Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Perfumery Material: Honeyed Scents of Myth

I recall as a child discovering with excitement the furry exterior of bubble-bees, the kind you don't see any more, the desire to fondle only being overcome by my learned fear of its sting, which would result to a self-sacrificing end for the little critter. No matter that my first sting was only in adult life, when an errant bee was lured by my Fleurs d'Oranger (Serge Lutens), one sunny spring morning. I also recall superstitions upon which bees had to be given the news of a death in the family, and even fed a piece of the sweets and wine of the funeral meal, or they would perish as well. In my apis-loving culture the use of honey, royal jelly, bee pollen and beeswax (cystomarily used in orthodox candles for mass) has always been seen as a survival of a sacred, almost magical act which connects man and woman to the pagan nurturance and divine blessings of mother Nature. It is no coincidence that Greek cuisine makes ample and delicious use of some of the finest varieties of honey for many of its aromatic dishes. Or that babies and small children are still nursed on milk and honey in this country, recalling the nursing of baby Zeus by Melisseus ("bee-man"), father of the nymphs Adrasteia and Ide and the leader of the nine Kuretes of Crete, chthonic daimones of Mount Ida, who clashed their spears and shields to drown out the wails of infant Zeus, hidden from his cannibal father Cronus.

The lore of bees and honey harkens back to ancient civilisations who cultivated the arid, unforgiving soils of the Mediterranean and prized the industrious insects for their rich products and their amazing navigation skills (allegedly via tiny crystals naturally embedded in their brain) which made them easily domesticized. From freemason to wiccan, bees and honey appear frequently ever since antiquity as references to a society that is more tightly ordained than ours and an example of how nature and the eternal female finds a way for everything: even the promiscuity of the Queen Bee is a guarantee of safety and health of the entire hive, according to biologists! The survival of the bee is impressive, much like they themselves are considered a link between this world and the underworld. Mycenean "tholos"-style tombs are shaped to look like a beehive, while Melissa is nothing more than the Greek name for...bee (Μέλισσα), while Deborah is also linked to ancient bee priestesses.

My reprisal of these themes was ingeniously suggested by Roxana of Illuminated Perfume and evolved into this article, as well as a series of other posts in participating blogs (linked at the bottom, don't forget to visit!)

  • Mythological Origins of the Bee Symbolism:
Although bees are related to the cult of Aphrodite (beehives are hexagonal, the sacred shape for Venus) their symbolic origin goes back to pre-Classical cults: The pre-Hellenic Aegean bee goddesses stood for the dominance of the female and the Minoan cult of the Goddess reflects this, if the small figurines, the jewels and the wasp-waists of the women on murals are any indication. A series of bee embossed gold plaques recovered at Camiros in Rhodes, Greece, dating from the archaic period in the 7th century BC reflects far older deities. Fermented honey, thought a gift of the Goddess, preceded the knowledge of wine in Aegean culture as well as in many European civilizations.
The famous golden Minoan "Bee Pendant" depicted on the left is technically immaculate and presents great merit from a conceptual viewpoint. Discovered at Chrisolakos, the burial ground outside the palace of Malia in Crete, it is now surrounded by other sacred objects such as ceremonial Labyrns (giant double axes) and beautiful gold rings and "double axe" and bee jewellery at the Heraklion museum in Crete, Greece. More powerfully, the bee stood as the symbol of Πότνια, "Mistress" or "Pure Mother Bee" according to Minoans and Myceneans. Her priestesses were called "Melissa", same as with worshippers of rural goddesses Artemis and Demeter.
The Delphic oracle was also referred to "the Delphic bee" (Μέλισσα), long after Apollo had usurped the ancient oracle and shrine, in the hymns by Pindar. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo mentions that Apollo's own gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee maidens, usually identified with the Thriae, pre-Hellenic Minoan bee goddesses!

Other peoples also proliferated bee motifs and lore: The Mayans had the Ah-Muzen-Cab (the Bee God), designating honey-producing cities (who prized honey as food of the gods). The Kalahari Desert's San people ascribe the Creation of man to bees: A bee carried a mantis across a river, but when exhausted it left the mantis on a floating flower, simultaneously planting a seed in the mantis's body before it died. From that seed grew the first man. The Egyptians believed bees to grow from the tears of the sun god Ra when they fell on the desert sand (much like the foam of the sea was considered by the Greeks to be the sperm of the cut genitalia of Cronus from which Aphrodite emerged). The bowstring of the Hindu love god Kamadeva is made of honeybees and Vishnu is often depicted as a blue bee.
  • Honey varieties: a world of textured scents
Endless varieties of honey exist according to the raw materials the bees have been harvesting to produce it and the rich aroma of each one is testament to the wonders of nature. From the more unusual, such as the almost camphoraceous honey from eucalyptus and manuka trees from Australia, to the spicy, raw bouquet of buckewheat honey through the mild and popular one from clover, one marvels at the spectrum. Ambery-dark heather honey is full of the wildlife pungent aroma, while thyme honey with its perfectly balanced, savoury taste and herbal aroma is prized among the very best. Pine and fir trees' honey is very pleasantly a tad bitter with resinous nuances, as befits the source. Honey produced by bees harvesting acacia blossoms is especially worthy of mention: sweet like the yellow pom-poms that adorn the trees, its high fructose, low sucrose content presents some advantages concerning diabetic consumption as well as better storage capacity; same with the one from linden, because of its lightly woody olfactive profile which makes it a refined option.

