The humble honey bee has, from the earliest annals of recorded time, had a close relationship with humanity. The bee is depicted on one the earliest European prehistoric cave paintings and possessed sacred associations for the ancient Egyptians while also enjoying a prominent place in the mythology of the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. Such intimate connections between mankind and the bee appear quite universal; bees are to be found in the Hindu scriptures and in the mythologies of cultures as diverse as the Mayans and the Norse; Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia all possess old native beliefs and traditions regarding the importance and symbolism of the bee.
There has been a great deal written about the position of bees in Celtic countries and some authors seem to have conflated a mass of superstitions and beliefs from across the Celtic fringe and erroneously portrayed them as applying en masse throughout the Celtic world. There are also many picturesque but fanciful depictions of the role of bees in Celtic religion and mythology and many of the writings of Plutarch and Virgil regarding bees and their admiration of virtue or their supposed relation to the flight of the soul, have been rather imaginatively transposed to a Celtic setting.
The rich tradition of beliefs and superstitions surrounding bees and bee-keeping in Brittany mentioned below are those noted in accounts written between the 18th and 20th centuries. Some of these have commonalities with superstitions held in other parts of France and other parts of the Celtic world but we should be careful before inferring that these once formed part of a broader pan-European tradition of bee-related superstitions.
A key element of the superstitions surrounding bees in Brittany involved the importance of sharing oneself with the bees, after all, bees were said to repay the generosity of their master if he shared his honey with many people. It was crucial to make the bees feel that they were appreciated as part of the farmer’s extended family and it was therefore important that the bees were told of all events of interest to their master. Otherwise, it was said, the hive would not flourish. Once each bee hive had been informed of any salient news; if the bees were content they would begin buzzing and that was taken as a sign that they were satisfied and would stay with the household. Across the Channel in Great Britain, a similar custom known as “telling the bees” was practised although that often involved attracting the hive’s attention with the house key; farmhouse doors in Brittany were generally secured with a latch rather than a lock and key.
It was thought that a symbiotic relationship existed between bees and bee keeper and that the prosperity of the hives depended on the health and standing of the master of the household. One tradition in Brittany held that unless hives were decorated with a red cloth at a wedding and the bees allowed to share in the family’s rejoicing, they would leave the household forever. It was therefore customary for hives to be decorated with cloth or ribbons on family wedding days. On the wedding of the household’s eldest daughter, hives were especially decorated with red coloured ribbons. In the same spirit, if a daughter of the household became engaged to marry, she was expected to inform the bees of her forthcoming nuptials lest they leave the hive, never to return.
Other life events also merited decorating the hives so as not to offend the sensitive bees; in western Brittany, when a boy was born to the household it was common to tie a piece of red cloth around the bee hive. However, when the master of the house died, the hives were adorned with a black cloth and the reasoning behind it seems to have varied a little between the eastern and western parts of the region; in the east, it was so as not to lose the bees but in the more poetical west it was said that this was necessary otherwise the bees would die for want of mourning for their master. Although, in some communes in the extreme west of Brittany, it was once believed that the bees quickly followed their master in death. That said, all deaths in the household were popularly marked with a black cloth around the bee hives. If the mother of the family died, the cloth of mourning would remain for six months although in certain parts of the western region of Finistère, the mourning of the hives lasted a full year.
In western Brittany, bees were said to know their master and were thought to protect him against all the evil animals that might disturb his summer slumber. Another Breton superstition said that if a farmer had his hives robbed of their honey; he gave them up immediately because the hives were held never to succeed under his care afterwards as it was believed that there was no luck after the robber. One tradition from the region, noted in the early 19th century, recommended that when bees had been stolen, the owner who urinated, before sunrise, on the site of the hive, would soon be able to recognise the thief whose hair was now cursed to turn red.
When bees were swarming, it was the custom to beat pans, kettles, tripods and other metallic objects while invoking various charms in order to cause the swarm to settle. In eastern Brittany, the farmer who made honey was said to know how to control bees by virtue of a gift passed on from father to son but only the eldest could possess it. Holding his hat behind his left shoulder, the farmer recited a special prayer with his eye fixed in the middle of the swarm; the Queen Bee was assured to soon come to rest on his hand.
Furthermore, two strands of straw would be placed crosswise on the top of empty hives to help encourage the bees to make their home. However, bees were thought to only attach themselves to respectable houses and were thought to leave a household if harsh, disparaging words were said in front of them. They were also said to leave if the heir to the household held a bad reputation. It is difficult to be certain whether those latter superstitions derived from the writings of the ancient Greeks or, more likely, the parish priest. It was bad luck to count the hives and in parts of Brittany farmers were careful to arrange the hives in such a way that they could not easily be counted.
Some Breton superstitions are much easier for us to fathom: to see bees enter the hive and not to leave it in a very short time, was taken as a sign of forthcoming rain; bees that became idle announced some approaching catastrophe; a stray swarm that landed in your garden was thought to bring bad luck (as it likely belonged to a neighbour). It was also believed that if a bee was deliberately killed in the farmhouse, the others would immediately leave their hives.
While the bee was regarded as a familiar creature and one of the forms sometimes chosen by witches and other shape-shifters, it was also viewed as highly auspicious. It was therefore frowned upon to attempt to buy or sell bees as if they were a mere commodity; they were only to be traded as part of a barter agreement. To give a hive to someone was a gesture of much significance as you were not only providing them with honey but also, and above all, good fortune.
