Honey sacrifices consisting of honey, honey cakes and edible plants were often tendered to the Egyptian gods. The lips of the priests were anointed with honey, and part of the sacrificial food was later consumed by the believers, Honey as is beeswax used in a very popular lip balm one can find at a drugstore today. (Burt’s Bees Lip balm).
During the funeral rites of many nations, the wish was expressed that the departed ones might find a land where there was plenty of honey. The Mohammedan dream was a land with rivers of honey; this was also Mohammed’s promise to the faithful and his true conception of Paradise.
The Greeks and Romans excelled all other nations in bringing honey sacrifices to the graves. In the Iliad Achilles offers honey at the bier of his friend Patroclus, who was killed after he had driven back the Trojans.
“And he sat there in two-handled jars of honey and oil,
Leaning them against the bier.”
Achilles also sprinkled honey on the grave as an offering to the Chthonian gods.
Aeschylus describes in The Persians the honey libations which Queen Atossa tenders to her husband, Darius:
“I return, and bear
Libations soothing to the father’s shade
In the son’s cause; delicious milk, that foams
White from the sacred heifer; liquid honey,
Extract of flowers.”
Euripides pictures Iphigenia at the grave of her brother bringing honey sacrifices:
“For him, as dead, with pious care
This goblet I prepare;
And on the bosom of the earth shall flow
Streams from the heifer mountain-bred,
The grape’s rich juice, and mix’d with these,
The labor of the yellow bees,
Libations soothing to the dead.
Give me the oblation: let me hold
The foaming goblet’s hallowed gold.”
In the Odyssey, Circe advises Ulysses upon entering Hades to sprinkle the shadows of the dead with honey, milk and wine. Hesiod’s grave in Locris was deluged with honey by the pious shepherds. Zarathusthra paid homage in similar manner.
We learn from one of the dramas of Lucian, the celebrated Greek satirist, why honey was poured over the graves. Charon, the boatman of the underworld’s black river, ascends to the world above and with the guidance of Hermes surveys the realm of mortals. The first thing he wishes to see is, of course, the places where the dead bodies are inhumed. The ferryman expresses his astonishment upon seeing there all the honey and mead, which mortals call libations, poured over the graves in honor of the dead.
“Why, then, crown they
These stones, and why with unguent rich anoint them?
And why do some, heaping a funeral pile
Before the mounds, and digging out a trench,
Burn sumptuous viands there, and in the ditches
Pour, if I right conjecture, mead and wine?”
“I know not ferryman, what use it can be
To those in Hades; but it is believed
That souls returning from the world below
Will come to supper—very probable!
Hovering above the savor and the smoke,
And from the trench will drink up the metheglin.”
Supplying the dead with food was originally a heathen custom which later became a Christian ritual. In Russia and many other countries, even today, a jar of honey is placed next to the corpse and some is desposited in the grave. The Russian kutja (death food) is made of flour, poppy seeds and honey. Some of it is consumed by the funeral guests, the rest left for the dead. Honey cake, as a sacrificial offering to the deity, had an Indo-Germanic origin.
Among many African tribes, placing honey next to the bier and in the grave, is still a custom. The Indians gave their dead honey and rice.
Honey was considered by all ancients a sacred substance, the purest and best thing in the world, the symbol of eternal bliss. There was an old belief that if a corpse was preserved in honey it would reincarnate. Democritus firmly believed that. There are many mythical tales that people who perished in honey revived. The ancients undoubtedly were impressed with the efficiency of honey in protecting organic matter from decay and the origin of the belief in the miraculous preserving power of honey can be ascribed to this appreciation.
Ancient cultural states and also primitive races used their best efforts to preserve their dead and prevent decomposition of the body. The simplest method was to expose the corpse to the influence of the sun-rays until the body fluids evaporated and the tissues dried up. This is still practiced by some savages.
The Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians and Arabs used honey and wax for embalming their prominent dead. Herodotus records that the Babylonians buried their dead in honey. He also relates the same about the Assyrians, who, however, first covered the corpses with wax. The old Spartan Kings were embalmed in honey, as were Justinian, the Byzantine emperor, and Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great, as Statius records, ordered before his death that his remains be preserved in honey. Aristotle, his teacher, had undoubtedly made him appreciate the conserving power of honey. Aristotle wrote an extensive thesis on this phase of honey, which however was lost in the conflagration of the library in Alexandria. Strabo described, in his fourteenth book, how the body of Alexander the Great was placed in a golden coffin filled with white honey. Herod I, King of Judea (40–4 B.C.), the superstitious despot and tyrant, more hated than any other person of his age, in a fit of jealousy ordered his beautiful wife, Marianne, to be executed; after which he kept the dead body in honey for seven years—because, he avowed, he loved her. Aristobulus, whom Caesar had ordered to Syria and who was poisoned by the followers of Pompeius, was also embalmed in honey, until Anthony sent the remains to Judea to be entombed in the royal sepulchre. The Assyrians and Persians (Herodotus I. 198) covered corpses with wax and then buried them in honey. The dead body of Agesilaus was covered with wax, we learn from Plutarch. “The attendants of Agesilaus had no honey to preserve the body (he died in a foreign country), so they embalmed it with melted wax and thus carried it home.” Cornelius Nepos and Plutarch ascribed the adoption of the use of wax to a scarcity of honey. Homer in the Odyssey (XXIV. 68) describes the funeral of Achilles, “buried in the garments of the gods and in sweet honey.” The Iliad (XIX. 38 and XXIII. 170) also renders an account of how the dead were anointed with honey. An old Egyptian script mentions that a corpse in honey mummified in 120 years.
