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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Bee Priestess in Ancient and Modern Times

Paper written for the following class in the Women's Spirituality M.A. Program:

The Priestess: Sacred Woman in Ancient, Tribal, and Contemporary Culture
Fall Quarter 2008
Institute of Transpersonal Psychology
Vicki Noble, Instructor

As I begin to write this paper I light my beeswax candle, invoke Brahmari Devi, the Hindu bee goddess, and pull the Ace of Wands Motherpeace card from the shuffled deck. I light a stick of Japanese incense, the fragrance of which is said to support insight, intuition and inspiration. In all these actions, I mindfully mirror components of ancient priestess practices by purifying the space, invoking the deity, and consulting the oracle. Through these ritual actions I hope to create for myself an atmosphere that is receptive and conducive to the creative work of writing and pulling together the threads of my studies in this paper.What defines and designates a woman as a priestess? Webster’s Dictionary (published 1961) does not even bother to define the term “priestess”. It simply lists the word following its definition of “priest” without any further information. A current online edition of Webster’s defines priestess as “a female priest, especially of a pagan religion.” A further online search in the Free Dictionary states that a priestess is “a woman who presides over religious rites, especially in pagan religions.” I was then delighted to find the following description of a priestess from the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English: (informal usage) “a woman who is famous for being the best at a type of art, music etc, and whose ideas or work change the way that other people think about and make art, music etc.”
Although this is bracketed as “informal usage”, this definition is supported by Norma Lorre Goodrich in her book “Priestesses.”. She states that priestesses “thrived in ancient societies in which religion, art, and science were not as yet disjointed.” Ruth Barrett, in an article on Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries writes: priestesses ‘were venerated as priests are today, as holy persons and leaders in their societies. Their specialties included religion, philosophy, prophecy, ethics, writing, dance, temple construction, and maintenance, ritual, fund raising, tourism, social work, commerce, and cloth making. She might have been a doctor of medicine, lecturer, archivist, singer, or performing instrumentalist.” From these definitions we can begin to form a picture of who a priestess was and what her functions were. By understanding her role in ancient societies, we can formulate a conception of how a contemporary priestess might be not only relevant but also extremely necessary for the continuation of life on the planet.
I go back to my Ace of Wands Motherpeace card, and immediately resonate with the image of a baby bursting forth energetically from an egg. It has perfectly reflected and expressed the energy I am experiencing as I begin to take the first steps in producing an event that will highlight the plight of bees and CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) in the world. In Vicki Noble’s book “Motherpeace: A Way to the Goddess through Myth, Art, and Tarot”, she describes the Ace of Wands card as indicating expansive energy. “It opens us to our abilities…and a heightened sense of what is possible”. I find that this is exactly how I am feeling at the moment. The morning has been filled with a flurry of emails and phone calls, connecting the different artists and participants of the upcoming “bee” event. Suddenly there are synchronistic connections occurring between participants that I hadn’t even been aware of. Pieces are rapidly falling into place. I ask my sister if she will create a painting for the poster and she immediately becomes energized and excited about the project, and starts working on it the very next day. When I am casually talking to my longtime friend, musician Karen Guggenheim, and mention to her and that I have just discovered for the first time that there were bee-priestesses in Ancient Greece, (through a lecture by Marguerite Rigoglioso given in Vicki Noble’s Priestess class) and that I want to do something for the bees, she reveals to me that she that she knows ancient bee songs from Bulgaria, and has learned a bee ritual after traveling there in 2006, and would love to participate in a bee event.
Debbi Grenn, my teacher in the Community Practicum class in the Women’s Spirituality M.A. program at I.T.P. (Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto) suggests that I contact a friend of hers who has bees and produces honey (I have decided to produce the bee event as my Community Practicum project). I contact her friend, and it turns out that she is the same person who took my friend Karen to Bulgaria in 2006 and introduced her to women who taught her the bee songs and rituals that she has offered to do for the event!
