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Aristaeus The Bee-Keeper
by [?]

“… Every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivers hurrying thro’ the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.”


In the fragrance of the blossom of the limes the bees are gleaning a luscious harvest. Their busy humming sounds like the surf on a reef heard from very far away, and would almost lull to sleep those who lazily, drowsily spend the sunny summer afternoon in the shadow of the trees. That line of bee-hives by the sweet-pea hedge shows where they store their treasure that men may rob them of it, but out on the uplands where the heather is purple, the wild bees hum in and out of the honey-laden bells and carry home their spoils to their own free fastnesses, from which none can drive them unless there comes a foray against them from the brown men of the moors.

How many of us who watch their ardent labours know the story of Aristaeus–he who first brought the art of bee-keeping to perfection in his own dear land of Greece, and whose followers are those men in veils of blue and green, that motley throng who beat fire-irons and create a hideous clamour in order that the queen bee and her excited followers may be checked in their perilous voyagings and beguiled to swarm in the sanctuary of a hive.

Aristaeus was a shepherd, the son of Cyrene, a water nymph, and to him there had come one day, as he listened to the wild bees humming amongst the wild thyme, the great thought that he might conquer these busy workers and make their toil his gain. He knew that hollow trees or a hole in a rock were used as the storage houses of their treasure, and so the wily shepherd lad provided for them the homes he knew that they would covet, and near them placed all the food that they most desired. Soon Aristaeus became noted as a tamer of bees, and even in Olympus they spoke of his honey as a thing that was food for the gods. All might have gone well with Aristaeus had there not come for him the fateful day when he saw the beautiful Eurydice and to her lost his heart. She fled before the fiery protestations of his love, and trod upon the serpent whose bite brought her down to the Shades. The gods were angry with Aristaeus, and as punishment they slew his bees. His hives stood empty and silent, and no more did “the murmuring of innumerable bees” drowse the ears of the herds who watched their flocks cropping the red clover and the asphodel of the meadows.

Underneath the swift-flowing water of a deep river, the nymph who was the mother of Aristaeus sat on her throne. Fishes darted round her white feet, and beside her sat her attendants, spinning the fine strong green cords that twine themselves round the throats of those who perish when their arms can no longer fight against the force of the rushing current. A nymph sang as she worked, an old, old song, that told one of the old, old tales of man’s weakness and the power of the creatures of water, but above her song those who listened heard a man’s voice, calling loudly and pitifully.

The voice was that of Aristaeus, calling aloud for his mother. Then his mother gave command, and the waters of the river rolled asunder and let Aristaeus pass down far below to where the fountains of the great rivers lie. A mighty roar of many waters dinned in his ears as the rivers started on the race that was to bring them all at last to their restless haven, the Ocean. To Cyrene he came at length, and to her told his sorrowful tale:

“To men who live their little lives and work and die as I myself–though son of a nymph and of a god–must do,” he said, “I have brought two great gifts, oh my mother. I have taught them that from the grey olives they can reap a priceless harvest, and from me they have learned that the little brown bees that hum in and out of the flowers may be made slaves that bring to them the sweetest riches of which Nature may be robbed.”