BMCR 2016.09.17

The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt

, The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xiii, 133. ISBN 9780199361380. $29.95.


It is not by chance that honeybees now finally have our attention again. With the emergence of colony collapse disorder in 2006, honeybees are regularly in the headlines and we have begun to think critically, deeply, and creatively about our relationship with these creatures. I imagine that there are few fields that have not benefitted from their own examinations into the bee, and the studies of ancient civilizations are no exception. As Kritsky explains in his preface, he is an entomologist by education and trade but an Egyptologist through his own lifelong interest (xi), and his book, The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt, is a marriage of these two passions. His biological background and his travels through Egypt have made him uniquely qualified to tackle his topic, and, while he is not formally trained as an Egyptologist, his knowledge of the insect and of apicultural practices lend considerable insight to the study that he tackles. This book offers an excellent glimpse into the world of ancient Egypt and creates a surprisingly detailed picture of the cultural significance of this insect, honey, and the apicultural practices of Egypt, based on limited pictorial evidence and a deep and thorough understanding of how bees behave and are kept around the world. Kritsky’s book is not analytical in the way one might expect if he were an art historian; he is attempting to gain an understanding of beekeeping practices in ancient Egypt, not trying to analyze and interpret the meaning of these images as art or propaganda — though this would, at times, be helpful.

The Tears of Re is part of a larger trend in scholarship and literature that examines the insects’ role in terms of their cultural significance. The best example of this would be Engels’ and Nicolaye’s recent work Ille operum custos: kulturgeschichtliche Beiträge zur antiken Bienensymbolik und ihrer Rezepion, a collection of scholarly articles on the cultural importance of the bee in antiquity and beyond.1 However, one needs only to search “bee history” on the Internet to see that the market is inundated with every sort of non-fiction text imaginable on the cultural history of bees and honey, many of which were written in the last ten years or so. Despite this, it is worth noting that the gaps in the field are numerous, and Kritsky’s work is unique in that it is the only book I know of focused solely on Egypt, and it is one of only a handful that is scholarly yet accessible to the non-academic reader. Kritsky knows the scholarship on his topic well and builds on the foundation of bee-focused cultural historical works like Crane2 and Ransome,3 but his narrow focus allows for a more detailed study. He provides a basic outline of ancient Egyptian history throughout (and a chronology on ix-x), so that a reader who is poorly versed in Egyptian history, like myself, can follow along.

Kritsky begins his book with a chapter on the origins of honey hunting and beekeeping (Chapter 1: Beekeeping Begins), before turning his attention to Ancient Egypt specifically. Chapters 2 through 6 move through Egyptian history chronologically, beginning with The Old Kingdom and following it through to Greco-Roman Egypt, with each chapter discussing a different period in Egypt’s history (Chapter 2: Beekeeping during the Old Kingdom; Chapter 3: Instability and Reunification: Beekeeping during the Middle Kingdom; Chapter 4: The Age of Empire: Beekeeping during the New Kingdom; Chapter 5: The Saite Dynasty; Chapter 6: The Greco-Roman Period). For each of these periods, Kritsky catalogues the existing evidence for beekeeping and spends considerable time describing scenes depicted in tombs and temples that contain apicultural imagery. His extensive knowledge of the logistics and practices of beekeeping today, particularly those which occur in regions of Egypt that employ traditional methods, allow him to interpret these images with an eye toward how they may correspond to actual practices. Unfortunately, he does not always unpack the details of interpreting these images, and he takes for granted some aspects of them, for example that a specific, diamond-shaped vessel is “the standard illustration for a set quantity of honey” (32), something I can neither confirm nor refute (my own experience is with bees and apiculture in ancient Greece and Rome). However, the detailed descriptions and the plentiful illustrations and photographs (many of which he took himself) help to fill in some of those gaps. One can see the frequency with which the diamond vessel appears alongside honeycombs or hives in the images provided, even when the link between the two is marked, and a more complete discussion of the matter would solidify his arguments as firm facts rather than mere suggestions. While an art historian or philologist may wish for such a discussion, this is not within the purview of his study or approach. It is Kritsky’s outside knowledge — both of entomology and of apiculture — that makes his contribution significant and important.