Apart from the amazing flavour, all honeys contain phenolic acids and hydroxymethylfurfural, the levels being highest in thyme honey, which are purported to influence estrogenic activity and cell viability of breast, endometrial and prostate cancer cells. And of course the hydrocaptive and antimicrobal properties of honey make it a supreme addition in skincare and cosmetics, promoting hydration and health of the skin.

  • The Bee as an Emblem
Interwined thoughts revert to me as I admire the delicate yet at the same time impressive motif of Napoleonic bees crowning the rims of the exquisite chinaware Les Abeilles by Haviland Parlon, the pattern directly originating from the time of the great dictator. Most people interested in perfume have owned, heard or read of Guerlain "bee bottles" (flacons d'abeilles). These glass or gilded flacons have small Napoleonic bees on relief, wonderfully referencing French royalty and its history, bees being alongside the more traditional royal symbol, the eagle, the emblems of the First and later Second Empire.
Napoléon I had a veritable mania for the industrious insect, which he had made into a symbol of his own reign; even made it into a flag and a cloak, wearing which he was painted by David. Bees long standing symbols for immortality and resurrection, they linked the new dynasty to the very origins of France, more Merovingian than Napoleonic: Golden bees (cicadas, to be exact) were discovered in 1653 in Tournai in the tomb of Childeric I, founder of the Merovingian dynasty (457AD) and father of Clovis. Therefore they are considered the oldest emblem of the sovereigns of France to whom the ambitious leader wanted to be tied to. The bee also presented the advantages of not being symbolically tied to the despised Bourbons nor Christianity.
Another version wants Napoleon moving into the Royal Palace at Tuileries and not wanting to keep the existing drapery with its embroidered fleur-de-lys (the previous French Royal emblem and one which also alludes to Mary, mother of Jesus). Being frugal on spending on new ones, he ordered them instead to be turned upside down, thus offering the world a new symbol: the bee. Lastly, conspiracy theorists might attribute his choice to freemasonry, where the bee stands as a hieroglyphic of the highest order.
Popular references to bees however are much simpler: From the dramatic cone-shaped hairdo of the 1960s known as the "beehive" to the Beehive Bundt cake which would make Martha Stewart proud!

  • Honey Notes in Perfumery
Honey notes impart a gourmand quality to fragrances, while the beeswax absolute (Absolue cire d’abeille) harvested from honeycombs of Apis mellifera, grown in France, is used for an ethically-harvested animalic note in scents. This absolute is rare, produced by solvent extraction and due to its surprising thickness does not blend easily in a blend. It can be therefore diluted in alcohol or gently warmed and added to essential oils and allowed to age before being used in a formula. Some suppliers have been also offering a honey absolute instead of beeswax, a lighter and sweeter product.
Phenylacetic acid (otherwise known as α-toluic acid, benzeneacetic acid, alpha tolylic acid, or 2-phenylacetic acid) is perceived as golden and honeyed in minute amounts, urinous in higher concentrations (Kouros, Miel de Bois). Honeysuckle, a flower with natural honeyed nuances traditionally grazed upon by animals (earning it the tag of "goat's vine" in Greek) and sucked clean by small children sometimes, is also imparting sweet, nectarous notes in fragrance similar to the ones that evoke honey. Acacia/Mimosa and aubépine/hawthorn (recreated through the use of p-methoxy benzaldehyde as in Chanel Beige), or some white flowers (orange blossom, jasmine) have a honeyed nuance to their bouquet as well. On the other hand the smooth, decadent scent of honey is especially simpatico in a piquant contrast to the austere formula of a chypre, where it reinforces the other floral notes and mingles with the animal-reminiscent ingredients to give the veil of a hinted sensuality, comparable to a silk bra under a starched shirt.
  • Fragrances with Honey Notes (click links for reviews):
Aramis Havana pour elle
Armani Armani Code
Ava Luxe Honey
Ava Luxe Madeline
Avon Mark Instant Vacation Greek Isles
Azarro Orange Tonic
Balenciaga Rumba
Bill Blass Basic Black
Bijan by Bijan
Boucheron Initial
Burberry Weekend for men
Carla Fracci Gisele
Chanel Les Exclusifs Beige (hawthorn/aubepine honey)
Christian Dior Poison
Christian Dior Tendre Poison
Christian Dior Bois d'Argent
Chopard Wish
Coach by Coach
Comme des Garcons Comme des Garcons
Elizabeth Arden Red Door
Estee Lauder Estee super cologne concentree
Estee Lauder Sensuous
Estee Lauder White Linen
Estee Lauder Pure White Linen Light Breeze (hesperidic and light)
Etienne Aigner Private Number
Givenchy Gentleman
Givenchy Ysatis
by Gucci (the horsebit bottle)
Guerlain L'instant de Guerlain (especially in Eau de Parfum concentration)
Guerlain Rose Barbare
Guy Laroche Clandestine
Isabella Rossellini Daring
Jean Charles Brosseau Ombre Rose L'Original
Jean Louis Scherrer Scherrer 2
John Varvatos John Varvatos for women
Lancome Magie Noire (the most symbolic use of honey notes)
Lancome Tresor Elixir
La Perla La Perla
L'Occitane Eau de Miel/Honey Water (the closest to pure honey)
MAC Naked Honey (reminiscent of linden blossom honey)
MAC Africanimal (peppery, woody honey)
Orlane Fleurs d'Orlane
Paco Rabanne Paco Rabanne pour Homme (sweet fougere)
Prada by Prada
Serge Lutens A la Nuit
Serge Lutens Chergui
Serge Lutens Chypre Rouge
Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque (milk and honey in pipe tobacco)
Serge Lutens Miel de Bois
Sisley Soir de Lune
Shiseido Feminite du Bois
Stella Cadente Miss Me
Thierry Mugler Angel
Thierry Mugler A*men
Tommy Hilfiger True Star Gold
Trussardi Trussardi Uomo
Tom Ford Private Blend Velvet Gardenia
Ungaro Diva
Urban Decay Honey Dust (shimmery body powder that can be licked off)
Valentino Vendetta
Van Cleef & Arpels First
Victoria's Secret So In Love
Yves Saint Laurent Kouros
Several solid fragrances, such as the ones by Roxana Villa, are based on natural beeswax.

