Ritual of the ancient Mediterranean

Bugonia was an ancient ritual whereby bees were supposedly produced from the corpse of a cow.


  • The blood of slaughtered bullocks oft has borne
    Bees from corruption. I will trace me back
    To its prime source the story's tangled thread,
    And thence unravel. For where thy happy folk,
    Canopus, city of Pellaean fame,
    Dwell by the Nile's lagoon-like overflow,
    And high o'er furrows they have called their own
    Skim in their painted wherries; where, hard by,
    The quivered Persian presses, and that flood
    Which from the swart-skinned Aethiop bears him down,
    Swift-parted into sevenfold branching mouths
    With black mud fattens and makes Aegypt green,
    That whole domain its welfare's hope secure
    Rests on this art alone. And first is chosen
    A strait recess, cramped closer to this end,
    Which next with narrow roof of tiles atop
    'Twixt prisoning walls they pinch, and add hereto
    From the four winds four slanting window-slits.
    Then seek they from the herd a steer, whose horns
    With two years' growth are curling, and stop fast,
    Plunge madly as he may, the panting mouth
    And nostrils twain, and done with blows to death,
    Batter his flesh to pulp i' the hide yet whole,
    And shut the doors, and leave him there to lie.
    But 'neath his ribs they scatter broken boughs,
    With thyme and fresh-pulled cassias: this is done
    When first the west winds bid the waters flow,
    Ere flush the meadows with new tints, and ere
    The twittering swallow buildeth from the beams.
    Meanwhile the juice within his softened bones
    Heats and ferments, and things of wondrous birth,
    Footless at first, anon with feet and wings,
    Swarm there and buzz, a marvel to behold;
    And more and more the fleeting breeze they take,
    Till, like a shower that pours from summer-clouds,
    Forth burst they, or like shafts from quivering string
    When Parthia's flying hosts provoke the fray.

    The appointed altars reared, and thither led
    Four chosen bulls of peerless form and bulk,
    With kine to match, that never yoke had known;
    Then, when the ninth dawn had led in the day,
    To Orpheus sent his funeral dues, and sought
    The grove once more. But sudden, strange to tell
    A portent they espy: through the oxen's flesh,
    Waxed soft in dissolution, hark! there hum
    Bees from the belly; the rent ribs overboil
    In endless clouds they spread them, till at last
    On yon tree-top together fused they cling,
    And drop their cluster from the bending boughs.
  • He said: ‘Do you ask how to recover your bees?
    Kill a heifer and bury its carcase in the earth,
    Buried it will produce what you ask of me.’
    The shepherd obeyed: the beast’s putrid corpse
    Swarmed: one life destroyed created thousands.
    • Ovid, Fasti, January 9.
  • However if trust is only placed in proven things, do you not see that whenever corpses putrefy, due to time or melting heat, they generate tiny creatures? Bury the carcases of sacrificed bulls (it is a known experiment) in the ditch where you have thrown them, and flower-sipping bees, will be born, here and there, from the putrid entrails. After the custom of their parent bodies, they frequent the fields, are devoted o work, and labour in hope of harvest. A war-horse dug into the earth is the source of hornets.
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 15.
  • These persons say also, that if the swarm is entirely lost, it may be replaced by the aid of the belly1 of an ox newly killed, covered over with dung. Virgil also says2 that this may be done with the body of a young bull, in the same way that the carcase of the horse produces wasps and hornets, and that of the ass beetles, Nature herself effecting these changes of one substance into another. But in all these last, sexual intercourse is to be perceived as well, though the characteristics of the offspring are pretty much the same as those of the bee.
  • 1 Though Virgil tells the same story, in B. iv. of the Georgics, in relation to the shepherd Aristæus, all this is entirely fabulous.
  • 2 Georg. B. iv. 1. 284, et seq.
  • In winter, too, the hives should be covered with straw, and subjected to repeated fumigations, with burnt cow- dung more particularly. As this is of kindred origin* with the bees, the smoke produced by it is particularly beneficial in killing all such insects as may happen to breed there, such as spiders, for instance, moths, and wood-worms; while, at the same time, it stimulates the bees themselves to increased activity.
  • "Cognatum hoc." He probably alludes to the notion entertained by the ancients that bees might be reproduced from the putrefied entrails of an ox, as wasps from those of a horse. See the story of Aristæus in B. iv. of Virgil's Georgics.