Chapter 7 (The Honey Bee Hieroglyph) is one of the highlights of this work. Here, Kritsky looks at the evolution of the hieroglyphic image of the bee in terms of both the ways the image appears and its meaning. Many articles and books make mention of the bee as a symbol of kingship, in the ancient world, often tracing this back to Egypt, where the hieroglyph of the bee was used to designate Lower Egypt and often appeared beside the royal cartouche.4 However, Kritsky’s discussion of the hieroglyph adds more to this conversation. He explains the evolution of the figure of the bee hieroglyph and discusses the age of this association to the Delta region, which predates the introduction of the cartouche (67-8). He then describes (and shows) the numerous other application of this hieroglyph, which is used to form the word for “honey” and other bee-related terms. He also details the actual process of crafting this figure, and hieroglyphs, in general, in stone (73-75).

The link that he notes between the bee hieroglyph and the pharaoh is strengthened in the following chapter (The Administration and Economics of Egyptian Beekeeping). Here, Kritsky describes the complex organization of beekeepers and apicultural administrators, all of whom, in one way or another, were under the supervision of a vizier who reported back to the pharaoh himself (76). It is illuminating to learn that the production of honey was an industry that could be traced back to pharaonic oversight, which is not surprising, and that the titles associated with apiculture were numerous and worthy of boasting. Kritsky lists many inscriptions, mostly from tombs, in which individuals proudly record their role in the apicultural process. These examples go a long way to showing the importance of honey and beekeeping in Ancient Egypt, and it is worth mentioning that this sort of significance and connection to the governing body or individual is not paralleled in Greece or Rome.

The remaining, mostly brief chapters cover a variety of topics. Chapter 9 (Bees and Food) discusses the ways in which Egyptian consumed honey, including its addition to wine, beer, and bread (87-88). The next chapter (Honey and Healing) offers a summary of some of the medicinal uses of honey, which was believed to be both curative and therapeutic for everything from gynecological concerns (92) to the treatment of colds and coughs (93). Kritsky notes that the curative significance of bee products was closely tied to its believed magical properties (93-4), which he discusses in greater detail in the following chapters. Chapter 11(Bees, Gods, and Feasts) covers the numerous Egyptian gods associated with bees and honey and points out the role that honey played at festivals, as well. In addition to expounding upon the magical associations of beeswax, Chapter 12 (The Magic of Beeswax ) also discusses both the production of the material, on a biological level, and its many uses, from waterproofing boats (106) to styling wigs (108).

The final chapter (The Afterlife of Ancient Egyptian Beekeeping), an effective close to Kritsky’s exploration, is a discussion of how much present day beekeeping, particularly in less developed regions of the world (especially Egypt) is related to ancient practices. Kritsky makes clear throughout his work, sometimes explicitly other times implicitly, that his ability to interpret the evidence hinges upon his understanding of beekeeping, particularly these traditional practices. However, as is too often the case, traditional practices are being lost in the name of modernization and it is no secret that the modern apicultural industry is plagued by troubles, from mites to the increasingly liberal use of pesticides (123). His closing words remind the reader that the loss of these traditional practices will be a loss of a connection that bridges the modern and ancient worlds, a powerful reminder in an age that suffers from the destruction or inadequate preservation of its cultural history in so many ways.

Writing a work as interdisciplinary as The Tears of Re is a daunting task, but the importance of such an endeavor cannot be overstated. It is through collaborative efforts and scholars daring to venture outside of their comfort zone, into topics beyond their formal training. that some of the most important work is done. Kritsky has created a book that is an enjoyable, engaging read and also contributes meaningfully to our understanding of the cultural significance of the bee and apiculture in Egypt. It is by no means the definitive study, but it offers an overview of the amount and variety of sources available to be studied in more detail and in different manners. From my perspective as a scholar focused on Greek and Roman apiculture, Kritsky’s work is an essential starting point for understanding beekeeping and discussions of bees throughout the Mediterranean world, in art, in literature, and in history.


1. Engels, D. and Nicolaye, C., eds., Illum operum custos: Kulturgeschichtliche Beiträge zur antiken Bienensymbolik und ihrer Rezeption. Hildesheim, 2008.

2. Crane, E., The Archaeology of Beekeeping. London, 1983. Crane, E. and Graham, A. J., ‘Bee Hives of the Ancient World. 1’, Bee World, Vol. 66 (1985): 23-41. Crane, E. and Graham, A. J., ‘Bee Hives of the Ancient World. 2’, Bee World, Vol. 66 (1985): 148-70.

3. Ransome, H. M., The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore. London, 1939.

4. For example, this point is succinctly and elegantly made by Stephens, S. A. Seeing Double: Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria (Berkeley, 2003): 1.