out of the strong came forth sweetness

Lyle’s Golden Syrup brings all my life interests together. It’s not about the sweet sticky stuff though. For as long as I can remember, the image of a dead lion, bees pouring out of its body, has fascinated me. Why was it dead? Where did the bees come from? What did it mean?

No one could answer my questions and the words underneath the picture made nothing clearer. Out of the strong, came forth sweetness.

I’d seen dead animals in the woods; fox, badger, rabbit. The only creatures to come out of them were maggots. A corpse discharging a swarm of bees made no sense to my six-year-old self. It remained a solitary interest. We weren’t a Britannica home. There was no library and this was long before the internet.The Acropolis in Athens, Greece

Recently, researching ritual in ancient Greece, I came across the term Bugonia, the emergence of bees from a dead animal. Memories of golden syrup were triggered. A few more clicks and I discovered the motto connects to the biblical Book of Judges where Samson killed a lion, and later discovered a swarm of bees had colonised the carcass. Long story! Detailed explanation here.

Samuel poses a riddle which, depending on the translation, goes something like this:

Out of the eater, something to eat. Out of the strong, something sweet.

The answer is honey. Sweet to eat, while a lion is both the eater and something strong. Problem solved.

Only it didn’t stop there. While this remains the common explanation for Abram Lyle’s tin design back in 1885, the relationship between bees and dead animals has older and deeper roots.

Bees and humans go back a long way. A cave painting in mid-eastern Spain shows the collection of honey over 8000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians left numerous stone references to honeybees in their tombs and temples, while beeswax was a treasured commodity in the old China of emperors and royal dynasties. It seems the relationship between humans, bees and honey is universal. You don’t have to scratch local history or culture very deep to find a reference.

Bees also appear in a number of ancient Greek myths. Aristaeus was the god accredited with introducing beekeeping, and poet Theocritus tells the story (in Idyll XIX) of how Aphrodite‘s son Eros was stung after stealing honey. The incident, alongside his mother’s less than sympathetic response, was later shown by Cranach the Elder in his painting Cupid complaining to Venus (c.1526-27).

Greek sky god, Zeus had an early relationship with bees.  Each time his mother Rhea gave birth, father Chronus ate the babe but when Zeus was born, Rhea tricked Chronus with a swaddled stone. Tiny Zeus was taken to a cave on Mount Ida, where a group of nymphs, led by Melissa, fed him goats milk and honey. When Chronus discovered the deception, he punished Melissa by turning her into an earthworm. The adult Zeus, realising what had happened, transformed Melissa into a honeybee. Stone bas-relief showing Rhea deceiving Chronus with swaddled stone (Capitoline Museum, Rome)

Bees were connected to Apollo and Artemis but – leaving the best till last – one particular story has close connections to Mr Lyle’s tin. It involves Demeter, goddess of agriculture and harvest, probably best known for losing her daughter Persephone to Hades, god of the underworld. For six months of the year, Hades allowed Persephone to return to Demeter, but for the other half of the year, she was confined to hell, thereby explaining the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.


Hades abducting Persephone by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1622)

Demeter was a powerful goddess with her own temples and rites, and initiation into her cult was always a closely guarded secret.

Once upon a time, there was an elderly priestess called Melissa. She had been initiated by Demeter herself and, as rumour of the connection between mortal and goddess began to spread, Melissa was put under pressure to reveal details. Refusing to speak, the new priestess was attacked, and eventually torn to pieces. Furious to hear what had happened, Demeter sent a swarm of plague-carrying bees. They burst out from Melissa’s dead body, carrying Demeter’s revenge on all who had dared to harm one of her own priestesses.

There may be other examples, but this is the oldest story I’ve found so far with connections to golden syrup. The same image and motto was used for Lyle’s black treacle, launched later in 1950, a continual use of design which has been recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest branding and packaging in the world.

To finish with, here’s a moment of slow-motion bees. It was taken using a camera phone with a macro lens, which shows high-end professional gear is not always necessary to capture the beauty and grace of bees at work.


If you want more, here’s 11 minutes of similar footage by beekeeper Frederick Dunn from his YouTube Channel.



The next post will look at beekeeping in Medieval times, and how this in some of the illuminated manuscripts of the period.


