Dance of the Bees: Reading the Language of the Goddess by Carol P. Christ

bee women dancing croppedThe image from an ancient Cretan bowl (c.1700 BCE) from the Sacred Center of Phaistos pictured here has often been interpreted as an early depiction of Persephone’s descent or rising. But are clues from later Greek mythology pointing in the right direction in this case?

Recently, my colleague Mika Scott posted the Phaistos bowl image on our Goddess Pilgrimage Facebook site in conjunction with the bee pendant from Mallia. This juxtaposition led me to think again about the importance of bees and pollination in agricultural societies and to offer an alternative reading of the symbolism on the bowl.

In her important work The Language of the Goddess, Marjia Gimbutas taught us to “read” the language of the Goddess in the artifacts of Old Europe through a process of careful comparison of imagery and motifs, making use of what she called the archaeo-mythological method. This method finds that clues in later mythology and folklore can unlock the symbolism of ancient artifacts. Another possibly more important part of the method involves careful attention to plants and animals and their cycles of birth, death, and regeneration, which are portrayed on the artifacts.

The other evening a friend was speaking of a series of images from Kerala, India in which the heads of various animals were placed on human female bodies. In Old Europe the symbolism was different. The images to which my friend referred were completely human below the neck and completely animal above it. In contrast, in Old Europe aspects of human, animal, and plant life were often combined in figures that are neither animal nor human but combine aspects of both.

tourgoddess redFor example, the seated Goddess from Crete (c.5500 BCE) has snakelike limbs, a beaked face, and lines which may represent rivers and streams, as well as a human form. She is neither woman nor bird nor snake nor river alone but rather symbolizes what Gimbutas calls the unity of life.

bee ritual_ring_1500bcAccording to Gimbutas, the gold seal ring from Isopata, Crete (c.1600-1450 BCE) depicts a spring pollination ritual in which women imitate the dances of bees. The “unhumanllike” shape of the women’s heads is understood as deliberate intention to make the women’s heads look like bee heads. This interpretation explains the presence of flowers in the scene, the “pollen” that flows from the women’s heads, their pollen garlands, and the depiction of their hair as pollen. The small figure in the sky is the epiphany of the Bee Goddess who “appears” in a steam of pollen in the midst of the ritual.

bee pendantThe pendant from Mallia (c.2000 BCE) which depicts two bees depositing a drop of nectar into a honeycomb is another indication of the importance of bee symbolism in ancient Crete.

Here I will interject one of my ah-ha moments.

On a walk, a biologist friend of mine and I came upon a group of bees pollinating flowers. “Oh how I love bees,” my friend crooned, “ all of my research on plant DNA requires bees to pollinate my fields. Without them, I would not be able to do my research.”

queen beeReturning to the Phaistos bowl, I note the similarity in shape of the “skirts” of the dancing women to the bodies of the bees portrayed on the Mallia pendant. Could these dancing women like those portrayed on the Isopata ring be involved in a pollination ritual? This would explain the flower at the lower right of the scene. Are the dots on their skirt-bodies pollen?

Could the figure in the center be the queen bee? Is her vulva-like shape symbolic of the fact that she is the one who gives birth to all of the bees in her hive? If all of this is correct, are the round squiggly lines around her body (which have sometimes been interpreted as snakes) a representation of the round openings in the honeycomb where the honey is deposited?

Surely the ancient Cretans knew that the whole of the agricultural cycle depended on the dances of bees.

dancing bee women phaistos bowl and reconstruction

This would explain why women mimicked the movements of bees in their ritual dances.

*Pictures of the original bowl and an artist’s reconstruction of the image from the Heraklion Musuem, Crete.


carol at green party 2014 cropped

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (follow us on facebookand twitter) spring and fall–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours.  Carol can be heard in interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and the forthcoming Turning to the World: Goddess and God in Our Time.


Categories: Archaeology, Art, Dance, Earth-based spirituality, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess

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11 replies

  1. The Phaistos dish was found with a fruit stand, so we can guess it is a fruit bowl. It would certainly appear to be a celebration of Persephone’s descent and rising, and it fits well with the myth. The girls with her appear in both her exit and return. The snakes used as hair represent rebirth. The flower would then be the first flower of spring, the crocus, or the narcissus in the Hymn to Demeter, and which Persephone is trying to pick when the earth opens up and Hades seizes her.

    Your bee idea, thanks Carol, is also very likely correct. The priestesses of Demeter at Eleusis were called “melissae,” that is, “producers of sweetness,” or “bees.” Like bees, and like Demeter and Persephone, they were seen as helping the Earth maintain its fruitfulness. And thus we make our circle back again to the Phaistos fruit bowl. Hooray!!


  2. Thanks Carol, And Sarah. One of my deepest concerns is the lack of respect for creation in our world today, especially the bees who I love to see humming around the plants. I hope one day people will see creation as a sacred place, rather than a “resource” to be “tamed and exploited” for profit.


  3. Thanks for writing this. I read somewhere (long ago) that it’s possible that some of the art that shows women with animal heads might signify that they’re wearing masks. Maybe the bee women are wearing bee costumes.