Meanwhile on the web I find out that there is already a thriving and passionate community of bee-priestesses in the world, and that I have just awakened to something that is already around but perhaps not receiving the attention it deserves (considering the plight of the honeybee, which will most certainly affect all of humanity.)
I take a deep breath and am amazed at how the pieces of this work have come together, and continue to expand and connect and stimulate a creative process. I reflect to myself that this is what contemporary priestess-hood is about. Ritual sets the tone and allows the woman to let inspiration flow through her. Standing between two worlds, she is able to channel these inspirations into substantive action that can impact the world in a positive way through education, art, performance, and ritual. Ruth Barrett believes that “as contemporary women on the priestess path, our primary function is to create (my emphasis) or become a “container” so that an experience of the Goddess can occur. Whether it is through ritual, writing, art, dance, music, or organizational skills, the spiritual focus or specialty of the priestess becomes the larger container that helps create sacred space wherein women can connect with the Goddess.” (I would add men to that as well).
As Deborah Grenn writes in “Claiming the Title Kohenet: Examining Goddess Judaism and the Role of the Priestess through Conversations with Contemporary Spiritual Leaders” , “in teaching -or practicing- goddess traditions, I believe we can offer women strong models of self-empowerment, deeper historical and spiritual resources and references, tools through which they can access their own power and develop deeper relationships with the divine…It is the role of the priestess or kohenet to bring women these tools…“.
When I heard Marguerite Rigoglioso mention the tradition of bee priestesses in ancient Greece during her lecture on the sacred oracles, it struck a chord. I can’t explain why. But I know that it was a cathartic moment for me. Even though I knew next to nothing about them beyond the fact that they existed, just knowing that bee-priestesses had lived and practiced rituals which honored the bees was enough to set me on the path of the bee-priestesses. This reflects back to Grenn’s statement on teaching historical references and thereby offering tools for connecting with the divine. So I begin my search for more specific information about these priestesses.
Melissa Blakely-Merrall writes in her blog “Blessed Bee”, “The ancient bee priestesses were called the Melissa, which means “honeybee” in Greek. Artemis herself was called a bee, and Demeter was addressed as ‘Pure Mother Bee’. The priestess of Apollo at the Delphic Temple was called the ‘Delphic Bee’ and the bee was also the symbol of Diana and Ceres, supposedly because of its virginity. Aphrodite had a shrine at Mount Eryx, where the Goddess's fetish was a golden honeycomb. Pythagoreans perceived the hexagon as an expression of the spirit of Aphrodite whose sacred number was six. She worshipped bees as her sacred creatures because they understood how to create perfect hexagons in their honeycomb. In Her temple at Eryx, the priestesses were melissae, "bees" and the Goddess herself was entitled Melissa, the Queen Bee.”
In “The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore” by Hilda M. Ransome , she writes that the “association of the nymphs with bees and honey is a very ancient one.” Libations of honey and milk were offered “to Aphrodite Urania as mentioned in a fragment of Empedocles preserved by Porphyry:
And with libation poured upon the ground
Of yellow honey, Venus is propitious made.”
While I have not found much more on bee-priestesses, and this paper is in no way an exhaustive research effort, it seems safe to say that their historical existence is indisputable, and although we don’t know exactly what rituals they enacted, they were definitely a vital and important part of the spiritual and ritual life of ancient Greece As for priestesses in ancient Greece in general, the earliest surviving statue of a priestess was found ‘at the entrance of the sanctuary to Demeter and Kore’. Dated to the first half of the third century B.C., it depicts the priestess Nikeso, in ‘elaborate’ dress, with long hair flowing, and perhaps holding an attribute in her right arm (now broken away). It might have been a ‘basket, water jug, a scepter, or a large torch.’ [note from Vicki Noble, teacher: remember that Connelly is focused on the classical period and acts as if there is nothing preceding it; you should qualify this statement by saying it is the first priestess statue according to classical scholars or regarding the classical period. Certainly other scholars would assert that there are many earlier statues, figurines, and murals depicting priestesses—all over Crete and the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age!]