On Archetypes and Poetry

image showing coffee beans and musical notation
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/assembly-coffee-aroma-mood-figure-1001158/

Sometimes I think an archetype is another word for poem.

Successful poems have resonance. The reader ‘feels’ something which connects them to the words on the page or spoken poetry. This can be a similar reaction to the idea of universal archetypes, in particular the way Carl Jung described them.

Archetype comes from the ancient greek for original pattern and Jung identified 12 universal images and symbols found in cross-cultural myths, legends and fairy tales. The twelve are Ruler, Creator/Artist, Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Rebel, Hero, Wizard, Jester, Everyman, Lover, Caregiver. They represent instinctive understandings and recognition.

image showing a full moon in the mountains
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/painting-knight-night-oil-paints-3995999/

Poems work when they tap into something inside of us. A poem can shock or surprise, or simply resonate on an individual level. It might remind us of an experience or someone we once knew, and until that moment, the recognition may have existed unconsciously, only rising to the surface in response to stimuli. When this happens the effect can be powerful.

Jung proposed the deeper part of the psyche had two layers of unconsciousness, the personal and the collective. The personal unconscious was a unique collection of personal experiences, while the collective unconscious contained the archetypes, a set of universal emotions surrounding the characteristics of, for example, mother, child, trickster or expectations around life events such as birth and death.

Today. much has been written about the social construction of reality and how individuals are products of their environment. However, I think most people are aware of experiences which suggest something deeper may be going on. For example, seeing a bonfire at night, a full moon or the sound, sight, and smell of the sea, often seem to tap into something primeval and universal which can’t always be easily explained.

image showing a fire at night beside a river
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/search/bonfire%20at%20night/

A successful poem can have a similar effect. It touches us but we’re not always sure why while suggesting a link between poetry and archetypes also raises the often asked question – what is a poem?

This week, I read poet Wendy Pratt’s reflections on the writing of her new collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse. Wendy shares some thoughts on poetry as a process of trying ‘to locate the thing that is beneath the words‘. This sounds to me a bit like another way of saying there could be a relationship between the poem and universal concepts such as archetypes.

image showing the front cover of Wendy Pratt's new book When I think of my body as a horse

Wendy describes poetry as a ‘translative process’ and writing a poem involves trying to

‘…locate the thing that is beneath the words….poetry is the thing that emerges from between the lines, from between the thoughts that are created out of a need to define or rationalise life.

We need creativity to ‘manage our thoughts, we need that translative device to make sense of the instinctive animal part of us which sits below the higher thinking, problem-solving part of us. Poetry, then, sees the animal that is the instinct beneath the skin that is higher thinking self, it sees the truth beneath the words, the truth of ourselves. That’s how I see it.’

Reading this reminded me of a piece I wrote about the nature of poetry several years ago, which used the analogy of Avicenna’s thought experiment known as the Floating Man. This imagines human existence beyond the senses. The person floating in air is disconnected from touch, hear, taste or smell but still has consciousness. For me at that time, a poem which achieved resonance spoke of universal experiences. I aligned this with the concept of floating and being forced into the different type of awareness. This comes when we’re removed from the crutch of day-to-day reality, to be jolted into the recognition of something we didn’t see coming.

image showing a man in a parachute flowing in the air
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/search/floating%20man/

I also included a connection to the oral tradition of poetry, such as Homer, which tended to be fluid rather than fixed. Every time the Iliad and the Odyssey were told there were changes in style and detail, but the core message always survived. I suggested this idea of an unchanging core lay at the heart of poetry today, when it speaks of the universal aspects of life which readers recognise and identify with. Compared to the oral tradition, fixing a poem as text on the page is probably a damaging thing to do. The challenge for poets is to make their words light enough to float and create space where the reader can slot in their own interpretation.

Here’s a final analogy of poetry connected to beekeeping.

image showing honey bees on a frame
image showing honey bees from https://pixabay.com/photos/honey-bees-insects-hive-bee-hive-401238/

A primary form of contact between honey bees is the waggle dance.  On a bright sunny day, I watched a bee use its body to tell other bees where a good source of food could be found. The message had movement and shape and in a moment of insight, I realised the dance was usually performed in the darkness of a closed hive. These bees were using a different form of communication, a bit like poetry does.

