Meeting the Melissae explores the life work of the mysterious priestesses who held the Eleusian Mysteries and other ancient ceremonies. This book is saturated with information yet often reads like a romance. Author Elizabeth Ashley is a beekeeper, an aromatherapist and author. Her fascination with the ancient bee priestesses in the Mediterranean, women who worshipped and lead communities in public rituals for Artemis, Cybele, and other Goddesses associated with bees, inspired her to look into what we do know about these ancient women and their devoted work. Where we don't know much, she speculates on what might have been. It's an enticing mix of facts and guesswork. Mythological lore, entymological science, and historical research are woven together to show a unique viewpoint, that of the beekeeper, and how this knowledge appears in the myths and archaelogical finds. The end of the book is admitted speculations of the author on the classical spiritual practices of old. The book will speak to readers with a keen interest in the Classics, bees, and women as priestesses.
Ashley is clearly taken by the whole mystique of these ancient bee priestesses and her ability to imagine what these ancient rituals could have been like is enjoyable reading. The book has footnotes and references. Although the author has done a lot of research, I don't believe the author intended the book for scholars but for seekers. The material kind of toes the line back and forth from academic interest to fascination. She does a good job of attributing direct quotes and does this liberally so that you get schooled by the ancient writers.
It's impossible to say how much of her speculations are true and I suspect she may have gotten a fair amount wrong (just like everyone else). Sometimes she is describing objects for pages and the book really would have benefitted from more pictures. She goes into long detailed comparisons that a couple of pictures would have made crystal clear. The pictures that do appear are useful but are in black and white.
There were moments too where I wondered if she wasn't so excited by the possibility of a connection that she ran with some ideas that may not have merited that much attention. There were also passages in which her enraptured retelling of a ceremony turned into literary eroticism. Ashley took a course in modern bee shamanism and tries to imagine the ancients doing similar practices. She acknowledges that much of this can never be known but clearly she would like to think that the two may be very similar. The book won't bore you. It might make you do the little bee dance or squirm now and then.
I've had a long fascination with the ancient Greeks so any book that hits the sweet spot, capturing my attention and breathing life into the ancients, is going to come recommended. Keep in mind the author is not a classicist and this book is not aimed at scholars but someone who is also similarly besotted by bees and their glorious Deific patrons. The ancient Greeks loved a good story and this is a good story.
~review by Larissa Carlson
Author: Elizabeth Ashley
John Hunt Publishing, 2022
333 pages, $27.95