulls in pictures, but we often forget cows can also have horns. Bees and cows are alike from a human standpoint, in that they provide nourishing food from their bodies. Bees like cows are normally fairly docile and allow themselves to be “herded” into a new field or nest site. But bees are like lions in that they roar, they like the sun, they hunt in an open field, they are territorial, they attack in a coordinated fashion, and (when possible) they make their home in caves.


Gough, Andrew. “The Bee” (parts I-II-III). June 2008.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1992.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St Paul, MN: LLewellyn, 1990.

New English Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Neith and the Acacia Tree

October 20, 2012

Acacia trees in Morocco. Photo L. Mahin.

Our tree goddess this week is the goddess Neith (Neit), and her tree is the acacia. The acacia is a small scrawny tree with tiny leaves and pronounced thorns. It has a long fibrous seedpod that is attractive to animals and is often used as fodder for cattle. There are over a thousand trees with the common name acacia, and they grow all over the world in arid climates. One species in northern Africa, probably the tree of Neith, is the Vachellia nilotica, also called the Egyptian thorn or the gum arabic tree. The ancient Egyptians used the very hard wood of this acacia for making tools. The sap, called gum arabic in its powdered form, was used for incense, perfume, cosmetics, glue, pigment binder, and embalming. Gum arabic from a related acacia native to sub Sahara Africa is still used for a variety of commercial purposes, especially the manufacture of candy.

Probably the most important quality of the acacia is its globular, fragrant yellow flowers, which draw quantities of bees. Honey has been a vital food going back to the hunter/gatherer tribes of Paleolithic times. When Egypt adopted a grain-based diet, honey remained important not only as a food of pleasure but as a catalyst in bread rising and fermentation. In the complex Egyptian economy that nonetheless had not developed a metal currency, honey was a medium for paying taxes. Not only was it valuable, but it kept well. Honey was a staple food offering to the gods.
Parakeet feeding on acacia pod. Hyderbad, India. Photo J.M. Garg.

The symbol for Neith is the bee, and the bee hieroglyph can mean Neith, Lower (northern) Egypt, or the ruler of Lower Egypt, depending on the context. Neith is the oldest of the Egyptian gods, the mother of all the gods. It was she who emerged first from the amorphous primeval waters, and she who created the first mound of earth to rest upon. The round yellow flowers on her sacred tree reflect her position as mother of the sun, as does the sun-loving bee. Like many sun goddesses, she is the goddess of weaving, which is why the Greeks associated her with Athena. Neith gave the Egyptians the bandages used to wrap the deceased, and gum from her tree was the adhesive holding the bandages. Acacia resin was one of many substances used as an embalming preservative.

Aegis of Neith. 600 BCE. Photo Rama.
Unlike many creator gods, Neith did not create the world and retreat, but could be relied upon for continued gifts and sustenance. The gods drew on her wisdom in times of crisis, appealing to her for counsel through written messages, which Neith responded to with letters of her own.

In historical times Neith gained prominence as her city Sais rose in influence during the seventh century BCE, but Neith was probably worshiped in Lower Egypt long before dynasties or agriculture, when people still hunted for food. The crossed arrows on her crown probably originated as a hunting emblem, and may also relate to the defensive stinger of the bee and the defensive thorns on the acacia.

Primarily Neith is a goddess of sustenance, engaged in the perpetual creation of life. Out of just one tree she created incense, perfume, wood for implements, seedpods for cattle, pigment binder for ink and paint, materials for embalming and food for bees, not to mention welcome shade in a hot dry climate.


Barrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The mythology and beliefs of ancient Egypt. London: Diamond Books, 1996.

Clark, R.T. Rundle. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1959.
Acacia flowers. Photo Phillipe Birnbaum.

Jay, Lisa and Nessi Domizlaff. Ancient Egyptian Art: The Relationships Among Binders, Pigments and Surfaces, 2005.

Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 11, No. 2. REVIEW ON THE MATERIALS USED DURING MUMMIFICATION PROCESSES IN ANCIENT EGYPT, 2011.

Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Egyptology, 2001.

Aphrodite and the Myrtle Tree

September 28, 2012

Myrtle in flower. Photo Giancarlodessi.

Our tree this week is the myrtle, sacred to Aphrodite. Myrtle trees were planted in Aphrodite’s temple gardens and shrines, and she is often depicted with a myrtle crown, sprig or wreath. Most people are familiar with Aphrodite as the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sex. Aphrodite is guardian of the gates of birth and death, symbolized by the vagina. As poets well know, myrtle rhymes with girdle, and Aphrodite has a very famous and coveted girdle that she sometimes lends to other goddesses. This is not the modern girdle that restricts breathing; this is a belt tied around the waist that makes the wearer sexually irresistible.

Aphrodite’s myrtle is the Common Myrtle, a small, leafy evergreen native to Asia minor and southern Europe that grows well in dry, slightly alkaline soil. It is not closely related to the Crêpe Myrtle, a tree native to India that was planted in the Carolinas and escaped into the wild, nor is it related to the Honey Myrtle or Lemon Myrtle, both of Australia, which are becoming increasingly important in herbal medicine.

With any tree sacred to a goddess it is important to examine whether it has a special relationship to the bee. Bees were highly regarded by ancient peoples, not only because they provide honey and pollination, but because like humans they live in highly organized communities. Goddesses of love and beauty are likely to be linked with bees, and Aphrodite is no exception. Aphrodite’s myrtle nymphs raised the God Aesacus, god of beekeeping and other cottage industries like olive curing and cheesemaking. Bees flock to the myrtle tree, and as a late blooming tree it is important in honey production. Pollen collected in the spring is used for the hive’s immediate needs, while pollen collected late in the year becomes surplus honey for the dormant period. A portion of this honey is harvested by the beekeeper. Myrtle honey, once important for food and medicinal uses, is an uncommon commercial honey today.
Gold funerary wreath. Greece, 4th century BCE.

You would expect the flowers of the myrtle to be odoriferous, considering its attractiveness to bees, but the leaves and the bark are also highly fragrant. The tree was used in ancient times to make perfume. The leaves and the ripe berries have a strong taste, reportedly similar to allspice, and they were used as a seasoning. This is significant because Aphrodite – like that other love god, Krishna – disapproves of garlic, and other seasonings must be substituted to flavor dishes at her festivals.

The myrtle’s association with Aphrodite made sprigs an important component in bridal bouquets in Victorian times. In some Ukrainian weddings, myrtle wreaths are held above the heads of the bride and groom. In Greece myrtle boughs were used in funerary ceremonies, and the myrtle wreath had a place in the Eleusinian rites, which were an exploration of the mysteries of death and rebirth.

Varieties of myrtle are usually planted as ornamental trees and shrubs, prized for their attractiveness and fragrance. The Common Myrtle is seldom used medicinally today, but classical texts indicate that it was once a standard treatment for a number of conditions. Myrtle is no longer a popular girls’ name, but it was well favored in the 1800’s, probably by mothers with a romantic nature. Apparently parents abandoned the name because the Myrtle girls were subjected to too much rhyming. (Fertile Myrtle has a turtle; jumps the hurdle in her girdle.)

Though the myrtle is not the popular tree it once was, any well-stocked occult store will carry the essential oil or the leaf. Be sure not to confuse true myrtle (Myrtus communis) with oil of Honey Myrtle or Lemon Myrtle, which are different trees.

Aphrodite riding goose, with son Eros holding myrtle wreaths. Date unknown. (Click on thumbnail for larger picture.)

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penquin Books, 1960.

Plants for a Future. Myrtus communis – L.

Powell, Cornelia. Queen Victoria’s Wedding Bouquet and the Legend of the Royal Myrtles.

Theoi. Flora 2: Plants of Greek Myth.

Weddings at Soyuzivka. Ukrainian Wedding Traditions.

