The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt

By Allon, Niv | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2019 | Go to article overview

The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt


Allon, Niv, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt. By GENE KRITSKY. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. xiii + 133, illus. $29.95.

One of the major achievements of The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt is the way in which the author succeeds in animating the ancient texts and images using his vast entomological knowledge. Seals and scarabs, papyri, and wall reliefs are discussed alongside traditional beekeeping methods in modern times and in archeological evidence to paint a rich history of bees and beekeeping in ancient Egypt in a concise and accessible manner. The multitude of sources are examined through a variety of approaches, which the author enumerates in the introduction to his book; we must become, he states, archeologists and historians while using entomology, chemistry, microbiology, paleography, and mythology. The last sticks out in this list, and its inclusion reveals one of the book's main weaknesses in its construction of simple narratives of ancient Egypt, to which its treatment of texts and images is key.

The book surveys the evidence for bees and beekeeping in ancient Egypt through thirteen chapters following an introduction. The first six chapters are organized chronologically from prehistory to Roman Egypt. Bees appear in script in early Dynastic times (ca. 2900 BCE), but the first evidence for beekeeping comes from the Fifth Dynasty (ca. 2446-2389 BCE) in scenes from the solar temple of Niusere and the pyramid temple of Unas; similar scenes later appear in elite tombs of the New Kingdom and the Saite Period. The images are cursory and difficult to understand, but the author offers an informative interpretation regarding the practices involved in the treatment of bees and their products. The early images show royal interest in bees and in the state administration of honey and bees, to which titles like Overseer of Beekeepers also attest. This interest continues throughout the main periods of Egyptian history, as detailed in the subsequent chapters. Among these, the first millennium is most poorly represented, and whether this is due to the scarcity of evidence is regrettably not discussed. The next six chapters are organized themati-cally, introducing additional sources dealing with such issues as honey and healing, the bee hieroglyph, or the use of beeswax in magic.

Speaking to the importance of bees and honey in ancient Egypt, the book occasionally misses opportunities to discuss the complexities of the material it presents. The full extent of responsibilities signaled by titles, for example, is extremely difficult to grasp when taken out of the context in which they operated (see Quirke 2004). Their etymologies or literal meaning often provide a tricky path to their interpretation. In addition, only singular individuals are known to hold relevant titles from most periods of Egyptian history (only an official by the name of Nykare, for example, in the Old Kingdom). Any attempt at reconstructing the administration is thus fraught with numerous difficulties, which should be discussed explicitly. It is also noteworthy that kings, officials, and artists sought inspiration in the art of their contemporaries and their predecessors and sometimes made these connections intentionally (see, for example, Laboury 2017). A more thorough discussion of what we can actually learn from idealized images would have been helpful to a non-specialist in contextualizing the material at hand. …

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