History of the honey bee: An ancient Greek Myth

Aristaios the Greek discoverer of bee keeping
Pencil sketch by James Van Kollenburg, 
known as Kallimachus, of a statue of Aristaios,
public domain image.
Aristaios the Greek discoverer of bee keeping.

Aristaios or Aristaeus, it is told in Greek mythology, was the son of the god Apollo and the shepherdess Kyrene.  He grew up with the Nymphs of Mount Pelion who taught him how to tame the bees and keep them in hives. He in turn taught this to the Greeks, and they glorified him as the patron god of beekeeping.  His name was derived from the Greek word aristos,"most useful." Mankind gained great advantage from his many discoveries in agriculture and revered him.  
He  taught numerous other useful agricultural arts and was not only the patron god of bee-keeping, but also of shepherds, cheese-making, honey, honey-mead, olive growing, fruit trees, hunting, cattle and  medicinal herbs. 

Apollonius Rhodius, states in the Greek epic from the 3rd century B.C. Argonautica: "When the child had grown up the divine Mousai (Muses) found him a bride, taught him the arts of healing and prophecy, and made him the shepherd of all their flocks that grazed on the Athamantian plain in Phthia, round Mount Othrys and in the valley of the sacred River Apidanos."

Aristaios's teaching of apiculture was elaborated on by Nonnus in his Greek epic from the 5th century AD:
"That man [Aristaios, Aristaeus] ranging the mountains on his springing feet, first found out the business of hunting the prickets among the rocks they love... 
That man invented the riddled hive with its rows of cells, and made a settled place for the labours of the wandering bees, which flit from flower to flower over the meadows and flutter on clusters of fine-fruiting plants, sucking dew from the top with the tips of their lips. He covered every limb from toenails to hair with a close woven wrap of linen, to defend him from the formidable stings of the battling bees, and with the cunning trick of smothering smoke he tamed their malice. He shook in the air a torch to threaten the hive-loving bee, and lifting a pair of metal plates, he clapt the two together with rattling hands over the brood in the skep, while they buzzed and humble bumbled in ceaseless din; then cutting off the covering of wax with its many pointed cells, he emptied from the comb its gleaming treasure of honeydripping increase."

Oppian, the Greek poet from the 3rd century A.D. mentioned him in the epic poem Cynegetica:
"Aristaios . . . instructed the life of country-dwelling men in countless things . . . he first brought the gentle bees from the oak and shut them up in hives . . . [he lived with] the Nymphai that have bees in their keeping."Aristaios was worshipped in Greece and Ceos and Boetia and Thessaly but mainly in the islands of the Aegean, Ionian and Adriatic seas.
Aristaios is rarely depicted in art, but where he does appear, he is often winged. In the pencil drawing above he has a large bag and probably an agricultural implement of some sort in his left hand.

  • The Theoi Project : Greek Mythology
  • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology
  • Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica - Greek Epic - 3rd century B.C.
  • Oppian, Cynegetica - Greek Poetm - 3rd century A.D.
  • Ovid, Fasti - Latin Poetry -1st  century B.C. to 1st  century A.D.
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History - Latin Encyclopedia 1st A.D.
  • Nonnos, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic - 5th  century A.D.


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