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From the Bodies of Bees; Classical and Christian Echoes in Surah Al-nahl

From the Bodies of Bees; Classical and Christian Echoes in Surah Al-nahl

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Published by kiedd_04
Within Surat al-Nahl, the bee, like the very earth and God's most privileged human hierophants, receives a direct revelation from the Lord. This revelation consists of a series of injunctions: go to your homes, eat of the earth's fruits and "follow the trodden paths of the Lord. " These key elements of the Sura's meditation upon the bee resonate very strongly with Classical and Christian ideas about the nature and habit of bees. Just as the Sura privileges the bee to communicate directly with God and to live an ideal life, throughout Graeco-Roman Antiquity the bee was similarly thought to be a creature particularly endowed with a divine nature and entrusted with divine revelation. And like their perfectly obedient Muslim counterparts, the Classical bee offered a paradigm for life and how to live it. And yet, Muslim exegetes both Sunni and Shi'i are hardly satisfied to merely import a pre-fabricated trope into their discourse as their rich interpretive tradition elaborates the bee's rhetorical valence and symbolic power to make the insect wholly their own
Within Surat al-Nahl, the bee, like the very earth and God's most privileged human hierophants, receives a direct revelation from the Lord. This revelation consists of a series of injunctions: go to your homes, eat of the earth's fruits and "follow the trodden paths of the Lord. " These key elements of the Sura's meditation upon the bee resonate very strongly with Classical and Christian ideas about the nature and habit of bees. Just as the Sura privileges the bee to communicate directly with God and to live an ideal life, throughout Graeco-Roman Antiquity the bee was similarly thought to be a creature particularly endowed with a divine nature and entrusted with divine revelation. And like their perfectly obedient Muslim counterparts, the Classical bee offered a paradigm for life and how to live it. And yet, Muslim exegetes both Sunni and Shi'i are hardly satisfied to merely import a pre-fabricated trope into their discourse as their rich interpretive tradition elaborates the bee's rhetorical valence and symbolic power to make the insect wholly their own

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[CIS 3.2 (2007) 145-168]
Comparative Islamic Studies (print)
ISSN 1740-7125doi: 10.1558/cis.v3i2.145
Comparative Islamic Studies (onUne)
ISSN 1743-1638
From the Bodies of Bees: Classieal and ChristianEehoes in
Surat al-Nahl'
J. ANDREW FOSTER AND KATHRYN M. KUENY
Fordham University
Within
Surat al-Nahl,
the bee, like the very earth and God's most privilegedhuman hierophants. receives a direct revelation from the
Lord.
This revelationconsists of a series of injunctions: go to your homes, eat of the earth's fruitsand 'follow the trodden paths of the
Lord.
" These key elements of the Sura'smeditation upon the bee resonate very strongly with Classical and Christianideas about the nature and habit of bees. Just as the Sura privileges the bee tocommunicate directly with God and to live an ideal life, throughout Graeco-Roman Antiquity the bee was similarly thought to be a creature particularlyendowed with a divine nature and entrusted with divine revelation. And liketheir perfectly obedient Muslim counterparts, the Classical bee offered a para-digm for life and how to live
it.
And yet, Muslim exegetes both Sunni andShi'iare hardly satisfied to merely import a pre-fabricated trope into their discourseas their rich interpretive tradition elaborates the bee's rhetorical valence andsymbolic power to make the insect wholly their own.
Within
Surat al-Nahl
the Quran sets forth a number of signs drawn from nature.Rain, milk, dates, grapes and honey each embody the same paradox. Like theparched, dead earth, the wine of dates and grapes can debilitate. Cows containblood and feces. Honey is bees' vomit. Yet also, like the rain sent from God,cows produce refreshing milk, dates and grapes a succulent juice and bees,honey, "a medicine for men
\fihi shifa'un Ii 'l-nasi]."
The nourishing from thenoxious, the pure from the putrid, even life from death—each of these foodsand drinks illustrates the extent to which God's ineffable goodness permeatesthe cosmos. Degeneration, decay and death are causes necessary to ensure anongoing cycle of birth, growth and regeneration. Milk, honey, dates and grapesencapsulate this paradox.As the Sura enumerates these signs, it curiously digresses to speak of the beein and of itself Strikingly, the bee, like the very earth and God's most privi-leged human hierophants, receives a direct revelation
[wahyf
from the Lord.This revelation consists of a series of injunctions: go to your homes, eat of theearth's fruits and "follow the ways of your Lord, made smooth" (Sura 16:69).The life and habits of bees thus so differs from all of the other animals. Theyalone are entitled to receive precepts directly from the Lord. By implicationtheir manner of living reflects their natural capacity to intuit and apply God'sinjunctions. Bees are true believers.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2009, Unit 6, The Village, 101 Amies Street, London SWl
1
2JW.
 
