The Melissae, priestesses of the bee

The Melissae, priestesses of the bee

Bees are considered the wisest, most intelligent of insects. The goddess Demeter was known as “the pure mother bee,” and her priestesses were also called bees, Melissae, named for the nymph Melissa who first brought humans honey. Actual bees were thought to be the departed souls of the Melissae.

There are many variations on the Melissa story. Most tell how she saved the life of baby Zeus, bringing him to strength and health by feeding him honey, so that he could survive the wrath of his father Cronus, who had an appetite for his progeny. In revenge, Cronus turned Melissa into an earthworm, but Zeus stepped in and transformed her into a beautiful bee.

Strange that I have never seen a bee on the Melissa in my garden.


There is such pleasure in weeding Melissa, also called lemon balm. It is pretty-but-plain, spreads almost as quickly as mint — say at the pace of oregano — but it is such a joy to pull, its scent so divine (not quite as strong as lemon verbena), that I simply let it go.

Melissa is said to be an anti-depressant and although the tea is bland with none of the glorious fragrance of the live plant, drinking it will nonetheless soothes a troubled heart. After weeding the lemon balm, rubbing it in my palms and on my arms, I wash a handful and stuff it in a glass gallon jar with water to make sun tea.

The leaves can also be used in all kinds of salads. Or you can make Melissa wine (40 lbs of sugar dissolved in 9 gallons water, let cool, pour over 3 pounds of lemon balm and a pinch or two or new yeast. Let it stand open for 24 hours, then cover and allow to ferment for at least 6 weeks before bottling. Improves with age.)

Melissa is an insect repellent. All but bees will stay clear of it. Put a bouquet on the table and the flies will avoid landing on your supper. Beekeepers once rubbed lemon balm inside a hive to entice a new swarm to stay. And Pliny believed that lemon balm in or near the hive helped bees find their way home.

Melissa (1)