I think we read poems in darkness. They exist as text, but the response we feel when a poem ‘works’ is something internal. It can’t be seen, only felt in the way a waggle dance exists without sight, and works using different stimuli such as vibration. To return to Wendy’s post, we need a ‘ translative process’ and maybe this is can be understood as interpreting a message received from the darkness of the subconscious where archetypes still survive.

The next post will look at how tarot cards use archetypal symbols and how their images can be a useful source of inspiration for poets and writers everywhere.

image showing a selection of tarot cards
image showing a selection of tarot cards from https://pixabay.com/photos/craft-tarot-divination-2728227/

Poems and other writings about bees

image showing a cluster of honey bees on a frame
my own image showing a cluster of honey bees on a frame

I began keeping bees last year and several people have asked if I’m writing poems about them. The answer is no. I’m not sure why this is.

My poetry mentor, Scarborough poet Felix Hodcroft, suggests I’m too close to them.  It’s only been nine months since my first two colonies arrived on the allotment. It’s been a steep learning curve, involving as much stress as delight! The ups and downs are at least equal, if not tilted slightly towards the problems. I lost a swarm within the first month and had several queens mysteriously vanish, all recorded in the Beginner’s Blog for the Beverley Beekeeper’s Association.

But I read a lot about bees, as in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and here are some of my recommendations from other writers and poets who’ve turned to bees for inspiration.

  • Sean Borrowdale’s Bee Journal records his experiences of beekeeping, highlighting the details in a poetic diary which has the reader standing beside him as he discovers the intricacies and mysteries of bees.
  • The Bees is a collection of poems from Carol Ann Duffy. Bee are the direct subject of some poems, while in others they exist on the periphery.
  • An anthology of bee poems, edited by James P. Lenfestey, brings together a selection of poems from a variety of authors, all fascinated by the influence of bees on individual lives.
  • Ten Poems about Bees introduced by Brigit Strawbridge Howard is a pamphlet anthology containing a selection of bee-inspired poems.
  • Six Bee Poems by Jo Shapcott speak of how keeping bees can involve a process of transmutation as they slowly take over your body and life.

Bees are also the topic of a number of novels.

  • The Bees by Laline Paull is written from the perspective of Flora 717, who works up from her intial role as a sanitation bee to become a nurse bee, and then a forager bee before promotion to taking care of the Queen bee. Echoing the iconic Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, about the gull who wanted to do more than fly, this work of fiction offers an insider view of life inside a hive.  
  • Telling the Bees by Peggy Haskell is set in mid-America. It tells the story of Albert, who has kept bees all of his life throughout the 20th century and contains wonderful descriptions of his experiences, shaped into a murder mystery story.  
  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is set in Alabama in the 1960’s, a time of racial tensions and their consequences for Lily and her friend Rosaleen. Lily finds herself in the home of the Boatwright sisters, August, May, and June, who keep bees and the novel contains fascinating details of how they do this.
  • One of my favourite books (so far) is The Beekeepers Pupil by Sara George. Based on historical records, it tells the story of Francois Huber, a beekeeper in the 18th century who is slowly losing his sight and employs Francois Burnens as an assistant. Their discoveries included the realisation that queen bees mate during flight rather than in the hives, as was previously believed, and together they developed The Leaf Hive, with movable frames which allowed for greater observations. Translations of Huber’s New Observations on the Natural History Of Bees inscribed by Burnens, are also available online.
  • My other favourite novel is The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. This explores the lives of William from England, who in 1851 set out to build a new type of beehive using the concept of bee space, George in the US in 2007, a beekeeper whose livelihood is being challenged by modern farming methods, and Tao from China in 2098, whose job is to hand paint pollen onto fruit trees because the bees have disappeared.

There are also autobiographical accounts of beekeeping and I’d recommend reading A honeybee heart has five openings by Helen Jukes, which records the narrator’s first experiences of keeping bees in a top bar style hive in Oxford.

With regard to textbooks on beekeeping, the three most often recommended are

However, if you are like me, and fascinated by the history of keeping bees, I’d suggest the following.

  • The Hive – the story of the Honeybee and Us by Bee Wilson. This covers the art and craft of beekeeping from the ancient greeks and includes myth and legend alongside the development of beekeeping over the centuries.
  • The Sacred Bee by Hilda M Ransome which specialises in the folklore of bees and bee culture in including practices in China, Egypt, and Babylonia, as well as more recent customs in England and Europe.
  • The Buzz by Thor Hanson looks at the history of different types of bee, including the bumblebee, all accompanied with some fabulous colour photos of the different species.

