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How People Practiced Beekeeping in Ancient Greece

The image of the Parthenon in Ancient Greece on the Athenian Acropolis

Honey has always been popular in Greece. And the ancient Greeks used it in medicine, cooking, cosmetic procedures, and as part of sports nutrition. The popularity of Greek honey is evidenced by the fact that we often see mention of it in mythology and literature of the time, as well as archaeological finds testify to it.

Beekeeping in Ancient Greek writings

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle 384-322 BC was the founder of scientific beekeeping. In his book “History of Animals” he devoted a section to bees. He described the structure of the bee family, the division of duties, how to care for them, and some diseases. Aristotle wrote that bees emerge from honeycombs, while at that time it was believed that the offspring of bees emerge from flowers. But it should be taken into account that Aristotle mistakenly believed that bees obtain honey by collecting it from the air and not from the nectar of plants. Nevertheless, Aristotle made a significant contribution to the development of beekeeping until the Middle Ages.

Image of a sculpture of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle 384-322 BC

The founder of ancient medicine Hippocrates 460 – 377 BC described the therapeutic properties of honey recommending its use in the treatment of purulent wounds, stomach and liver diseases.

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus 460-370 BC when asked by people how to live longer and stay healthy, answered that one should use oil for external use and honey for internal use.

Pythagoras 570-495 BC and his followers used honey as a staple food. He believed that honey was a source of youth and longevity.

The famous Athenian lawmaker Salon 640-558 BC enshrined by law the rule that no bee family could be placed closer than 300 feet to an existing one. This confirmed the existence of large enough apiaries at that time.

Bees and Honey in Mythology of Ancient Greece

Beekeeping, bees, and honey are very often reflected in the mythology of ancient Greece.

According to legend, Zeus’ father Kronos wanted to swallow him immediately after birth, as he did with all his children. So Zeus’ mother Rhea hid him in Dikteon Cave in Crete. Pigeons brought ambrosia for Zeus, an eagle a goblet of nectar, and bees collected honey for him and guarded the entrance to the cave. When people tried to enter the cave, the bees attacked them. According to another version of the legend, the nymph Melissa fed Zeus with honey and milk of the goat Amaltheia

The statue of Zeus, the strongest and most powerful god of Olympus.
The chief and most powerful of the Olympian gods, Zeus

The earliest character in Greek mythology who is known as a beekeeper is Aristaios son of Apollo and the nymph Kyrene. After his birth, Mercury gave him to Gaia and the Horae. They gave him ambrosia and nectar, thus making him immortal. As Aristaios grew older, the Muses and Nymphs taught him the art of divination and healing, the cultivation of vines, olive trees and beekeeping. Aristaios passed his knowledge to people on the island of Kea, symbolized by himself and a bee. This is evidenced by the coins of Toulida, Karthea and Koressia that have been discovered

Mention of honey by Homer in the Odyssey and the Iliad

In the Odyssey (verse Κ-519) the drink Melikraton is described as a mixture of honey and milk, which was drunk as a refined beverage; In verse Υ-168 it is said that the daughters of Pindar were brought up on cheese, honey and wine by the goddess Venus. The same food was used by the witch Circe in seducing the companions of Ulysses. (verse, Κ-213).

Homer in the Iliad mentions honey in various situations. As an important part of sacrifices, first of all memorial sacrifices: the soul of Agamemnon tells the soul of Achilles, having met it in the underworld kingdom of Hades, that they buried Achilles with dignity: “You were burnt in the garb of the gods, smeared abundantly with sweet honey and oil”.

The image of the book Iliad and Odyssey by the ancient Greek poet Homer
Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad VIII c. BC

Hives in ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, hives were most likely made of various biodegradable materials such as tree bark, plant stems, wicker, tree trunks, dried mud. Non-biodegradable materials such as clay and stone have also been used. But the extant evidence is based only on surviving hives made of pottery. Hives made of other materials, unfortunately, have not survived.

Horizontal ceramic beehives dated 5-4 century BC have been found in many parts of Greece, such as Attica, Isthmia, Crete, Euboea and on other Aegean islands. The hives are oblong cylinder-shaped beehives. They vary in size from 40-60 cm in length and 28-29 cm in diameter and were used in the same way as in Egypt by stacking them in rows on top of each other. They were covered on both sides with a lid with a small opening for the bees. When it was time to extract the honey, one lid was opened and smoke was used to drive the bees to the opposite side of the hive, making it easier to extract the honeycomb.

Image of a traditional horizontal beehive from Greece
A traditional horizontal beehive from Greece (photo H. Harissis, Collection of A. Bikos in the Geoponic Institute, Athens)

There is also a suggestion that beekeepers in ancient Greece knew how to insert partitions into the hive, on which the bees built honeycombs.  These partitions made it easier to remove excess honey reserves.

Beekeeper’s equipment in Crete

During excavations in Crete in one of the rooms of the palace in Knossos 1700-1450 BC, objects were found that were later identified as beekeeping equipment. These were smokestacks, a device for making wax, and a honey press. Also in tombs in Crete were found a gold ring with images of horizontal hives, bees, swarms dated 1500-1400 BC. During the Minoan era. According to one version the owner of this ring was an overseer who controlled the beekeeping industry. This indicates the presence of a highly developed beekeeping culture in Crete.

The image of Knossos Palace a major center of the Minoan civilization
Knossos Palace 1700-1450 BC

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