“Out of the Strong Came Sweetness” – Bees in Carcasses

I’ve recently started reading Robert Fagles’ translation of Virgil’s  Aeneid[1] for the first time,[2] beginning with the introduction to it written by the late classicist Bernard Knox. Knox traces Virgil’s works, beginning with his Eclogues, moving on to the Georgics, and concluding with the Aeneid. Concerning the Georgics, Knox notes that it is divided into four books: the first concerns farmers, the second trees and vines, the third the keeping of livestock, and the fourth beekeeping. Of the fourth section, Knox writes, 

A great deal of misinformation about bees is conveyed to the reader. Bees were not properly observed in the hive until the invention of the glass observation hive, and until the seventeenth century it was believed that the leader of the hive was the king, not the queen.[3]

Knox then discusses bougonia, the restoring of a beehive by taking a steer, killing it, and letting it rot during springtime. Virgil believed that this was how a hive that was dead could be reinvigorated. “This is not true,” wrote Knox, “but it was widely believed in the ancient world (except by Aristotle) and appears also in the riddle Samson asked the Philistines to answer: ‘out of the strong came forth sweetness’ (Judges 14:14).”[4]

Now, I have read the book of Judges dozens of times over the last two decades but I never really thought about why the author of the book would have Samson find a beehive in the carcass of a lion (Judges 14:5-9) and then use that discovery as a riddle (vv. 10-14). Why would bees be found in a swarm in a lion? Well, it’s probably because, as Knox points out, some ancient people thought beehives formed inside the bodies of dead animals. 

The more you know.

[1] Publius Vergilius Maro, The Aeneid, Robert Fagles, translator (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

[2] You could have called me a Virgil virgin. (I’ll hold for laughter and applause.)

[3] Bernard Knox, “Introduction,” in Publius Vergilius Maro, The Aeneid, 8.

[4] Knox, “Introduction,” in Publius Vergilius Maro, The Aeneid, 9.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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