The Honey Isle
by Chris Park
‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’
Maybe myth, maybe legend, maybe history… an old Welsh Triad preserved by Geoffrey of Monmouth, tells us that this green and pleasant land I am writing within, when first ever settled, was known as Y Vel Ynys – The Honey Isle.
If this name is interpreted literally, one can imagine an island with an abundance of honey. A place where meadows of wild flowers swayed and sweetly stirred with pollination beneath summer skies busy with swarms of little black bees. Heath lands humming aloud with health and vigour, realms of lush woodland ensouled with the smell of golden honeycomb issuing from ancient oaks and oozing from sacred caves. Common perhaps was the seasonal sight of clustered colonies hanging like dark fruit on shady bended boughs, or entangled like large cuckoo spit within the cool of fragrant bushes. The sweet title also suggests loaves of wax in every larder, honey enough for every wound and want, and proud vats full of mead.
Apiculturally, one might assume that Y Vel Ynys was a place where tribes held honey hunting/beekeeping and honey at the core of their identities. Bringing into the mind’s eye abundant bees of high health and vigour. Revered, sacred and every day. Perhaps a people processing honeybee products into quintessential kernels of iconic cultural character and charm? The ubiquitous meads, the household medicines, the waxen works of art. One could also construe the reasoning for the name Honey Isle agriculturally: that the land itself was found to be sweet, abundant and fertile.
…she aboundeth in metals of every kind; fields hath she, stretching far and wide, and hillsides meet for tillage of the best, whereon, by reason of the fruitfulness of the soil, the divers crops in their season do yield their harvests. Forests also hath she filled with every manner of wild deer, in the glades whereof groweth grass that the cattle may find therein meet change of pasture, and flowers of many colours that do proffer their honey unto the bees that flit ever busily about them. Meadows hath she, set in pleasant places, green at the foot of misty mountains, wherein be sparkling well-springs clear and bright, flowing forth with a gentle whispering ripple in shining streams that sing sweet lullaby unto them that lie upon their banks. Watered is she, moreover, by lakes and rivers wherein is much fish…~ Geoffrey of Monmouth
If interpreted more symbolically and poetically, one might imagine the Honey Island being home to mellifluous, mead amused Bards winding words of praise, pleasure and bittersweet divine imperfection as metered medicines for the disenchanted. Cultivating dedicated communities in song, fields of fervour, prayers for every occupation, eulogies of the ages and mothers of elocution, proud histories held up for the honeyed hearts of heroes, earth fathers framing fertile recitals, woven words as wide as the wind, stirring peace, kindling competition, satirical spinning doctors, demagogues of firebrand precision, memorialising in locutory lays all that need be said, all that need be remembered.
Honeyed and sweet are gratifying superlatives indeed, suggesting something of great value, something to be desired. The old Welsh triad that names Britain as Y Vel Ynys, by definition, states two other names for the Island. The earlier Clas Myrddin (Merlin’s College/Precinct, or Sea-girt Isle/Fort) before it was settled, and the latter Ynys Prydain (Island of the Painted/Tattooed People) after kingship and legislation was cultivated. Triads are utilised within the British oral traditions to aid the memory of histories, folklores and wisdoms. There is no written collection of Welsh triads earlier than the twelfth century, but it is a format that seems to be timeless, and contemporary Bards and Druids are reviving the art in these modern times.
This island was also referred to as Ynys Fel Veli, The Honey Isle of Beli (Veli) in the enlightening poem ‘Cadair Teyrn On’. Legend tells us it is said to have been composed by the prolific medieval bard Taliesin at the inauguration of King Arthur. Beli Mawr and Belinus were ancient British Kings and all father figures. Bel, Belyn, Belenos, or Belinus are also titles given to a legendary prehistoric Sun God, the generous, the powerful, the most high and radiant Lord, healer and ancestor of the ‘Mighty Ones’. Beli has also been noted as a deity of death and the night time, casting shadow across this world. He may be depicted riding a chariot and throwing lightning bolts. One of His symbols is a wheel, six and eight spoked, and His face is often solarised within a sun disc.
