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The Melissae: A Bit of Minoan Honey

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

The Melissae are a bit of a mystery, of both the lowercase-m and capital-M variety. Today I'm sharing a roundup of what we know about these Minoan honey/bee goddesses/spirits, both from historical sources and via our shared numinous experiences in Ariadne's Tribe.

 

Linguistics and Myth

Let's start with the tidbits we know from classical mythology and linguistics, information that has filtered down from pre-classical times in fragmented and garbled form. First of all, the etymology goes around in a circle since no one really knows where the Greek word root for honey (meli-) comes from. It's not an Indo-European root, though it was borrowed into both Greek and Hittite, which are Indo-European languages. There's a good chance it comes from the Minoans, though obviously we have no proof of that at this point since we can't read Linear A yet.

In classical Greek, the word melissa (μέλισσα) means both bee and honey; meli (μέλι) is also used to mean honey in classical Greek. In modern Greek, the two have been separated, so that meli means honey and melissa means honeybee.

So who is or was Melissa? The version that has come down to us via the Hellenic Greeks says that Melissa was a nymph, in other words, a nature spirit who taught humans how to keep bees and use honey. It's pretty likely that her position as a nymph in classical times is a sort of "demotion." This happens when one culture overtakes another and downgrades the other culture's deities in order to incorporate them into the pantheon in a non-threatening position (if you win the culture war, you get to demonize and otherwise diminish the other guy's gods - this is a longstanding human practice around the world, very visible for instance in the way the Bible demonizes the Pagan gods and goddesses of the Levant). This is the same process that happened to many of the Minoan deities: In Greek myth, Ariadne and Minos are human even though they were originally Minoan gods, and of course our beloved Minotaur was thoroughly demonized.

So if Melissa was described as a nymph in classical times, she was probably a goddess in Minoan times, a thousand years earlier. She is connected with a classical-era figure named Melissos, whose name is simply a masculinized version of her own (so probably later, with Melissa being the earlier version). The classical version of Melissos' story is deeply intertwined with Minoan mythology, suggesting that it was put together from fragments of Minoan myth that survived the Bronze Age collapse.

So Melissa comes from Minoan-era Crete and has something to do with honey and honeybees. In classical times, some of Demeter's priestesses were titled Melissae. From the Wikipedia entry about Melissa: "From Porphyry's writings, scholars have also learned that Melissa was the name of the moon goddess Artemis and the goddess who took suffering away from mothers giving birth. Souls were symbolized by bees and it was Melissa who drew souls down to be born. She was connected with the idea of a periodic regeneration." This connects Melissa with both Therasia and Eileithyia in the Minoan pantheon (yes, Therasia is a sun goddess, as Artemis was originally - I commend this book to you as an excellent source for how many Mediterranean moon goddesses were "demoted" from their original positions as sun goddesses).

 

Numinous Experience and Shamanic Journeys

We've taken the bits and pieces that have come down to us through classical times and brought them to our altars and shrines, asking the gods to guide us. Obviously, there's no way to prove whether any of our experiences directly correspond to the way the ancient Minoans interacted with the gods or how they viewed them. But what we've learned works for us, as modern Pagans, and gives us a strong sense of connection back through time to the Minoans.

First of all, the Melissae always show up in the plural for us, much like a hive of honeybees. They are the guardians of the spirits and ancestors who dwell in the Underworld, and are the ones who help those spirits be reborn every time a baby is born into this world (here's the connection to Eileithyia, the Minoan midwife-goddess).

Many of us experience Ariadne as the leader of the Melissae, the Queen Bee so to speak. As such, she is the one ultimately responsible for taking care of the Underworld spirits. This idea dovetails back into the Minoan precursor to the Eleusinian Mysteries, with Ariadne taking the role that Persephone has in the Greek Mysteries (though Ariadne undertakes her job willingly and with love rather than being abducted - have a look at the beautiful, inspired version of this story in Charlene Spretnak's lovely book).

The Melissae's appearance is often accompanied by a sound like a large beehive buzzing. This is a common feature of shamanic journeys around the world and across time, and lets us know that we're entering new states of consciousness. You can see this concept depicted in the Minoan gold seal ring from the Isopata tombs at Knossos:

 

Isopata Minoan gold seal ring

"Minoischer Siegelring 03" by Olaf Tausch is licensed under CC BY 3.0

  

The image at the top of this blog post is my modern art interpretation of this lovely work of Minoan art. It's a ritual scene, and you can see a beehive with bees floating just above the head of the figure on the right. There's also a snake floating in midair nearby; writhing serpents are the most common visual phenomenon associated with states of altered consciousness. And just to the left of the central figure's head, we see a tiny female figure floating - the goddess descending to the priestess, joining the participants in the ritual.

The Melissae bring us the buzzing of the hive, the sweetness of honey, the sacred intoxication of mead. They guard the spirits of the dead - we'll be among those spirits one day, of course - and guide us in our relationships with the ancestors and the Underworld.

May they pour out their blessings upon you.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

 

 

Image: "Isopata," modern art interpretation of the Isopata Minoan seal ring by Laura Perry

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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