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Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt

The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt
by Gene Kritsky
Oxford University Press, 133pp, £19.99

Mankind’s interaction with the honey bee, apis mellifera, and the magical properties of honey and beeswax, goes back well into the Mesolithic period. Wall paintings from Bicorp in Spain show a man harvesting honey from a wild colony; the drawing is estimated to be 8,000 years old. This person is doing what is still done today in some cultures: simply robbing the wild colony of its stored honey. Evidence of man farming honey bees comes from many ancient cultures where beehives have been found and we are all aware of the biblical term ‘The Land of Milk and Honey’. The first documentary evidence of beekeeping comes from Ancient Egypt, where a hieroglyph of a honey bee occurs in the First Dynasty (c.5000 years ago). It was not until the Greco-Roman period (c.300 BC) that the lines ‘The god Re wept and the tears from his eyes fell on the ground and turned into a bee’ were inscribed on a papyrus now in the British Museum.  

The entomologist and Egyptologist Gene Kritsky journeys through time, cataloguing the use of the hieroglyphic symbol of the honey bee and the evidence of apiculture on a vast scale throughout Ancient Egypt. Beekeeping and the products of the hive were deeply embedded in Egyptian culture. The culinary and magical properties of honey were recognised, as they are today; honey was the only source of sweetness in ancient times. Beeswax was used in the preparation of cosmetics; painting by the encaustic technique in which beeswax was mixed with pigment; beeswax sculptures of the sons of Horus and the art of ‘lost-wax’ casting, the process used in making part of Tutankhamun’s funerary mask. Beeswax was also used in the production of candles, hence the reason beekeeping is associated with ecclesiastical establishments even today. 

The hieroglyph of the honey bee depicted on the book’s cover was the symbol for the ‘northern Delta region of upper Egypt’ before apiculture was documented. The first evidence of the practice of beekeeping comes from scenes in the solar temple of Newoserre Any (2474-2444 BC). The development of apiculture is described through the increased incidence of carved beekeeping scenes and demonstrates the growing importance of bees, honey and wax in the economies and culture of Ancient Egypt, which was tightly controlled by the state, with many wonderful titles of government officials including  ‘Sealer of the Honey’, ‘Divine Sealer’, ‘Overseer of all Beekeepers’ and ‘Chief Beekeeper’.

This well-illustrated book works as a guide for the amateur Egyptologist, ‘with step-by-step instructions to the evidence of ancient beekeeping at different archaeological sites and in different museums’. It is a great read for those with an interest in Ancient Egypt and the detective work that has revealed its complex, highly ordered and controlled society. The amateur beekeeper will also be fascinated by this book. We love to read everything we can about bees and this volume reveals the direct connection with our fellow beekeepers of 5,000 years ago.  

Paul Bolam is emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the Medical Research Council Brain Network Dynamics Unit at the University of Oxford. He is also an amateur beekeeper.

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