Honey Through the Ages: Its Cultural and Religious Significance
Honey, in both its cultural and medicinal forms, has been revered for centuries.
In some cultures, it has been dated back more than 8000 years!
It’s depicted in Stone Age paintings and ancient Greek hieroglyphs, and – would you believe it – an actual piece of honeycomb was found preserved in an ancient Egyptian tomb.
It is the oldest sweetener in existence and has been recorded in many ancient scriptures from across the globe.
Therefore, it is no wonder that it is both accepted alongside modern medicine and still widely used in homes today.
In this article we break down the many ceremonial, medicinal and nutritional uses of honey throughout the ages.
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China: Traditional Chinese Medicine
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the world can be divided into five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Honey is considered a major component of earth and is linked to the spleen meridians of the human body.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, honey (Feng Mi) has a balanced character – containing neither ‘yin’ nor ‘yang’ – and is therefore important in restoring or maintaining your ‘vital energy’ or Qi.
Overall, Chinese culture has a rich history of honey and can be traced back almost 2000 years.
During the Zhou Dynasty, honey and bee larvae were considered rare foods, consumed only by royal families. However, by the Tang Dynasty, people had begun giving honey as gifts.
Then, during the Ming Dynasty, Chinese scholar and physician Li Shizhen wrote the highly influential Compendium of Meteria Medica, which recommends honey be taken daily to maintain internal and external vitality.
To this day, this book is one of the most important books in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
“Honey can help dispel pathogenic heat, clear away toxins, relieve pain and combat dehydration.” – Li Shizhen, Compendium of Meteria Medica
India: The Vedas & Ancient Ayurvedic Medicine
Indian mythology considers honey to be food of the gods and it is one the five elixirs of immortality (Panchamrita).
One of the primary names of the gods Vishnu and Krishna is Madhave (or Mādhava), meaning ‘the nectar-born ones’, whose symbol is a bee. And Kama, the god of Love, has a bow string made of bees.
In ancient Vedic civilisation, honey was considered one of nature's most remarkable gifts to mankind.
“Like a honey bee gathering honey from all type of flowers the wise men search every where for truth and sees only good in all religions.” – Hindu Scripture (Srimad Mahabhagavatam)
India’s oldest sacred writings, The Vedas, talk in detail of honey. The Rigveda and Upanishads highlight the relationship between bees and humans, however the Ayurveda discusses honey the most.
Ayurveda is an ancient system of healing and can be dated back almost 3000 years.
Ancient Ayurvedic Medicine refers to honey as Madhu or Asmadhu, meaning ‘the perfection of sweet’ and it is used in many Ayurvedic preparations.
According to the texts of Ayurveda, honey is used to treat insomnia, wounds and burns, supports weak digestion, keeps teeth and gums healthy, and can improve eyesight and prevent cataracts.
Honey is also an important part of Buddhist tradition and scripture.
The Honey Full Moon festival (Madhu Purnima) is intrinsically linked to honey through an ancient Buddhist legend.
In the legend, the Buddha retreats into the forest where he is gifted honeycomb by a monkey. The monkey is so elated by the Buddha’s acceptance of his gift that he falls to his death. However, the monkey is reborn in second heaven (Tavatimsa) because of his generosity.
The legend, and Madhu Purnima, are observed in India and Bangladesh by gifting honey and fruit to the monasteries.
Honey also gave nourishment to the Buddha immediately before and after his enlightenment.
“As a bee gathers honey from the flower without injuring its color or fragrance, even so the sage goes on his alms-round in the village” – The Buddha
Middle East: The Holy Qur'an & Ancient Egyptian Medicine
In many areas of the ancient middle east, honey was used in the process of embalming the dead (mummification).
In Ancient Egypt, archaeologists also discovered honeycomb buried in the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. And bees were both drawn on papyruses and used in hieroglyphs found on tomb walls.
Egyptians would offer honey to their deities and in almost all ancient Egyptian medicines, used a combination of honey, wine and milk.
In Islam, the Holy Qur’an includes a section dedicated entirely to honey and bees (Sūrat an-Naḥl). This text vividly illustrates the therapeutic value of honey and speaks directly to the bees:
"And thy Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (men’s) habitations;
Then to eat of all the produce (of the earth), and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colors, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a sign for those who give thought" – Qur’an, Chapter 16, Verse 68
Christian Culture: The Bible
In the Bible, there are many references to bees and they hold great significance in both Judaism and Christianity.
In Judaism, honey is a symbolic part of Rosh Hashana. On the eve of the holiday, bread and an apple are dipped into honey symbolising the hopes for a happy and healthy new year.
In Christianity, the bee is seen as a symbol of Jesus: the sting relates to justice and the cross while the honey reflects Jesus Christ’s sweet and gentle nature.
In the Book of Judges, Samson found a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of a lion. While in Old Testament Law, offerings of honey were made to God. And the Book of Exodus describes the Promised Land as a “land flowing with milk and honey”.
There are many references to honey in the Bible, which regularly emphasise the health benefits of honey.
“My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.” – Proverbs 24:13
There have been many different uses and references to honey throughout time. And it is evident that this significance transcends geography and religion.
Honey has been used in ancient systems of healing for thousands of years and Biosota is proud to continue this history by producing high-grade medicinal Manuka honey.
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