In honour of World Bee Day: 17 August
Whether it was for consumption, offerings to the gods, or for healing wounds, honey was important in ancient Egypt and so were bees. The honey bee is one of the earliest known hieroglyphs and was a symbol of kingship itself – together with the sedge sign, it represented the King of Lower and Upper Egypt. Here are some short stories about honey and bee-keeping from the Middle Kingdom, Ptolemaic Period, and late antiquity. These are just a selection of the huge volume of texts that could have been chosen – here’s to many more stories about bees for centuries to come (#savethebees).
A short book on bees and apiculture in ancient Egypt provides easy access to a lot more information: The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt by Gene Kritsky.
Late Middle Kingdom
The collection of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London holds a large body of papyri from the Middle Kingdom town of Lahun (also known as el-Lahun and Kahun). One letter, the central section of which is lost, reports an incident in which honey assigned to a servant was eaten by an unnamed Asiatic. And why? Because it was too sweet. And who can blame him.
“… given that, as for the hin (ca. half a litre) of honey (already) assigned to the servant-there, the servant-there has discovered that the Asiatic has drunk it up, reporting to the servant-there: ‘Look, it was the sweetness that made me do it!’”
In July 256 BCE, the widower Senchons wrote to the well-known figure Zenon about her donkey, which she needs returned to her in order to move her beehives to higher ground, so that they don’t get destroyed during the inundation. Zenon was the secretary to an important governmental official and lived in Philadelphia, in the Fayum region. The documents associated with him are among the earliest Greek texts from Ptolemaic Egypt, dating to the reigns of Ptolemy II (283–246 BCE) and Ptolemy III (246–222 BCE).
“To Zenon, greetings from Senchons. I petitioned you about my female donkey, which Nikias took. If you had written to me about her, I would have sent her to you. If it pleases you, order him to return her, so that we can transport the hives to the pastures, so that they won’t be ruined and of no profit to yourself or the king. And if you examine the matter, you will be persuaded that we are useful to you.”
Late Antique Egpyt
On the 12 June of an uncertain year, three monks (Elias, Papnoute, and Germanus) from the monastery of Apa Apollo near Hermopolis lease 214 beehives from the beekeeper Lazarus. This is just one contract with beekeepers that the monastery had, showing the importance of honey in their monastic diet. Individual monks also kept bees (and the document protects Lazarus from any complaints from a rival beekeeper, Enoch).
“I, the papa Elias with Brother Papnoute and the notary Germanus, the monks of the topos of Apa Apollo, write to Lazarus the son of Apollo, the beekeeper from Tbake. You drew up a lease for us for 214 beehives. Now, we are liable to you for Enoch, the beekeeper, so that he does not sue you over them. If he or anybody associated with him sues you, you are safe from them, for we have reached an agreement with him.”
In the Valley of the Kings, the tomb of Rameses IV (KV2) was later reoccupied by monks. The monks left behind themselves many signs of their habitation. As well as graffiti throughout the tomb, the excavators also found upturned jars (amphorae) that had been used as beehives.
Technical Details: Hieratic Document
Provenance: Egypt, Lahun.
Date: Late Middle Kingdom (ca. 19th century BCE)
Language: Middle Egyptian; hieratic script.
Collection: Petrie Museum, London: UC32124.
Bibliography: Mark Collier and Stephen Quirke. 2002. The UCL Lahun Papyri: Letters. Oxford: Archaeopress. Pp. 58–59.
Technical Details: Greek Document
Provenance: Egypt: Philadelphia, Arsinoite nome (Fayum).
Date: July 256 BCE.
Collection: University of Michigan, Papyrus Collection: P.Mich.inv. 3198.
Bibliography: John L. White (1986) Light from Ancient Letters [#20]. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Technical Details: Coptic Document
Provenance: monastery of Apa Apollo, Bawit (near Hermopolis)
Date: 12 June, uncertain year (7th century)
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: Princeton, University Library (inv. AM 15960 G)
Designation: P.Mon.Apollo I 47; SB Kopt. I 52 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Helmut Satzinger and Pieter J. Sijpesteijn. 1988. ‘Zwei koptische Papyri aus der Papyrussammlung aus der Princeton University,’ in Enchoria 16: 49–53.