The history of honey begins from the ancient times. Back then it was a natural and healthy product, indispensable to the daily diet, and not a supplement.
Honey was the nectar of the Gods, one of the oldest and tastiest foods.
The Gods of Olympus would eat nectar and ambrosia. Hesiod and Pindar mention that Aristaeus - the son of Apollo, the god of music and harmony, and Cyrene, the daughter of Hypseus, King of the Lapiths – was credited with beekeeping, the cultivation of grapes and olives. Aristaeus was also the patron of shepherds and hunters, of medicine and clairvoyance.
Aristaeus was born in Libya and Hermes took him to be raised by Gaia and the Horae and they dropped nectar and ambrosia on the infant’s lips, thus making him immortal. Later on, Aristaeus was taught clairvoyance and medicine by the Muses. The Nymphs taught him how to cultivate grapes and olives but they also taught him beekeeping, which he would become known for. Aristaeus first sailed to Ceos (Kea) where he taught beekeeping to the inhabitants of the island.
Thus, Aristaeus became, especially for the Ceans, the inventor of a series of useful arts, the most important of which was beekeeping. Aristaeus and the bee became the basic symbols of Kea and they were represented on the coins of Ioulis, Karthaia and Korissia (ancient city-states of Kea).
There was organized beekeeping during those mythical times. There is no doubt about it according to the myth about Aristaeus and we find more proof as we proceed to the historic times.
Odyssey (K-519) mentions the “Melikraton”, this mixture of milk and honey which people enjoyed as a fine drink. Odyssey (Y-168) also mentions that the orphan daughters of Pindar were fed cheese, honey and wine by the Goddess Aphrodite. It is the same food the witch Circe enchanted Odysseus’ comrades with (K-213).
Hesiod mentions “Simvloi” (in Greek «Σίμβλοι»), a name people gave to the hives of that time. All we know about “Simvloi” is they were human-made hives for beekeeping.
In Crete, during the excavations in Phaestos, hives of clay from the Minoan civilization (3400 BC) were found - older than the period of Homer. The gold jewel which was found representing a chain of two bees holding a honeycomb from the hive of clay also belongs to that same era, and so does the other gold jewel in bee shape found during the excavations of Knossos.
Aristotle’s texts (322 BC) were very important for beekeeping in Ancient Greece as well as for the entire ancient civilized world.
The existence of beekeeping businesses is also recorded during the period before Aristotle, during which beekeeping had already been organized to a great degree.
Solon, the great lawmaker of Athenians (640-558 BC) had established various legislative measures regarding beekeeping during that era.
There was a measure which regulated and determined the distance between apiaries and it proves the existence of beekeeping businesses. Proof of this measure exists in Plutarch, Life of Solon: “Flocks of bees are at a distance of three hundred feet from one another”.
There was, hence, organised beekeeping in ancient Greece, which aimed at producing this divine product – Natural Honey – and the intellectuals of that time were well aware of its beneficial properties.
Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine (462-352 BC) recommended honey to all people, but especially to those who were sick.
Democritus, when asked how can people be kept healthy and live longer, he replied that honey may be the answer.
Pythagoras and his followers were mainly fed on honey.
Beekeeping developed not only in Attica, but also in Continental Greece, the islands and even in the colonies.
Aristotle was the first to have scientifically studied the bee. The only means he had at his disposal was, as in many areas of Greece nowadays, the beehive.The bee and honey, both directly and indirectly, feature prominently in Greek mythology.
Goddess or Female Demon (“Thaea” or “Daemonissa” in Greek): Half bee, half winged woman, the form of the great mother goddess, the pre-Artemis, i.e. closely related with the deities of vegetation.
Artemis of Ephesus: Bee representations between animals and rosettes on the outer garment of the goddess. Goddess of fertility and virginity. The priestesses of Artemis of Ephesus - Rea, Kyveli, Demetra and Persefoni - were also called “Bees”.
Zeus (Melisseus – “Bee-man”): The myth says Zeus was nursed by the holy bees in a cave called Idaean Andron in Crete.
Apollo: Apollo’s food was nectar and ambrosia and he became so handsome that his father, Zeus, named him the god of light.
Bee Priestesses: There are myths associated with honey about priestesses who had the ability to foretell, such as Pythia and the Thriae.
Aphrodite – Eros – Honey: Theocritus in his famous poem tells that Eros wanted to steal a honeycomb with honey and the bees stung him for punishment; thus symbolizing the joys and sorrows of love.
Trophonius: Divine child brought up with honey by nymphs inside a sacred cave, the road to which was indicated by bees, the so-called “trophoniades”. Trophonius was a Greek agricultural deity (god of rain and vegetation) with therapeutic and oracular qualities. His parents vary according to the various myths: Dionysos and Persefoni, Apollo and Epikasti, Zeus and Iokasti, Erginos and Iokasti.
Aristaeus: Another Greek agricultural god of vegetation. Son of Apollo and of the nymph Cyrene who Apollo kidnapped from the shores of Pineios river and took her to Libya. She gave birth to Aristaeus there and Hermes brought the infant to the Horae and Gaia to make him immortal by feeding him with ambrosia and nectar. Aristaeus was worshipped as the patron of herds, of oil and honey. According to Nonnus (Dionysiaca, 5, 212-286), to Aristaeus we attribute the hive and the technique of blowing smoke on bees. The writer mentions that Aristaeus was the one who gave honey to the gods and the people and Dionysos was the one who gave them wine.
Hebe and Ganymede: The Olympians were fed with ambrosia (honey) and nectar (mead), served by the goddess of youth, Hebe (daughter of Zeus and Hera) and then, when she married Heracles, she was succeeded by Ganymede.
Glaucus and Polyidus: Glaucus, son of Minos and Pasiphaë fell into a jar of honey and died. He was resurrected by the seer Polyidus with an herb. This legend was very popular in the ancient times and the expression “Glaucus drank honey and survived” was broadly used for someone who was close to dying but survived. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had used this myth in their works Cressai, Polyidus (Manteis) and Polyidus respectively.
Underworld (Hades): Hermes is represented calling souls from the Underworld, while a bee flies above them. The dead, when travelling to the Underworld through the river Acheron, were supposed to have a honey pie with them in order to appease Cerberus, the monstrous guard of Hades.
Eos Rhododaktylos (Eos with Rosy Fingers): She was cursed by the goddess Aphrodite with unsatisfiable sexual desire because Eos had seduced Ares, the god of war and Aphrodite’s sweetheart. While “hunting” for lovers, Eos met with Tithonus; she kidnapped him and gave him ambrosia to eat to stay eternally young and strong.