Meeting The Melissae:
The Ancient Greek Priestesses of the Goddess Demeter
By Elizabeth Ashley/ www.o-books.com
In a pantheon of many deities, Greek gods were served by priests and goddesses by priestesses. The attendants of Demeter, goddess of abundance and her daughter Persephone, were known as Melissae, which is the ancient Greek word for bees. For a thousand years, these married women with children, presided over antiquity’s most powerful initiation ritual, The Eleusinian Mysteries.
It’s said that around three thousand people took part in the nine day festival each year. The holy story of Persephone’s abduction into the underworld was enacted as an explanation of Demeter’s joy when her daughter was returned to her, albeit only for a few sunny months a year. In celebration, Demeter asked the people of Eleusis to create a great festival in her honour, where she would teach them the secrets of agriculture.
No-one knows what happened at the Mysteries, apart from tiny fragments of information scattered here and there. For to tell what had been witnessed at the ceremony came with the penalty of death. It was said that people who had taken part would have a better experience of this life and the next, but any more than that, who can tell?
What you may have observed however, is that even though the secrets of pollination were not thought to have been understood until the 19th century, we have a festival that purports to tell the secrets of agriculture headed up by women who call themselves bees…
What Did It Mean to Be an Ancient Greek Priestess?
Historians believe that ancient Greece was a rather suffocating place for women, yet their social lives appear to have been richly directed through religious function. Obviously, not all women were priestesses, but rituals punctuated the calendar giving it structure, meaning and ample opportunity for women to gather. (Some festivals were for all, others just for men or women.)
The Athenian calendar included 140 state days, and 180 religious’ days, demonstrating the larger emphasis the Athenians placed on religion.
For that, women had a vital part to play.
It was the job of the priestess to open the space for the supplicant to speak to the goddess. She would open the temple each morning, as she was kleidouchos, keeper of the keys. This was an enormous responsibility since the temple was not only a place for worship but was also akin to how we see a bank today, housing the entire city’s wealth. Once the temple was open, she would clean and dress the statue, being the only person allowed into the Holy of Holies of the space. She would tend the altar fire and then help women to pray to the goddess and give sacrifices.
Ancient Greek Priestesses Serving The Goddess of Abundance
For each sacrifice the priestess was due a fee. Paid for every prayer they offered, these women, already born into powerful priestly castes became incredibly wealthy and enjoyed tremendous status. A chair was always reserved for the high priestess of Demeter Kore at every theatre, and she had the best seat in the house at the Olympic Games.
In return, ancient Greek priestesses were responsible for building, renovating, and maintaining the religious sanctuaries of the goddesses and for making Greece a much more beautiful place to live. Priestesses had the capacity to climb to high ranks of their profession that were at least equal to priests. While not directly engaged in political function, religion was so closely entwined with politics that consulting the priestess about decisions of state was not only deemed to be acceptable, it also seems to have been commonplace.
Sadly, now Eleusis is little more than rubble, but when we look at the likes of buildings such as The Parthenon, built for the goddess Athena, it was the tributes of women, paid to ancient Greek priestesses which were then invested in the name of the city.
The Melissae of Eleusis served a double goddess, Demeter-Kore. Kore was the maiden abducted from the meadow who would become goddess of Spring, and Queen of the Underworld, Persephone. Prayers to her beseeched her to intercede with Hades after death. In this guise she is known as “Melitodes”, the honeyed one.
Bees were held in the highest esteem, believed to escort the souls of the dead and bring in the new souls at birth; Sophocles seemed to know this when he said, “The swarm of the dead hums”.
Priestesses acted both as psychopomps and midwives in support of the bees in their duties.
Bees were also seen as the bringers of dreams, to be capable of oracular feats (they are certainly very good at forecasting the weather or knowing where plants are about to bloom…) so priestesses too participated in dream incubation and divination.
Once you begin to look for them, you begin to find Melissae everywhere in Greek literature. The Thriae, bee women who prophesied on the side of Mount Parnassus. Nymphs who helped conceal the baby, Zeus, from his murderous father. Melissa Delphis, the Delphic Bee, better known as The Oracle of Delphi. The Beekeeper, the high priestess of Artemis of Ephesus, supported by eunuchs called Essenes (which means drones, male bees) and priestesses known as Melissonomoi. And perhaps the most evocative Melissae priestesses whom Herodotus tells us preformed sexual rites with sailors, high on the cliff side at Eryx in Sicily.
The tale is not quite “as old as time”, but almost. By the time of Classical Greece, when Homer sang his hymn to Demeter, the sky gods had probably already supplanted the bee goddess in her original form.
Bee shamanism may be one of the oldest human religions. The bee as a shamanic totem, is incredibly ancient. Bringers of honey, the bee spiritual meaning is beneficence, co-operation, and bounty. An essentially matriarchal society, a colony of bees consists of around 50k female bees, at the height of summer, with around 500 drones, and one single egg layer in the darkness, the queen.
Again though, we see a disconnect. For the ancients seemed to believe a king bee ruled the hive. Poor Aristotle was so confused as to what the sexuality of bees might be, he wondered at some point if baby bees magically appeared on leaves. But the truth is far stranger, for bees are capable of virgin births.
Tantalisingly a queen bee knows how to make the sperm meet her eggs, and some of the most prominent of the Melissae rituals involve fertility enhancing and diminishing meditations and herbs.
Could it be, these women deliberately grew and strengthen the polis (city-state) studying bees?
Were their actions pro-polis designed to protect them against invasion? (Bees make propolis from wax and tree resins to insulate and inoculate the hive) And when they were left behind when men went off to fight, were they empowered by their ability to sting?
The Legacy of The Melissae
Today, it’s small wonder Mother Earth is so threatened with Westernised culture so disconnected from nature and her cycles. Many species of bees are nearing extinction, feminism is on its knees, because for many women, choices about birth control have been removed. Perhaps it is not surprising these ancient Greek priestesses are stepping out of the shadows again.
Meeting The Melissae: The Ancient Greek Priestesses of the Goddess Demeter by Elizabeth Ashley is available from www.o-books.com and wherever books are sold.
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