146 J. Andrew Foster and Kathryn M. Kueny
And practitioners. By living as they do, bees assiduously implement God'scommands. Simple observation of their behavior readily confirms their perfectobedience to the divine will. The bee and its society exemplify submission tothe will of God.
The
Classical
Bee
The key elements ofthe Sura's meditation upon the bee resonate very stronglywith Classical and Christian ideas about the nature and habit of bees. Just as theSura privileges the bee to communicate directly with God and to live an ideallife,throughout Graeco-Roman Antiquity the bee was similarly thought to be acreature particularly endowed with a divine nature and entrusted with divinerevelation. And like their perfectly obedient Muslim counterparts, the Classicalbee offered a paradigm for life and how to live it.Unlike the Islamic tradition, neither the Greeks nor Romans ever record agod addressing the bee. It is not surprising. Within the Graeco-Roman traditiongods did not explicitly convey their truths to humans let alone animals. Godsand mortals communicated through more oblique means.Human prayers, hymns and sacrifices hoped to be heard, but confirmation oftheir receipt was divined only indirectly, either
ex eventu
or via a sign, omen, orportent. The proactive will ofthe gods was also expressed and understood inter-pretatively. Seers, prophets and diviners such as the Roman Sybil and Pythianpriestess at Delphi disclosed the will ofthe gods. But they only spoke in riddles.Nature herself offered an abundance of divine signs. The fiight of birds, a clapof thunder, the movements ofthe stars in the sky all potentially offered a clueto what a god might portend. Ofthe animals thought to provide an insight intothe mind of a god, the bee, its habits and honey were among the mostilluminating.Swarming bees offered a sign of things to come. For Romans, more oftenthan not the approach of a swarm portended ill. Scipio Africanus refused to dobattle with the Carthaginians at Ticinus until the ominous prodigy of swarmingbees had been expiated (Li vy 21.46.2). The Romans still lost the battle. For thehistorian Cassius Dio bees swarming inauspiciously were among his genericprodigies of impending ill.-For Greeks, swarming bees more often were harbingers of success.' Accord-ing to Himerius, bees led Athenian colonizers to Ionia (Him.
Orat.
59.3).'' AnIonian colonizer, Timesias, was also guided to the site of his
new polis
by ahost of bees (Plut.
Mor.
96b5-6). The criminal architect and reputed son ofApollo, Trophonius, was swallowed up by the earth as he fied the wrath of kingHyrieus whom the builder had cleverly duped of his treasure.' Later, accordingto Pausanias (9.40.2), all of Boeotia was aftlicted by a drought. The oracle atDelphi instructed the Boeotians to leam a cure from the vanished Trophonius.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2009.
 
From the Bodies of Bees 147
Unfortunately, the site of his oracle was unknown—until a swarm of bees led ashepherd to the spot where Trophonius had disappeared, the spot where hisoracle was established.Bees themselves are a source of poetic and prophetic inspiration. At the closeofthe
Homeric Hymn to Hermes,
the god of prophecy por
excellance,
Apollooffers his thieving brother, Hermes, a consolatory gift of "bee maidens" whohave a share in the prophetic arts
(h.Hom.
4,552-66), These three maidens whenfed with honey flit about and offer true prophecy
(h.Hom.
4,560-1), If starved,they will lie
(h.Hom.
4,562-63),Bee swarms as a form of divination and prophetic maidens behaving as beesspeak to a connection between bees and prophecy,** A smattering of anecdotaldetails strengthens the link. According to Pausanias (10.5,9), the first templehousing the oracle of Apollo was built of laurel branches. Bees constructed thesecond with their wax. Birds contributed their feathers, A third was made ofbronze. The fourth was built by the very Trophonius who was found by a swarmof
bees.
The myth of bird feathers and beeswax points to a time when these twocreatures dominated the prophet's imagination,' It should also be noted that thefifth-century
BCE
poet Pindar calls the Pythia, Apollo's inspired priestess, "theDelphic bee"
(MEXÍOOOS
AEX(t)!6os [Pi.
P.
4,60-61]),Bees figure more prominently in poetic creation and rhetorical eloquence.Poetry, like prophecy, was thought by the Greeks to be inspired by the gods,*Bees and honey serve as a metaphor and metonymy for inspiration and literaryproduction.Within Plato's /o«, a dialog devoted to the nature of poetic inspiration, Soc-rates describes the inspired poet in terms of a bee buzzing through a gardencollecting nectar. Drawing their inspiration "from the honey flowing fountainsin the gardens of the Muses" poets bring forth their melodies "just as bees"(Plato
70/7
534a7-b3),' Holy, pure and virginal,'" bees are particularly welcomein the untrammeled gardens ofthegods.Admired poets and eager students werereadily described in similar terms," For the contentious Hellenistic poet, Calli-machus, the bee became an irresistible image by which he could assert thesuperiority of his sources of inspiration and his resulting poetic production. Atthe close of his
Hymn to Apolio,
the goddess. Envy, whispers in Apollo's earthat she only admires the epic poet, Apollo (the god of prophecy no less) retorts:
'Aooupiou TTOTanoio MÉyas pooç,
oKka
TÔ TTOX
AúiiOTa yr)s Ka) rroXAbuE(|) uSaTi oupcJiETOv
ÉAKEI,
Ar|oi 5' OOK óirTro iTavTOc úScop (jiopÉouoiMÉAiooai, aAAá rJTis
Ka9apf|
TE
Ka'i axpóavTos àvépiTEi TriSaKOç èÇ lEpfis¿Aíyri Aißas OKpov ácoTOv,
Great is the flow ofthe Assyrian river, but it drags on its water much filthand garbage. Not from everywhere do bees carry water to Demeter, butonly a pure, undefiled tiny trickle drawn from a holy fountain, the best ofwaters, (Call,
Hymn
2,108-12)
©
Equinox Publishing
Ltd 2009,

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