If beekeeping in ancient Egypt strikes you as an off-puttingly obscure subject for a book, you need to be apprised of two facts. First, the Ancient Egyptians were, as far as we know, the first people to practice organised apiculture, the earliest records dating back to the third century BC.
Second, Gene Kritsky, the American entomologist who is an authority on the subject, has a cultural approach that makes this short book engaging and accessible even to non-melittologists (melittology being the study of honey bees – but, of course, you knew that already).
The Egyptians believed that when Re, sun god and creator of the world, wept, his tears turned into bees upon hitting the ground. Honey was thus regarded almost as the tears of the gods, an origin myth that befit its value. Before the discovery of sugar cane, it was the chief sweetening agent, and an important antiseptic.
It was regarded as having magical properties, used in death rituals and traded as a currency. Beeswax was similarly valued, used as an adhesive, artist material, and for casting metal. The bee itself was sacrosanct, and a common cultural motif.
Examining the relationship between bee and culture, the author does occasionally drift into desert-dry exactitude, but also exploits the sensory pleasures of the worlds with which he is concerned. There are several lovely accounts of location and landscape, including the 18th-century writer CR Savery’s account of migratory beekeeping.
“Thus sojourning three months on the Nile,” writes Savery, describing the beekeepers’ waterborne summer expeditions to different areas, “the bees, having extracted the perfumes of the orange flowers of the Said, the essence of the roses of Fayoum [sic], the sweets of the Arabian jasmine, and of every flower, are brought back to their homes where they find new riches. Thus do the Egyptians procure delicious honey, and plenty of wax.”
Kritsky marshals all this material with a simple, supple prose that at odd times lends the text the feel of a translated European novel: “As a teenager, I happened upon some honeycomb that had fallen out of a tree near my home,” runs the first sentence of the preface.
Readable in a few hours, the book is the sort of unexpected delight one hopes to find in an old hotel, and it deserves to do well. Let’s hope the, er, buzz spreads (sorry).
The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt, by Gene Kritsky (Oxford University Press, £19.99) Order fo r£17.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
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