  • In regard to the difference in origin, some animals originate without mixture of the sexes, while others originate through sexual intercourse. Of 41 those which originate without intercourse of the sexes, some come from fire, as the little animals which appear in the chimneys, others from stagnant water, as mosquitoes, others from fermented wine, as the stinging ants, others from the earth, others from the mud, like the frogs, others from slime, as the worms, others from donkeys, as the beetles, others from cabbage, as caterpillars, others from fruit, as the gall insect from the wild figs, others from putrefied1 animals, as bees from bulls, and wasps from horses.
  • 8. The priestesses of Ceres, also, as being initiated into the mysteries of the terrene Goddess, were called by the ancients bees; and Proserpine herself was denominated by them honied. The moon, likewise, who presides over generation, was called by them a bee, and also a bull. And Taurus is the exaltation of the moon. But bees are ox-begotten. And this application is also given to souls proceeding into generation. The God, likewise, who is occultly connected with generation, is a stealer of oxen. To which may be added, that honey is considered as a symbol of death, and on this account it is usual to offer libations of honey to the terrestrial Gods; but gall is considered as a symbol of life; whether it is obscurely signified by this, that the life of the soul dies through pleasure, but through bitterness the soul resumes its life, whence, also, bile is sacrificed to the Gods; or whether it is, because death liberates from molestation, but the present life is laborious and bitter. All souls, however, proceeding into generation, are not simply called bees, but those who will live in it justly and who, after having performed such things as are acceptable to the Gods, will again return (to their kindred stars). For this insect loves to return to the place from whence it first came, and is eminently just and sober. Whence, also, the libations which are made with honey are called sober. Bees, likewise, do not sit on beans, which were considered by the ancients as a symbol of generation proceeding in a right line, and without flexure; because this leguminous vegetable is almost the only seed-bearing plant whose stalk is perforated throughout without any intervening knots (note 11). We must therefore admit, that honeycombs and bees are appropriate and common symbols of the aquatic nymphs, and of souls that are married (as it were) to (the humid and fluctuating nature of) generation.
  • Moreover, it also ordains that every sacrifice shall be offered up without any leaven or honey, not thinking it fit that either of these things should be brought to the altar. The honey, perhaps, because the bee which collects it is not a clean animal, inasmuch as it derives its birth, as the story goes, from the putrefaction and corruption of dead oxen, {41}{this refers to the same idea so beautifully expressed by Virgil, Georgics 4.548 (as it is translated by Dryden)--"His mother's precepts he performs with care; / The temple visits and adores with prayer; / Four altars raises; from his herd he culls, / For slaughter, four the fairest of his bulls; / Four heifers from his female store he took, / All fair and all unknowing of the yoke, / Nine mornings thence with sacrifice and prayers, / The powers atoned, he to the grove repairs. / Behold a prodigy! for from within / The broken vowels and the bloated skin, / A buzzing noise of bees his ears alarms: / Straight issue through the sides assembling swarms, / Dark as a cloud they make a wheeling flight, / Then on a neighbouring tree, descending light: / Like a large cluster of black grapes they show, / And make a large dependence from the bough."} just as wasps spring from the bodies of horses.
  • Philo, The Special Laws.
  • CHAP. LIX. For it would, indeed, be absurd that certain stones and buildings should be regarded as more sacred or more profane than others, according as they were constructed for the honour of God, or for the reception of dishonourable and accursed persons; while bodies should not differ from bodies, according as they are inhabited by rational or irrational beings, and according as these rational beings are the most virtuous or most worthless of mankind. Such a principle of distinction, indeed, has led some to deify the bodies of distinguished men, as having received a virtuous soul, and to reject and treat with dishonour those of very wicked individuals. I do not maintain that such a principle has been always soundly exercised, but that it had its origin in a correct idea. Would a wise man, indeed, after the death of Anytus and Socrates, think of burying the bodies of both with like honours? And would he raise the same mound or tomb to the memory of both? These instances we have adduced because of the language of Celsus, that "none of these is the work of God" (where the words "of these" refer to the body of a man or to the snakes which come out of the body and to that of an ox, or of the bees which come from the body of an ox; and to that of a horse or of an ass, and to the wasps which come from a horse, and the beetles which proceed from an ass); for which reason we have been obliged to return to the consideration of his statement, that "the soul is the work of God, but that the nature of body is different."
