This is a jar of honey. Our neighbours, Yorgos and Kiki, keep bees and I’m proud to say they forage in our garden (the bees, not Y and K). So while I can’t claim to have produced this rich, dark meli with its complex floral, herbal, even malty character, I do see myself as its godfather, after a fashion. I don’t remember the name of the yellow and white flowers – I call them scrambled egg flowers, for obvious reasons – but they too have played their part.
Our son Joseph was born on this island and spent his formative years in this garden. Durrell-like, he was fascinated by the insect life – he once considered becoming a myrmecologist – but in the end archaeology and then history claimed him and he embarks on his third MA next month. Baltic rather than Balkan studies are his passion now, including a research interest in the medieval Lithuanian beeswax and honey trade. Apparently it was the European hub in those times, thanks to the busy-as-bees Hanseatic merchants. What goes around comes around. I remember hurrying him indoors one day when the neighbours’ bees were swarming – the air thick with them, thousands of frenetic bees intent on some private business, the buzzing extraordinarily loud – to me, it was like a moment from a horror film, but it made a more favourable impression on Joe. An hour or so later, order was restored and we ventured back into the bright morning.
Honey is magical. Always has been. In the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, Lemminkäinen’s mother manages to bring her heroic but dismembered son back to life with honey’s help. She summons a bee and sends the little guy away to gather it. You remember the moment:
“Tiny bee, thou honey-birdling,
Lord of all the forest flowers,
Fly away and gather honey,
Bring to me the forest-sweetness,
Found in Metsola’s rich gardens,
And in Tapio’s fragrant meadows,
From the petals of the flowers,
From the blooming herbs and grasses,
Thus to heal my hero’s anguish,
Thus to heal his wounds of evil.”
The bee does his best but regular honey isn’t effective. So he flies off to fetch the magic honey from the Isles of the Blessed. Even that isn’t enough. It’s only when he flies all the way to the Seventh and highest Heaven of God (Ukko/Jumala) himself and brings back the ultimate honey that gives life to every living thing that Lemminkäinen is revived. Such a noble bee.
Now the mother well anointing,
Heals her son, the magic singer,
Eyes, and ears, and tongue, and temples,
Breaks, and cuts, and seams, anointing,
Touching well the life-blood centres,
Speaks these words of magic import
To the sleeping Lemminkäinen:
“Wake, arise from out thy slumber,
From the worst of low conditions,
From thy state of dire misfortune!”
You’ll notice she speaks in mellifluous trochaic tetrameter, every Finnish rune-singer’s preferred metre. Honey-tongued Henry W. Longfellow borrowed it for The Song of Hiawatha after spending a summer in Sweden in 1835 and picking up a bit of Finnish. Or so Joe tells me.
The point is, honey is good for you. Around here, in ancient times, the priestesses of Artemis and Demeter were referred to as melissae – bees – while the original Melissa was a gracious nymph, one of Zeus’s nannies, who taught the first humans how to turn honey into mead. Another reason to be grateful.
Is the honey from my neighbours’ hives the best in the world? Well, there’s some serious competition out there. I still carry a torch for a certain organic Tasmanian Leatherwood honey that some kind soul imported into Toronto, circa 2003. It was sold in colourful little tins and I haven’t seen it for years but it was as pure as thought and heady with the aroma of tropical fruit.
Lacking that, we have this. I stir some into my thick local yoghurt at breakfast-time and then slice up a peeled, juice-gravid, flavour-bomb of a peach over it. It certainly brings me back to life. Next week, in honour of Lemminkäinen’s doting mama, I shall take the jar in the photograph back to my mother in London.