The Honey Tree

June 29, 2012

Cybele, Rome 50 b.c.e.
photo Marshall Astor

This week’s goddess is Cybele (pronounced kye-bell), whose sacred tree is the pine. Cybele is the earth mother goddess of what is now western Turkey, who had a popular and longstanding cult that eventually spread to Rome. She had a lover named Attis, who was also her grandson, whom she loved very much, and she showered him with gifts and attention. Despite the pampered treatment he enjoyed, Attis eventually became enamored of a nymph, and he could not keep the liaison a secret from Cybele. She was furious, and she tormented him until in madness he tore his genitals from his body. Attis died from his wound under a pine tree.

The Turkish Pine is renowned for its role in production of a type of honey. Aphids feed on the sap of the tree and sweat a sweet substance that attracts swarms of bees. The love of bees for this tree can be compared to the love of Cybele for Attis. Attis’ self-castration is evocative of the bee’s reproduction. When the bee drone has finished copulating with the queen, his organ is torn from his body as he pulls away. The drone then dies of his wounds. The furious torment of Attis by Cybele may have been like the swarming buzz of bees.

At the opening of Cybele’s spring ceremony in Rome, a pine branch was carried into the city to represent Attis. During the week-long ceremony, male initiates to one of her cults would castrate themselves during frenzied dancing (think of bees) and throw their testicles as an offering at the foot of her statue. The worship of Cybele and Attis had a death-and-resurrection theme, with rituals of mourning preceding ecstatic rites celebrating Attis’ rebirth.

From Oskar Seyffert’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Amid tumultuous music, and rites of wildest sorrow, they sought and mourned for Attis in the mountains. On the third day he was found again, the image of the goddess was purified from the contagion of death, and a feast was celebrated as wild as had been the days of sorrow.

From Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

The Goddess is herself a queen bee about whom male drones swarm in midsummer, and as Cybele is often so pictured; the ecstatic self-castration of her priests was a type of the emasculation of the drone by the queen bee in the nuptial act.

Stand of Turkish Pine
photo Sten

I recently ran across a blog entry (which I can’t find again; you’ll have to take my word) maintaining that the worship of Cybele belongs to transwomen and that any others who follow Cybele are wrongfully appropriating her. I have wanted to address this issue of ownership and appropriation in a general way for some time.

Regarding the rites of Cybele: since she had a cult of castrated priests, transwomen have a traditional justification for establishing exclusionary religious practices to this goddess. However, the worship of Cybele, which dates to pre-history, was spread throughout the Mediterranean by Greco-Roman times and included different priesthoods of women, men, and mixed-sex groups, as well as castrated males. There is justification, historically, for persons of any sex or gender to establish a cult of Cybele.

I’ve heard this same sentiment of proprietary worship expressed by women, particularly lesbians, regarding the goddess Diana and the supposed inappropriateness of her worship by men. Diana is well known for her preference for women over men, but she has had celebrated male followers throughout history, among them the Roman king Servius Tullius, who established a famous temple to Diana outside Rome in the sixth century b.c.e.

The objection has been raised by certain Western critics of paganism regarding the affinity of witches for the Hindu goddess Kali-Ma. The argument (which I actually have never heard from any Hindus) is that Kali is a Hindu goddess and therefore should only be worshiped by Hindus.

The hard fact of the matter, however, is that we none of us own our gods. They are promiscuous, meaning they love who they choose to love and extend favors of their own volition to those who please them. You can establish a cult, a circle, a religion or a ceremonial system and include or initiate whoever you want, but worship is ultimately an agreement between the deity and devotee. Nobody can change that. Violating the boundaries of a religious cult is wrong, and willful violations were sometimes punished with death in ancient Greece, but there is a difference between placing boundaries around a practice and placing boundaries around a deity. The goddesses do what they want. Go ask Attis.


Budapest, Zsuzsanna E. The Grandmother of Time. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calendar of Festivals.Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1990.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.

Seyffert, Oskar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Trans. by John Nettleship and J.E. Sandeys. 1882.