So whatever your interest in bees, there’s something for everyone.

I’ve only listed the books I’m familiar with, so if you have any recommendations of your own, please share them in the comment box below.

Happy reading!

image showing a frame of bees with capped brood and capped honey cells
my own image showing a frame of bees with capped brood and capped honey cells

 

Thetis poetry collection

Thetis changing into a lioness as she is attacked by Peleus, Attic red-figured kylix by Douris, c. 490 BC from Vulci, Etruria – Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

I’m not sure what to call Thetis. One the one hand it’s a collection of poems but on the other, it’s a poetic narrative which could also become a script. At the present time, it doesn’t seem to fit into any existing categories and I’m not sure if this is a strength or a weakness.

I wrote Thetis as a submission for the final portfolio of my Creative Writing degree in 2018. It’s a collection of 65 poems which tell the story of the Trojan War through the life of Thetis, mother to Achilles.

In Homer, the universal themes of love, loss, and war in the Iliad are presented through the eyes of men yet women play primary roles. The motif of the rage of Achilles stemmed from his refusal to fight because Agamemnon took away Briseis and the war itself was caused by the abduction of Helen by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. The goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite have central roles and while Thetis appears at all the key moments, Homer doesn’t appear particularly interested in delving into her past or motivations for action.

Head of Thetis from an Attic red-figure pelike, c. 510–500 BC, Louvre

So far, Thetis has rarely appeared as a central character whereas my portfolio placed her centre stage. The poems begin with Zeus and Poseidon both being attracted to her but were dissuaded by the prophecy which warned her child would murder its father. They agreed to marry her to a mortal to break the curse and chose Peleus King of Pythia. When Peleus first encountered Thetis he was so overcome by lust for her beauty he raped her on the beach. At their wedding, Eris the Goddess of Strife, presented a golden apple to the goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite. Inscribed with the words To the Fairest, Zeus ordered Paris to choose between them. Aphrodite convinced Paris to choose her by promising the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, thereby setting in place the events of the Trojan War.

Immortal Thetis with the mortal Peleus in the foreground, Boeotian black-figure dish, c. 500–475 BC – Louvre.

Some stories claim Achilles was the result of the rape of Thetis, while others say she had six children by Peleus, drowning each one. Achilles was the magical seventh child. Determined to save him, she dipped the babe in the River Styx for protection but was interrupted by Peleus before being fully submerged. This gave rise to the legend of the Achilles Heel, his only physical vulnerability.

Thetis returned to the ocean leaving her son to be raised by Peleus, who also fostered Patroclus. In an attempt to avoid Achilles being taken to Troy, Thetis hid him on the Island of Skyros where he was disguised as a maid to Princess Deidamia.

Odysseus discovered the deception and took Achilles to Troy, an event I used this as a trigger for Thetis to hate Odysseus and continually seek revenge.

Thetis and Hephaestus, Attic Red Figure, Antikensammlung Berlin

Part Two introduces Helen as the catalyst for the ten year war. It covers the death of Patroclus, Hector and Achilles himself, while Part Three covers the consequences for Thetis and how she finally takes revenge on Odysseus when he attempts to sail home to Ithaka once the wars were over.

Selections from Thetis were due to be performed at a Rotunda Nights event in Scarborough in May 2020, but like so many events that year, it was cancelled. Plans to reschedule the performance began but with the current situation, these are fragile to say the least and at the time of writing, I’m not sure what the next step will be.

Thetis and the Nereids mourning Achilles, Corinthian black-figure hydria, 560–550 BC; note the Gorgon shield, Louvre

Sources

My research was based on translations of Homer’s Iliad for the underlying story but I also read everything I could find which made reference to the events and people, in particular, Trojan Women and other plays by Euripides.

I also read contemporary work such as Alice Oswald’s Memorial and Christopher Logue’s War Music, alongside adaptations in novel form, including both Song of Achilles and Circe by Madelaine Miller, The Firebrand by Marian Zimmer Bradley, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Achilles by Elizabeth Cook and Ransom by David Malouf. 


 

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