    I don’t remember precisely how it happened, but Elizabeth Cunningham and I have been invoking the Blessed Bees for many years. What do Witches and other Pagans say? “Blessed Be.” So we have Blessed Bees! I made the Bees Found Neighbors when I wrote Finding New Goddesses. I hope readers find the truth in the parody:

    The Blessed Bees are modern Good Neighbors. Like the traditional Other Ones—Fairies, Brownies, Elves, and the like—called Good Neighbors by those who (correctly) fear to offend them, the Bees are magical beings. They respond with honey-sweet blessings large and small when we cry out for assistance. Invoke them with these words and in your most mellifluous tones:

    Twinkle, twinkle, Blessed Bees,
    As I ask you grant it, please.
    Wisdom, health, abundancies—
    As I will’t, so mote it, Bees.

    Slightly larger than the honeybees we’re accustomed to, the Blessed Bees are shining golden insects with crystalline wings. They live in the Golden Hive at the summit of a glass mountain, and Melissa, Their Devoted Beekeeper Priestess (who wears sturdy, non-skid shoes), lives nearby to serve Them. When They fly among us, the Bees carry tiny baskets, and among Their gifts to us are magical venom, pollen, propolis, beeswax, and royal jelly. Blessed Venom is used in “sting therapy” to get our attention in times of crisis, and Blessed Pollen provokes our souls to flower. Both the Blessed Bees and their relations in the mundane world have been traditionally seen as the bearers of peace, harmony, propriety, renewal, fertility, industry, and eloquence, all of which virtues They have since ancient times modeled for humankind.

    In the center of the Golden Hive, surrounded by Her dancing swarm of Wonderful Worker Bees, lives the Blessed Queen, one sip of whose intoxicating honey makes the mortal mouth golden with wisdom both eloquent and endless. We’ve heard the granny tales, of course, and what child has not daydreamed of being one of those brave young heroes and heras who journeyed beyond the sun and the moon in order to seek out the Blessed Queen and serve Her for a year and a day? Some have actually gone to the Blessed Lands, and when they come back from the Land of Faerie, they’re always great talkers. Some of them, alas, also write books.

    You are no doubt also familiar with the Lesser Magical Hymenoptera, the Blessed Spelling Bees and the Blessed Quilting Bees. Some would tell us that the former invented our alphabets. It’s certainly true that the Overlighting Spirits of Copyediting and Proofreading seem to have dispatched the Spelling Bees to their liturgists [like me], and we can only hope that Spelling Bees will also seek out our computer spell checkers and inject them with Royal Word Jelly. The Quilting Bees, They Who Inspire Craftspersons, possess innumerable talents that include all facets of interior design, decoration, and feng shui. Loyal subjects of their queen, Martha Stewart, they create Good Things and are often found in gatherings with the Blessed Arachnids, whose weavings, knittings, crochetings, tattings, macramamayings, and embroiderings bedeck our homes.

    It has long been known that the Good Neighbors tend to have a skewed sense of humor. It is this fact that has inspired the famous New Age adage, Be careful what you wish for because you may get it. This is good advice indeed. The Blessed Bees may be our friends, but They also have our highest good in mind, even when we don’t. If They disapprove of your request, therefore, They may decide to surprise you. Ask for a million dollars, and you may find yourself facing opportunities to give a million dollars to people whose needs are greater than yours. It is a fact, for example, that numerous petitioners have been forced to watch public television pledge drives until they ante up.

    Some of us feel—correctly—that people on the Red Path (those earnest New Age Seekers sometimes unflatteringly referred to as Wannabes) should not have a monopoly on guidance from the animal world. We therefore consider the Blessed Bees to be Pagan Power Animals. If you decide to call Blessed Bee Medicine into your life, therefore, you have a number of options. These include meditating on Blessed Beesyness, shamanic traveling up the Tree of Life and into the Golden Hive, planting a Bright Bee Garden, building a Bee Shrine and feeding the Bees, and dreaming under the Honeymoon.


  4. Thanks for this post, Carol. Blessed Bees, indeed. There is much speculation about what is causing colony collapse disorder with various practices of agri-business being suspect. My husband has kept bees for years and in our small community there is a beekeeper association. It is a hopeful sign that more and more people are caring for bees in back yards and even roof gardens in cities. It would be wonderful to see people dancing for and with the bees again.


  5. I wonder about the motif of decapitation with interchangeable heads and whether it leads to
    a deeper interpretation of the Medusa archetype, without the tedious appendage of Perseus.

    I have not read any of the usual texts. I must admit my first contact with Medusa came via the
    charming movie “The Seven Faces of Dr Lao” which pollinated my childhood imagination, and
    matters have bloomed since then, these last four decades.

    I ponder about the ancient ones, like the magnolia, whose existence on earth predated bees and
    is not reliant on bees for pollination. I do wonder about who and what Albert Einstein’s opinion
    serves: that if bees die, humans will perish in approximately 4 years.

    I eyebrow-arch at popularity of the hackneyed caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor when the egg-tadpole-froglet-frog cycle is uncocooned.and thus more engaged and conscious.

    Last night as I was sleeping,
    I dreamt – marvellous error!-
    that a spring was breaking
    out in my heart.
    I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
    Oh water, are you coming to me,
    water of a new life
    that I never drunk?

    Last night as I was sleeping,
    I dreamt- marvelous error!-
    that I had a beehive
    here inside my heart.
    And the golden bees
    were making white combs
    and sweet honey
    from my old failures.

    ~ Pablo Neruda

    I adore bees.. Each time I inadvertently stepped on one whilst playing barefoot in
    the garden, my mother would paint my foot with the Reckitt’s blue bag and dot my
    toes. Ah, the memories of me the honey-bee grows.



  1. Thriving, Cognitive Complexity, Bee Wisdom—and You | Carol S. Pearson, Ph.D. | Author | The Hero Within

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