The secret of the remarkable art of Egyptian embalming is entirely lost. This is not surprising because the mysterious process was unknown even to the contemporary Egyptians. The embalmers, as a rule, inherited the proficiency from their ancestors. All we know from the Greek and Roman writers of antiquity is that the contents of the cranial, pleural and abdominal cavities were removed and filled with aromatic herbs, fragrant spices, balsams, oil of cedar, etc. That the corpse afterwards was placed in honey or wrapped in honey-soaked bandages seems more than probable because several allusions in the Egyptian papyri intimate that honey converts a corpse into a mummy in the course of years. Columella repeatedly mentions the embalming of bodies in honey. The honey-loving philosopher Democritus was also preserved in honey. Abd’ Allatif relates that some men, searching for treasures in the Egyptian tombs near the Pyramids, discovered a sealed cruse and upon opening it they found that it contained honey. They began to dip their bread into it when one of them noticed hairs upon his fingers. The jug was carefully examined and was found to enclose the body of a small child in a perfect state of preservation. After the body was entirely withdrawn, rich jewels and brilliant ornaments with which the child was covered, were revealed.
In Persia burial in honey also was practiced. In one of their manuscripts there is even a prescription for making mummies for profit. A red-haired man had to be fed until he reached the age of thirty. Then he was to be drowned in honey and drugs and the vessel sealed. After 150 years, according to the script, the honey transformed the corpse into a mummy. The reason for supplying mummies for commercial purposes was because powdered mummies were credited with curative value for both internal and external diseases. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mummy-powder was in great demand and sold in the apothecaries for a good price. For this reason many tombs were plundered. The Jews in the East and the French were the best customers and used it for various maladies (Ambroise Paré). The powder had an aromatic sweet-acrid taste. It was used externally for wounds to prevent gangrene. The Arabs use it even today for the purpose. The belief in the Middle Ages in the curative effect of honey seems to suggest that the substance was used for embalming. There is a sepulchral inscription in Thelmessos (Greece), of the first century A.D.:
“Here lies Boethos, Muse-bedewed, undying,
Joy hath he of sweet sleep in honey lying.”
In the famous medieval Romanesque cathedral of Bamberg, on the tomb of Henry II (Saint), Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who died in 1024, there is the following inscription:
“Sus lit er da in sîner stift
di’er het erbouwen, als diu bin it wift
ûz manege bluete wurket, daz man honc-seim nennet.”
(“He lies in the minster he built, as the bee her web from many a blossom works, which we name honey-juice.”)
When King Edward I of England, who died in 1307, was exhumed in 1774, his hands and face were found to be well pre-served. This condition was attributed to the fact that they had been coated with a thin layer of wax and honey.
In Burma, during the rainy season, the eviscerated corpses are preserved temporarily in honey, until relatives are able to procure dried firewood for the customary cremation. If the dead person buried in honey is a holy Buddhistic monk and the corpse is removed from the coffin for cremation, the honey is dispensed in one ounce jars and sold at auction. Often fortunes are realized from such sales. The Burmese firmly believes that a drop of this honey will cure any affliction.
The ancient belief that anyone who drowned in honey would revive, is best illustrated in the legend of Glaucos.
Glaucos, the son of the Cretan King Minos, while playing with a mouse (the symbol of death) fell into a jar of honey and drowned. Minos searched for him in vain. At last he appealed to the oracle of Apollo and only under its guidance did he find the body of his son. Apollo announced to Minos: “A monstrosity has been born in your land and the person who will be able to discover its meaning shall find and restore your son.” The whole country looked for the monstrosity, which was very soon found. It proved to be a calf which changed its color thrice daily; first it was white, then it became red and finally black. Minos summoned all his augurs to find out what this signified. The seer Polydos was the one who could construe its meaning. He thought the calf represented a mulberry tree, the fruit of which is first white, afterwards red and when ripe, black. Minos ordered Polydos to find his son. At first he hesitated but after he was compelled, he commenced his search for the lost son of the King. Polydos, during his long wanderings, passed a honey-bin, on top of which an owl was perched, driving away some bees. He considered this an omen, entered the bin and found Glaucos, drowned in a vessel of honey.
Polydos notified the King of the recovery of Glaucos’ body. The seer was locked in a Old Cretan vault with the corpse and ordered to resusci tate it. A snake soon crawled toward the body of Glaucos, but Polydos killed the snake. Another snake, bearing an herb, laid this over the dead snake, which at once revived. Polydos then placed the same herb over the body of Glaucos, who immediately came to life. Polydos received royal rewards for his deeds and was discharged, laden with treasures.
The circumstance that the bees which tried to enter the honey-bin were driven away by the owl, was symbolical of the fact that the bees, representing the soul of the deceased, were using their best efforts to regain their former habitation and were prevented only by the sinister influence of the owl.