“And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods’ sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together.”
– Homeric Hymn to Hermes, trans., Hugh G. Evelyn-White
“Next I’ll discuss the heavenly gift of honey from the air.”
– Virgil, Georgics IV
It’s not just a tasty natural sweetener to add to your tea and cookies. Honey has a long and vibrant history, and if you’ve got it in your kitchen, whether it’s in a sticky bear, a plastic tub, or a fancy mason jar, you should be using it in your magic!
What’s So Magical about Honey?
A lot of things! For starters, there’s definitely some well-deserved buzz around the healing properties of honey, whether applied to wound care (medical-grade honey is in fact a standard wound treatment now due to its antibiotic and anti-inflammatory effects) or taken by the spoonful in the mornings.
The science of honey’s legendary shelf life is also pretty sweet.
When bees are making honey, most of the water in the nectar is removed, leaving a supersaturated solution of sugars. This means that organisms like bacteria die of dehydration (or dessication) when they try to enter honey, because of osmosis. Because of this property, honey is highly resistant to spoilage and 3000-year-old honey found in an Egyptian tomb was still perfectly edible. [Note: While crystallization looks strange to some people, it’s not spoilage! My editor says I shouldn’t give a detailed explanation of solubility and crystallization here, but let me tell you, I’m geeking way out about it. All you really need to know is, if you warm up your honey it’ll go away; just use a hot water bath rather than the microwave and don’t let it get too hot.] However, as brewers of honey-based alcoholic drinks like mead understand, when water is reintroduced with other ingredients like yeast, honey can ferment.
The long-lasting nature of honey is just one of the properties that lends itself to ritual use. Its stickiness, sweetness, golden color, and association with springtime and bees have all been used for centuries as elements in religious ceremony and sympathetic magic, which is magic based on the principle of like producing like. If you’re not interested in hearing a lot more about bees and honey in mythology and would like to skip to the practical portion, jump to the bottom of this post for some suggested honey spells based in sympathetic magic. But before I get to that, I’d like to share a taste of honey’s history in the world of traditions, myth, and magic.
A Bee-Witching History
Bees themselves are involved in long and diverse traditions in history, myth, magic, and religion. The Mayan practice of traditional stingless beekeeping corresponds to a strong mythological connection between bees and divinity, and one of the only surviving ancient Mayan codices describes this practice. Bees are seen as liminal creatures, a connection between earthly and divine. The god directly associated with bees and honey is Ah Muzen Cab, though earth goddess Colel Cab also has bees in her sphere of influence. As a primary pollinator, the health and well-being of bees is a strong agricultural indicator and as such the gods would provide guidance about this. The living Maya of the Yucatán peninsula still maintain bee husbandry as an important part of their way of life and use honey in religious ceremonies, although the introduction of invasive European bee species and the “Africanized” honeybee has led to diminishing numbers due to competition for food sources. The intoxicating fermented-honey drink balché is necessary for some rituals of divinatory communication and its use continues today.
Just as among the Maya, Celtic tradition holds bees as messengers of the spirit world, who could bridge the divide between the living and the dead. Indeed this belief appears to be common to many cultures throughout the world. In some European traditions, honeybees had to be informed of deaths in the family and put into mourning in a ceremony called “telling the bees,” sometimes along with funereal offerings.
Honey and bees are closely linked with the springtime and sun, as well as hard work and its sweet rewards. The eusocial aspect of the hive is a potent symbol of connection, cooperation, and community, and for many the order of the hive represents feminine power especially.
Among ancient Greek cultures, multiple goddesses overlapping in their functions were associated with bees and honey. The Muses, “honey-sounding” or “honey-voiced,” were said to have bestowed their gifts on some poets after they were beestung on the lips as children, and the Thriae, who are described in the quotation at the top of this post, are bee-bodied women or nymphs associated with truth-telling. The huntress Artemis and the mother Cybele were both goddesses whose priestesses in some locations were called melissai or bees, and this practice seems to be common amongst several different cults of other fertility goddesses as well.
In this worldview, bees are orderly, feminine, and productive, bringers of sweetness and abundance, springtime and flowers. Honey is equated with sweetness and long-lasting memory, so the poet Pindar vowed when he performed a praise poem in honor of an athletic victor to “drench his city in honey” with his words.
The great father god Zeus was said to be raised on milk and honey by nymphs, when his mother Rhea hid him from his father’s deadly eating habits.
In Greek cultures honey was also important in libations, drink-offerings which were poured to gain favor from gods or spirits. It was particularly associated with the dead, whether honoring their memory or in some rumored cases trying to resurrect them. And because of mistaken beliefs about bees’ wintertime habits, bees became symbols of death and resurrection, a connection which lasted into the Christian era and linked bees and honey to the story of Christ’s resurrection. Another possible source of this linking in ancient thought between bees and resurrection was the efficacy of honey as a preservative, because of the dehydrating property I mentioned earlier; honey was used in burials and embalming to great and lifelike effect.
Knowing all this about honey and its traditional associations, it’s very easy to understand why honey is a great substance for magickal practice!
Suggestions for Honey Spells and Rituals
- When performing a money spell or other ritual of abundance, anoint your candle with honey to represent bounty, industriousness, and sweetness.
- When cooking or baking for those you love, include a spoonful of honey with a brief incantation for lasting sweetness toward each other. (If those you love happen to include any infants under a year old, wait on this or substitute sugar. Honey is dangerous for babies whose systems haven’t yet developed.)
- Mix honey in wine or water as a libation to the goddess, or give honey-cakes as an offering when seeking favors or blessings.
- Use honey in your ceremonies to honor the dead, calling on the bee as a mediator between your own spirit and those who have passed on.
- Place a small jar or other covered container of honey on your altar, along with other symbols of natural bounty like ears of corn, when celebrating seasonal festivals.
- When performing a binding, submerge (or just dab) the representation of the person or entity to be bound with honey, as the sticky sweetness combined with your intent is a good way to hold them without harm or ill will. This is also a great way to metaphorically “bind” things together, for the same reason.
- Check out your heritage traditions of folk magic; many include sweetening spells like honey jars, thought to sweeten a person’s disposition toward you.
- Pour honey over an image or representation of someone you care about while reciting a blessing to give them sweetness and abundance in their life.
Whether you’re spreading it on some whole-grain toast or pouring it over a photo to bless someone with a sweet life, honey shouldn’t be underestimated as a delicious and potent magical item. Personally I think the TV angel Castiel had it right – honey’s a miracle, really, and we could all stand to take a break from fighting and watch the bees once in a while.