Folklore on bees, wax and honey from Wales and Ireland

Bees and their products play an important role in mythological symbolism and healing lore all over the world. Here a variety of ideas and healing lore which is part of the Celtic folklore of Wales and Ireland is presented.

Wales is a land, which is famous for her bee-keeping. Welsh legend has two versions of the story with the sow Henwen, who has been guarded by one magickian swine herd, named Coll, which means “hazel”. He follows her from Cornwall to Wales, always keeping one hand to her bristles. In Gwent she gives birth to a grain of wheat and a bee; in Pembroke she gives birth to a grain of barley and a bee; in Snowdonia she gives birth to a baby wulf and a baby eagle. In Arfon she gives birth to a spotted cat. The last mentioned three bring death and destruction.

In another legend the Story of Henwen becomes part of the hunt on Twrch Trwyth. King Arthur and his knights hunt her to prevent the fullfilling of a prophecy, according to which the offspring of Henwen will wreak havoc on Britain. Arthur and the knights chase her all over Wales. So they achieve exactly what they wanted to prevent: Henwen gives forth her positive and negative gifts spread all over Wales.

Henwen means “the Old White One”. We may see in her a totemistic archetype of The Goddess. She is both: embodiment of the wild indomitable elemental powers and teacher of communication with nature, which is essential for the agricultural arts like planting grains, domestication of animals and bee-keeping. The bee as one of these gifts indicates that Wales must have been a pleasant place for bees from a very early time onwards, and it also points to the fact that the gifts of the bee have been valued by the population also from a very early stage in history onwards. The forests and climate of ancient Wales offered good conditions for the bees; and although we cannot proove that, it may be assumed that the inhabitants of Wales developed similar methods of bee-keeping in hollowed trunks as their cousins on the european continent did about the same time.

The methods of bee-keeping and the art of winning, cleaning and bleaching of wax as it is used for the production of candles did not come to Wales before the first bells had been rung in the new developing abbeys, monasteries and hermitages to call the devotees of the new god to prayer. The inquiry for beeswax grew with the growth of monasteries and churches. The monks may have been the ones, who brought “modern” methods of bee-keeping to Wales. When in 1539 King Henry VIII dissolved all monasteries a decline of bee-keeping was one of the consequences.

The same happened on the continent caused by Luther´s reformation.

Anyway Welsh bee-keepers were not exclusively dependant on the monasteries, who could not produce as much beeswax as they needed for themselves as their customers.

An important group of customers and often bee-keepers themselves were the cunning men and women of the region, who needed large amounts of honey and beeswax as important ingredients for many of their cures. The preparation of plasters and ointments, pills and potions required honey , wax and propolis to achieve the optimal healing effect. Sometimes also small amounts of mead are recommended in a cure. Often a herb potpourri had been mixed into mead.

In medieval medicine mead, wine and the milk of goats were often preferred to water for the extraction of herbal agents, as the quality of water was not very good in those times, especially in urban regions.

In most of the prescriptions which involve honey & wax, the medical purpose is clearly to be detected. Wax is either used to mould pills or as part of plasters.

Honey is used for all kinds of diseases of the lungs and bronchi, for general strength, against headache, etc…

Healing is a part of folklore magick, which always composes medical and botanical knowledge together with some bits of sympathetic magick. Welsh folk-medicine delivers a chance to have a look on the use of bees products in the context of sympathetic healing magick.

The magnetic property of beeswax may be used to draw disturbing or annoying projections / energies from the client of a sympathetick healing session. This practice we yet encountered in Hittite magick. Something equally striking I found in a collection of Welsh herbal remedies. Some of the remedies against paralysis, heart diseases and headaches imply the applying of powdered herbs and honey on sacrum, heart and sometimes brow. It may be assumed that the Welsh healers knew when somebody was physically ill, and when an illness had a mainly psychological origin or was caused by a bad wish of an unfriendly human.

Paralysis, heart disease and headache are all of the kind of diseases which may in some rare occasions be caused by willing magickal influence on an individual. Also these diseases may be symptoms for blocked energy.

From the viewpoint of sympathetic magick it is only logical to use honey in all kinds of magickal cures which aim at the vitalization and / or revival of inner centers of energy, or, as modern new age healers would say, to energize the chakras. The ancient healers may have had their own ideas of the inner energy centers of the human being, too, and they used that knowledge as part of their healing lore.

Eire

Honey has been a highly valued gift of nature in ancient Eire, as we know from many sources. Archaeological findings as human bones and fragments from clay vessels, excavated mainly from several court-, wedge-, passage- and portal tombs in Eire have been analysed in the laboratories of Irish universities. The results showed plainly that honey was part of the diet of the inhabitants of the Emerald Isle from a very early stage of history onwards.

As every honey contains pollen in changing concentration, these findings were a great help for the researchers to reconstruct the botanic conditions of ancient Eire.

It is due only to these findings, which once may have been offerings for the departed souls, that nowadays we may imagine the environment on the Emerald Isle thousands of years ago, when the Tuatha de Danaan landed on Bealtaine at its pleasant shore.

When enjoying the Irish myths and language we may discover that the word, which we may roughly translate as “sweet” meant a lot more than a certain flavour.

To give some examples: “Mel” is a word for “sweet”; “meli” means “honey”, and one of the realms of the Summerlands has the name “Mag Mel”, which means the “plain of honey” or the sweet plain. “Melian” is an old gaelic name for females.

Fresh milk and honey” is a synonym often used to describe wealth and plenty.

A Gaelic word for eloquence of speech could be translated as “honey-mouthed” or “sweet-mouthed”.

Honey is fairy-food; and the bee-keeper is well adviced to make offerings to the Siddhe, when moving his bees to a new place. The fairies love bees and they like to be near them. All nature spirits feel drawn to places where bees are placed.

A lot of Irish poets use bees and honey as a metaphor to describe the beauty of their country and the overwhelming feelings which overcome those, who open their senses to the gifts of the nature, surrounding them.

In Caoine Cill Chais – The Lament for Kilcash, which has been written down about 1827 we find the lines:

“Nor the eagle’s cry over the bay,

Nor even the bees at their labour

Bringing honey and wax to us all.”

Here we encounter again the bees and honey as a metaphor for joy, a friendly home and wealth, the loss of which is lamented in the song.

Another example is given by the famous poem of the Irish genius W.B.Yeats “Innisfree”, which he wrote in his teens to comfort himself and his sisters. They loved Ireland. But as their father was an artist, hoping to make his fortune in London, the family lived part of the year with him.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bees,

And live alone in the bee-loud glen.”

In another of his poems, “The Stare´s Nest by my Window” he invites the bees to make their home at his house.

In “Celtic Twilight” he tells a short story “Aristotle of The Books”, where he reports on an old woman, telling him the story of Aristotle and the Bees. The scholar Aristotle once wanted to find out how the bees packed their comb. He watched them for a fortnight, but he couldn´t find out. So he decided to put them under a glass dome to watch them building. And when he looked, the bees had it all covered with wax , and he couldn´t see anything.

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