There were several superstitions surrounding bees in Brittany that featured strong Christian elements. For instance, in some parts of the region, on Good Friday, a small cross of wax, often blessed by the local priest, was placed on the hive. One legend from western Brittany tells us that bees were created from the tears that Jesus Christ shed on the cross; not a single tear fell upon the ground but all immediately sprouted wings and became these wonderfully industrious creatures which flew away with His blessing to take sweetness to all of mankind.
The Breton border town of Saint-Ceneri-le-Gerei was the site of an intervention by bees at the end of the 9th century where, it is said, a party of Norman raiders had set their sights on the riches believed to have been held by the abbey there. At the approach of the Normans, the community surrounding the abbey retreated within the protective walls of the site and the besiegers were soon haranguing the defenders with all manner of sacrilegious threats. The fearful defenders could only pray for deliverance and it appeared from the most unexpected quarter; thick swarms of angry bees were seemingly roused from their homes within the abbey walls and immediately descended upon the Normans, covering each man with a suit of stinging bees. Whether in confusion or desperation, one of the Normans leaped into the river Sarthe below, hoping to drown his assailants. Others soon followed, some jumping but most falling; all to their deaths on the rocks of the gorge below. The enemy thus routed, the becalmed bees quietly retreated to their abbey home. The abbey was eventually sacked and razed by the Normans just five years later but there is no record of any apine activity on that occasion.
In Brittany, during the festival of Candlemas, known as La Chandeleur in France, on 2 February, beeswax was traditionally brought to the chapels and churches for blessing. While the blessing and subsequent procession of candles is an indicator of the forthcoming Paschal Candle in the church, the association of this day with the bee is due to the fact that church candles here were traditionally required to consist of at least 51 percent beeswax.
In southern Brittany, Saint Peter not only protected fishermen but also bees and supplications were directed to this saint to help ensure the health of the hive. It was also thought that if bees swarmed on Saint Anne’s Day, on 26 July, a wax taper would be found in one of the hives which was then named the hive of the king; if the bees swarmed on a day consecrated to Saint Anne’s daughter, the Virgin Mary, a honeycomb would be formed in the shape of a cross and that hive was then known as the hive of the queen.
When the bee does feature in Celtic mythology, it is generally taken as a symbol of wisdom and while there may be scant references to bees, there are many to honey and mead. The realms of the Celtic afterlife were said to contain rivers of mead and mead was undoubtedly a most popular drink amongst those still living in this world, at least until it gradually became supplanted by the brewing of cervoise and beer in the Dark Ages. The corpus of Arthurian literature includes many references to mead as do many other medieval writings which attach almost mystical powers to mead; purveyor of strength and virility, bestower of health and longevity.
The appeal of mead was not, of course, limited to the Celtic world; this fermented honey and water based beverage also had sacred connotations to the Indians and Greeks of antiquity and references to it can be found in the literature of many cultures throughout the world. Despite its wide popularity, it was never a drink consumed by the cauldron-full; decent mead took time to prepare (at least two years) and required good quality honey. Even today, to produce just one gallon (4.5 litres) of mead, it requires three-quarters of a gallon (3.5 litres) of water and almost 5lbs (2.3kg) of honey; it was thus a rather prestigious beverage.
In Brittany, the most well-known manifestation of mead was in the form of chouchen; a type of mead produced from the fermentation of honey in water and apple juice or sometimes cider. Traditionally, buckwheat honey was used and this accounted for the strong rich colour and pronounced flavour found in chouchen. This ancient drink was known locally by many different names across Brittany, the name chouchen actually started out as a brand name after WW1 but quickly gained popular acceptance and becoming synonymous with the beverage.
Chouchen was once renowned as a drink that caused people to fall over after a spell of over-indulgence but analysis of Breton honey in the last century showed high concentrations of wax, dead bees and bee venom. Traditionally, the hives used on Breton farms were the wicker basket hives that necessitated smothering a large number of bees in order to access the honey. It seems that it was actually the presence of bee venom, attacking the cerebellum (the part of the human brain controlling movement and balance) which caused some drinkers to lose their balance after drinking chouchen. Given its long history and significant position in the popular imagination, it is not surprising that the drink was adorned with many special and curative virtues. It was even thought to be an aphrodisiac and it was traditional to serve it to newlyweds on their wedding night.
As elsewhere in France, an enormous range of honey is produced in Brittany each year. While the old ways of keeping bees in basic hives made up of hollowed tree trunks or wicker baskets may have been replaced with more modern bee keeping techniques; the emphasis on good quality honey remains. Whether you prefer wild forest honey or beehive honey, single flower or multi-flora, local producers sell honey to cater for all tastes.
In fact, Brittany produces a significant amount of France’s honey thanks to the region’s mild climate, hedged farmland and floral diversity. Some of the tastier honeys produced here include chestnut honey, acacia, heather and sarrasin (buckwheat) honey; the first and last varieties being particularly rich and flavourful. Many honeys made locally are said to possess therapeutic qualities here, for instance; heather honey is said to be good for your urinary tract, lavender honey to aid respiratory ailments, and chestnut honey is thought to improve circulation while fir honey is said to be good for combating throat infections. The versatility of the folk remedies associated with bees and honey is quite impressive and it was even once thought that eating the queen bee provided one with a most potent pain suppressant; provided, of course, that you were unfazed by the bad luck that was always associated with killing a bee.