Feel free to add more fragrances with honey notes in the comments section!

Please read the following blogs for more on bees and honey:
Roxana Villa atIlluminated Perfume Journal
Trish at Scenthive
Gaia Fishler at The Non Blonde
Beth Schreibman Gehring at www.examiner.com/x-5804-
Donna Hathaway at www.examiner.com/x-4780-

Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks (1951)
Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, (1955)
Carl A.P. Ruck & Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth

Bee illustration ©Roxana Villa. Other pics via Basenotes, Wikimedia commons, castlehounddesigns.com


  1. Fascinating!

    There's an old folk legend here in the South that recommends the use of (local, unfiltered) honey as a sort of homeopathic. A spoonful of such honey a day, all year long, is supposed to help with seasonal allergies to pollen, which is a real problem here. But the honey must be produced within 10 miles or so to be of maximum effectiveness. I've tried it and had some success with it.

  2. My very favorite -- DelRae's Amoureuse! A gorgeous honeyed lily.

  3. What an apt post for today as I drink my new Orange Blossom Tea with Spanish orange blossom honey. I get a ton of rich creamy honey from Tom Ford's Tobacco Vanille.

  4. Ah, what beautiful, poetic justice you serve the bee cause my dear. I drink this up like the sweet elixir of honey, for you have covered all aspects of the Bee, Honey & Perfume.

  5. Rappleyea23:01

    Absolutely fantastic essay, E. - loved it! I'm a big fan of bees, symbolism and honey, and you covered all of the bases beautifully. The darker autumnal varieties of local honey are becoming available now at my local Co-Op and they are delicious.


    P. S. Sorry to be MIA - horse sales here!

  6. E,

    What a fantastic post. So thorough and beautiful. I love that Bee Pendant and always have since I was an art history student in college.


  7. i loved the richness of your article...and have reread it several times now simply for the joy of it.Thank you and it was a pleasure to write with you!

  8. P,

    thanks! Homeopathy has ancient roots and I think there is a degree of solid scientific reasoning behind it, so it doesn't surprise me your trick has worked well.

    I suppose the local honey factor is a parameter of importance due to wildly varying flora around the perimeter of where you are?

  9. SS,

    what a gorgeous choice!! I LOVE Amoureuse, it's so lush! It smells very French too, although an American brand.

  10. J,

    good addition!! Indeed, will be adding the TF.
    And can I join you in virtual tea drinking?? :-)

  11. R,

    thanks for your kind compliment! I started small, then went for long (yada yada yada), so I guess I should be thankful I didn't come off as boring. Bees and honey was an ingenious idea for such a blogging project and I have YOU to thank for it!

  12. P,

    aww, you're so sweet! The darker honeys are my favourites as well, I am thinking thyme, fir and heather, they have something individual about them. I never was a fan of the clover type personally, I'm afraid.

    I bet it must be beautiful where you are when the autumnal shift gets on and hope the horses are profiting from the beauty as you do! :-)

  13. T,

    how wonderful that it struck a chord with you. It was lovely getting to amass this info and to reminiscence about symbolisms and sensual delights close to my heart.
    You, of course, know well how rich this little animal is in meaning.
    And glad to know more about your studies! It seems we have more in common than I thought.

  14. Beth,

    it was a pleasure writing with you as well and getting to know you! I am very pleased your liked the article, especially since you have a special and sensuous symbiosis with the material itself.
    Hope to keep in touch!


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