Bees in Egypt of the Pharaohs

Abstract:
In Ancient Egypt honey bees seemed to have been of great significance during all periods – as decoration or motif in various contexts as well as icon within the religious and mythological sphere. In addition to that, bees also seemed to have been devoted as a symbol of the royal status and were applied in correlation with high-ranking officials. The practical use of bee products like wax and honey (apart from consumption) ranged from diverse applications within the fields of cosmetology or medical therapy to the utilization as an indispensable adjuvant for the mummification process.  

Zusammenfassung:
Im Alten Ägypten schienen Honigbienen durchweg von großer Bedeutung gewesen zu sein – als Dekoration oder Motiv in unterschiedlichen Kontexten sowie als Symbol und Ikone im religiösen und mythologischen Bereich. Darüber hinaus scheinen Bienen als Zeichen des königlichen Status zu dienen und wurden auch im Zusammenhang mit hochrangigen Beamten genutzt. Die praktische Verwendung von Bienenprodukten wie Wachs und Honig (abgesehen vom Verzehr) reichte von diversen Anwendungen im Bereich der Kosmetik oder bei Heilverfahren bis hin zur Verwendung als unverzichtbares Hilfsmittel für den Mumifizierungsprozess.  

Keywords:
beekeeping – ancient egypt – honeybee – honey – symbolism

Bee in the royal name: “he who belongs to the sedge and the bee” (nesout-bity)

Egyptians may well have gathered the honey of wild bees in the prehistoric period. As early as the first dynasty, the rare inscriptions conserved show us that the canonical titles of the Pharaoh mention “he who belongs to the sedge and the bee” (nesout-bity), that is, the symbols respectively of Upper and Lower Egypt. Beekeeping is then attested in the Old Kingdom: a bas-relief of the funerary temple of the Pharaoh Nyuserre in Abusir (Fifth Dynasty, around 2500 BCE) represents peasants busying themselves around beehives. A royal collar found at Saqqara and belonging to Queen Hetepheres, the mother of Khufu (Cheops), has a handsome bee décor. Much later in the New Kingdom (1580-1054 BCE), several beekeeping motifs are to be found in the tombs of high-ranking civil officers, as in that of the Vizier Rekhmire in Thebes showing honey being taken from the hive, as well as filling and sealing jars of honey.

Gathering honey, Relief from Royal Sun Temple of Abu Ghorab built by Pharoah Nyuserre Ini (after G. Kritsky)
Gathering honey tomb of noble and vizier Reckhmirê (painting by Nina de Garis Davies, 1881–1965)

Later still, a bas-relief from the Saite period of the 26th Dynasty in the tomb of the high-ranking civil officer Pabasa in Thebes (26th Dynasty, around 700 BCE) shows peasants lifting a beehive. In the Greek period of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, papyrus fragments mention it is necessary to change the position of beehives twice a year so that bees can forage in favourable areas with plenty of flowers. The Greek papyri of Zenon, the manager of the estates of the diocetus (minister of the economy) Apollonios in the 3rd century BCE tells us about economic management and honey production, transport, storage and uses.

Tomb of Pabasa (26th Dynasty) gathering honey

According to some of the medical papyri (among them, the Ebers papyrus), honey was utilised in various compositions as a softener or an adjuvant and it was also an ingredient in cosmetics. Honey and wax were likewise indispensable in mummifying processes.

In mythology and religion, the bee was associated with the goddess Neith of the city of Sais in the Western Nile Delta, one of the creation goddesses (also a divinity of the hunt and of war). Some inscriptions also refer to Rê, God of the sun, whose tears, when they fell to earth, were transformed into bees, who created wax.

Author:

Catherine Chadefaud
French agrégée in History
Doctorate in Egyptology and Historical Geography (ancient Egyptian climate and vegetation)

Copyright notice:
Editor and contributors have made every effort to identify copyright-holders of free-access online material. We apologize for any errors or omissions and would be grateful to be notified of any corrections

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