  • 14:1 And Samson went down to Timnath, and saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines.
    14:2 And he came up, and told his father and his mother, and said, I have seen a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines: now therefore get her for me to wife.
    14:3 Then his father and his mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines? And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well.
    14:4 But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the LORD, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.
    14:5 Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him.
    14:6 And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.
    14:7 And he went down, and talked with the woman; and she pleased Samson well.
    14:8 And after a time he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion: and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion.
    14:9 And he took thereof in his hands, and went on eating, and came to his father and mother, and he gave them, and they did eat: but he told not them that he had taken the honey out of the carcass of the lion.
    14:10 So his father went down unto the woman: and Samson made there a feast; for so used the young men to do.
    14:11 And it came to pass, when they saw him, that they brought thirty companions to be with him.
    14:12 And Samson said unto them, I will now put forth a riddle unto you: if ye can certainly declare it me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty sheets and thirty change of garments:
    14:13 But if ye cannot declare it me, then shall ye give me thirty sheets and thirty change of garments. And they said unto him, Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it.
    14:14 And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle.
    14:15 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson's wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father's house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?
    14:16 And Samson's wife wept before him, and said, Thou dost but hate me, and lovest me not: thou hast put forth a riddle unto the children of my people, and hast not told it me. And he said unto her, Behold, I have not told it my father nor my mother, and shall I tell it thee?
    14:17 And she wept before him the seven days, while their feast lasted: and it came to pass on the seventh day, that he told her, because she lay sore upon him: and she told the riddle to the children of her people.
    14:18 And the men of the city said unto him on the seventh day before the sun went down, What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion? and he said unto them, If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle.
    14:19 And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle. And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father's house.
    14:20 But Samson's wife was given to his companion, whom he had used as his friend.
    • The Book of Judges.
  • A horse's carcase is the breeding place of Wasps. For ass the carcase rots, these creatures fly out of the marrow: the swiftest of animals begets winged offspring: the horse, Wasps.
    • Aelian, On Animals 1.28
  • Oxen are after all the most serviceable creatures. At sharing the farmer's labours, at carrying loads of various kinds, at filling the milk-pail - at all these things the Ox is excellent. He graces the altars, gladdens festivals, and provides a solemn banquet. and even when dead the Ox is a splendid creature deserving our praise. At any rate bees are begotten of this carcase - bees, the most industrious of creatures, which afford the best and sweetest of fruits that man has, namely honey.
    • Aelian 2.57
  • What, again, of your not abstaining yourselves from the slaughter of lice, bugs, and fleas? You think it a sufficient excuse for this to say that these are the dirt of our bodies. But this is clearly untrue of fleas and bugs; for every one knows that these animals do not come from our bodies. Besides, if you abhor sexual intercourse as much as you pretend to do, you should think those animals all the cleaner which come from our bodies without any other generation; for although they produce offspring of their own, they are not produced in ordinary generation from us. Again, if we must consider as most filthy the production of living bodies, still worse must be the production of dead bodies. There must be less harm, therefore, in killing a rat, a snake, or a scorpion, which you constantly say come from our dead bodies. But to pass over what is less plain and certain, it is a common opinion regarding bees that they come from the carcases of oxen; so there is no harm in killing them. Or if this too is doubted, every one allows that beetles, at least, are bred in the ball of mud which they make and bury. You ought therefore to consider these animals, and others that it would be tedious to specify, more unclean than your lice; and yet you think it sinful to kill them, though it would be foolish not to kill the lice. Perhaps you hold the lice cheap because they are small. But if an animal is to be valued by its size, you must prefer a camel to a man.
    • Saint Augustin, On The Morals of the Manichaeans 63, 388AD
  • In the "new birth" of the mysteries, the Souls were typified as bees born from the body of an ox, for they were to gather the honey of wisdom, and were born from the now dead body of their lower natures. In the cave were two doors, one for immortals, the other for mortals. In this connection the cave is the psychic womb that surrounds every man, of which Nicodemus displays such ignorance in the Gospels. It is the microcosmic Middle Distance; by one door the Lower Soul enters, and uniting with its immortal consort, who descends through the door of the immortals, becomes immortal.
    • G.R.S. Mead, Simon Magus

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