Statues of priestesses “seem to represent the first, and one might argue, only category of women to be broadly represented in portrait statuary of the classical period.” Scenes which depicted women engaged in ritual “reinforced and perpetuated” the model of priestesses as women who represented ‘powerful archetypes for female behavior”.
Jumping to contemporary times in India, where some rituals of the Shakta (goddess worship) priestess tradition can still can be found, Dianne Jennet describes how “ordinary women can be conduits of sacred energy, and what the academic literature would call “ritual specialists” in their communities.” When she was required to choose a sacred practice as part of her ITP M.A. coursework, she focused on the traditional art of kolams, or rice flour patterns that are drawn every morning by South Indian women on the threshold of their homes. Her experience of creating these kolams on a regular basis (ritual) at her home in California had the effect of attracting people in a positive way. She found herself engaged with the community in a way that otherwise might not have occurred. She came to be called “the magic lady”, and people began to leave offerings of flowers and coins at her kolams. Her practice ended up providing a bridge between the sacred and the mundane; men from the near-by half-way house of the Veteran’s Administration began talking to her, and she began to establish friendships with them, and grieve for them when they passed away. Dianne’s practice can be seen as a contemporary priestess practice (ritual) which positively impacted herself as well as her community.
In a similar way, as modern bee-priestesses I believe it is our responsibility to re-enact rituals which will draw attention to the plight of the honeybees. I feel strongly, as does my friend Karen that their plight mirrors the state of the world and is a reflection back to us of the extreme imbalance and disconnect between humankind and nature. By extension, it points to our loss of reverence for the goddess who is herself nature. By practicing rituals which honor the bee, and presenting these to a wider audience through music, art, dance, and education and poetry and performance, we are returning to life the ancient practices of priestesses who lived and breathed and walked on this earth. By re-claiming and re-creating our own contemporary rituals, we can at least rekindle a memory of a time when the earth was more in balance, when honeybees were not indiscriminately shipped from state to state to do man’s work, all the while being exposed to lethal chemicals, insecticides, pesticides, and parasites which may be at the root of Colony Collapse Disorder, the name that scientists have given to the shocking die-off of bees in recent years.
There is also discussion by scientists that Colony Collapse Disorder is being caused in part by cell phones. (The theory is that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bees' navigation systems, preventing the famously home-loving species from finding their way back to their hives. Improbable as it may seem, there is now evidence to back this up.) Perhaps bees are ‘the canary in the coal mine’ and their disappearance (in 2007 the West Coast is thought to have lost 60 per cent of its commercial bee population, with 70 percent missing on the East Coast.”) heralds a disappearing future. It has been said (and perhaps incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein), “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
At this critical point in time, perhaps the grassroots movement of women towards becoming bee-priestesses will not seem so arcane and irrational. Perhaps instead it will be one of the more sane solutions to the issues and problems facing the bees, and by extension humanity.

Finally, a haiku by Matsuo Basho, called “The Bee”

How reluctantly
the bee emerges from the deep
within the peony


Belinda said...

ahhhh Urania.... your paper has left me tingling and goose bump all resonates very much with me... thank you... Belinda

Layne Redmond said...

We've posted your blog to

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

Thank you for this wonderful and timely article!

Anonymous said...

ahh..I feel like I finally finding my hive. I have been having this bizarre notion that I am a priestess, however I have not claimed it for the lack of definition of what it has meant throughout history and how it relates to my inner calling. Thank you for clarification and further facilitating my path.

Celestial Elf said...

Amazing post thank you
thought you might enjoy my machinima film on permaculture and the bees
bright blessings
elf ~

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post! I've also felt an unexpected calling to the bees and particularly the spiritual path of the Bee Goddess. I haven't found a lot on a real, living group of women Melissae, so if you have any other information, I'd be very interested! Many thanks...
The Bee Witch (

Elizabeth Garrett said...

Thank you dear Women's Spirituality Sister! I have just named my home yoga/dance studio "Honeybee" in homage to the bees. I remembered that you are a 'Bee Priestess". Love, Elizabeth