Greek and Roman Mythology > Aristaeus


Man avails himself of the instincts of the inferior animals for
his own advantage. Hence sprang the art of keeping bees. Honey
must first have been known as a wild product, the bees building
their structures in hollow trees or holes in the rocks, or any
similar cavity that chance offered. Thus occasionally the
carcass of a dead animal would be occupied by the bees for that
purpose. It was no doubt from some such incident that the
superstition arose that the bees were engendered by the decaying
flesh of the animal; and Virgil, in the following story (From the
Georgies, Book IV.1.317), shows how this supposed fact may be
turned to account for renewing the swarm when it has been lost by
disease or accident.

The shepherd Aristaeus, who first taught the management of bees,
was the son of the water-nymph Cyrene. His bees had perished,
and he resorted for aid to his mother. He stood at the river
side and thus addressed her: "Oh, mother, the pride of my life is
taken from me! I have lost my precious bees. My care and skill
have availed me nothing, and you, my mother, have not warded off
from me the blow of misfortune." His mother heard these
complaints as she sat in her palace at the bottom of the river
with her attendant nymphs around her. They were engaged in
female occupations, spinning and weaving, while one told stories
to amuse the rest. The sad voice of Aristaeus interrupting their
occupation, one of them put her head above the water and seeing
him, returned and gave information to his mother, who ordered
that he should be brought into her presence. The river at her
command opened itself and let him pass in, while it stood curled
like a mountain on either side. He descended to the region where
the fountains of the great rivers lie; he saw the enormous
receptacles of waters and was almost deafened with the roar,
while he surveyed them hurrying off in various directions to
water the face of the earth. Arriving at his mother's apartment
he was hospitably received by Cyrene and her nymphs, who spread
their table with the richest dainties. They first poured out
libations to Neptune, then regaled themselves with the feast, and
after that Cyrene thus addressed him: "There is an old prophet
named Proteus, who dwells in the sea and is a favorite of
Neptune, whose herd of sea-calves he pastures. We nymphs hold
him in great respect, for he is a learned sage, and knows all
things, past, present, and to come. He can tell you, my son, the
cause of the mortality among your bees, and how you may remedy
it. But he will not do it voluntarily, however you may entreat
him. You must compel him by force. If you seize him and chain
him, he will answer your questions in order to get released, for
he cannot, by all his arts, get away if you hold fast the chains.
I will carry you to his cave, where he comes at noon to take his
midday repose. Then you may easily secure him. But when he
finds himself captured, his resort is to a power he possesses of
changing himself into various forms. He will become a wild boar
or a fierce tiger, a scaly dragon, or lion with yellow mane. Or
he will make a noise like the crackling of flames or the rush of
water, so as to tempt you to let go the chain, when he will make
his escape. But you have only to keep him fast bound, and at
last when he finds all his arts unavailing, he will return to his
own figure and obey your commands." So saying she sprinkled her
son with fragrant nectar, the beverage of the gods, and
immediately an unusual vigor filled his frame and courage his
heart, while perfume breathed all around him.

The nymph led her son to the prophet's cave, and concealed him
among the recesses of the rocks, while she herself took her place
behind the clouds. Then noon came and the hour when men and
herds retreat from the glaring sun to indulge in quiet slumber,
Proteus issued from the water, followed hy his herd of sea-
calves, which spread themselves along the shore. He sat on the
rock and counted his herd; then stretched himself on the floor of
the cave and went to sleep. Aristaeus hardly allowed him to get
fairly asleep before he fixed the fetters on him and shouted
aloud. Proteus, waking and finding himself captured, immediately
resorted to his arts, becoming first a fire, then a flood, then a
horrible wild beast, in rapid succession. But trying all in
vain, he at last resumed his own form and addressed the youth in
angry accents: "Who are you, bold youth, who thus invade my
abode, and what do you want with me?" Aristaeus replied,
"Proteus, you know already, for it is needless for any one to
attempt to deceive you. And do you also cease your efforts to
elude me. I am led hither by divine assistance, to know from you
the cause of my misfortune and how to remedy it." At these words
the prophet, fixing on him his gray eyes with a piercing look,
thus spoke: "You received the merited reward of your deeds, by
which Eurydice met her death, for in flying from you she trod
upon a serpent, of whose bite she died. To avenge her death the
nymphs, her companions, have sent this destruction bo your bees.
You have to appease their anger, and thus it must be done: Select
four bulls of perfect form and size, and four cows of equal
beauty, build four altars to the nymphs, and sacrifice the
animals, leaving their carcasses in the leafy grove. To Orpheus
and Eurydice you shall pay such funeral honors as may allay their
resentment. Returning after nine days you will examine the
bodies of the cattle slain and see what will befall." Aristaeus
faithfully obeyed these directions. He sacrificed the cattle, he
left their bodies in the grove, he offered funeral honors to the
shades of Orpheus and Eurydice; then returning on the ninth day
he examined the bodies of the animals, and, wonderful to relate!
A swarm of bees had taken possession of one of the carcasses, and
were pursuing their labors there as in a hive.

In the Task, Cowper alludes to the story of Aristaeus, when
speaking of the ice-palace built by the Empress Anne of Russia.
He has been describing the fantastic forms which ice assumes in
connection with waterfalls, etc."

"Less worthy of applause though more admired,
Because a novelty, the work of man,
Imperial mistress of the fur-clad Russ,
Thy most magnificent and mighty freak,
The wonder of the north. No forest fell
When thou wouldst build, no quarry sent its stores
T'enrich thy walls; but thou didst hew the floods
And make thy marble of the glassy wave.
In such a palace Aristaeus found
Cyrene, when he bore the plaintive tale
Of his lost bees to her maternal ear."

Milton also appears to have had Cyrene and her domestic scene in
his mind when he describes to us Sabrina, the nymph of the river
Severn, in the Guardian-spirit's Song in Comus:

"Sabrina fair!
Listen when thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honor's sake,
Goddess of the silver lake!
Listen and save."

The following are other celebrated mythical poets and musicians,
some of whom were hardly inferior to Orpheus himself:

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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