Within the Mabinogion, we are told that a son of Beli Mawr, Lludd, under the instruction of his wise brother Llevelys, measured the length and breadth of Britain to find its centre. He discovered it to be a place called Rhydychen, currently known as Oxford. At this place, his brother’s advice was to dig a large pit and in it place a cauldron of best mead, and to cover it with a sheet of silk. This elaborate work was performed to rid the land of one of three plagues, an horrific scream that was heard on May Eve over every hearth on the island, which caused men to lose their strength, women to miscarry and children to lose their senses. The origin of the scream, Llevelys told him, was a battle cry from one of two fighting dragons. He promised that they would descend into the pit, once dug, in the form of two pigs after fighting and shape shifting in mid air. There they would be wrapped in the silk and, falling into the vat, sup themselves into a mead fuelled sleep.
Comparing mythology, we see honey being used here in the same placating, soporific way as other tales of calming powerful forces. Exemplified by the putting to sleep of Cerberus, or Kereros, with honey cakes.
Wherever one finds honey and honey products they are used as offerings and libations to deities and spirits. Learned Llevelys’ counsel was followed by Beli, and whilst the red and white dragons slept in the vat in ancient Oxford, they were safely put into a stone casket and transported to a place strong enough to hold them: Dinas Emrys, the Ambrosial City or Fortress of Ambrosius in Snowdonia… what became of them there is another story, that of Vortigern’s castle foundations and the fatherless (or fostered) child prophet Myrhddin Emrys.
At the centre of Oxford today is the Carfax Crossroads. It is a cardinal crossroads of four ways, North, East, South and West. Between North and East stands Lloyd’s Bank, and carved in stone above the door is a skep and bees: the bank’s original symbol invoking diligence, industry and the safe storage of the fruits of one’s labours.
The foundations below life within Y Vel Ynys, Beli’s honeyed isle, are rich with rocks, minerals, metals and an extraordinarily vast spectrum of geology. Precious are the treasures below these fertile soils, vast loams, rich clays and peaty heaths. Some of the rock formations in Britain echo the structure of honeycomb. Picture the basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway and the hexagonal stone’s at Iona. Here also in the Vale of the White Horse there are many honeycomb-like stones on a smaller scale. Amongst the corallian fossils in coral rag limestone one can find the honeycomb like rocks of fossilised sea life. Some British place names have a honeyed mineral origin. One example being the hamlet of Honey Street in the Pewsey Vale, Wiltshire, which is said to be named after the colour and texture of the clay there. The English word honey is evolved from the Germanic ‘honig’.
One can even relate the meandering River Thames and its vast loams of clays to the mellifluous golden honey like streams of Celtic lore to noble Ludd himself. The Tamesis that rises near Lud’s Well and becomes an estuary after Caer Ludd (The Port of London), Ludd’s favourite dwelling place. Passing through Cricklade and Lechlade upon the way the river has been called the Lud, and many aeons ago flowed into Doggerland as a tributary of the Proto-Rhine. In one of the Celtic Otherworlds a stream of mead forever flows.
The heritage of honey and honey drinks within these shores is substantial. There is evidence upon a Neolithic pot shard deposited around 4000 years ago of such drinks being enjoyed here. Pictish brews of fermented honey and heather were renowned for being intoxicating and healing, coveted and calming. There is a white dust found upon some of the heather that comes from surrounding mosses. Known as fogg, it is reputed to be narcotic and mildly hallucinogenic. Before agriculture raised the bar and the barley, and other grains, that were added to create honey beers, as is symbolically suggested in the tale of Taliesin’s birth, the meddyglyns, meaths and meads were the mind opening, body wizening inspirational brews of Y Vel Ynys.
Dallwyn Dallben, the chief of mystics, owned a white sow known as Henwen, synonymous, some say, with Ceridwen, the spiritual Mother of Taliesin. The details vary from tongue to tongue but bees and grain are in all renditions I have heard and read of the mythology. In one common version, the magic pig was herded through Prydain by Coll ab Collfrewi and gave birth to three grains of wheat and three bees in the kingdom of Gwent. Thenceforth, that kingdom became famous for producing the best quality honey and wheat.
One thousand years before the arrival of Caesar upon these shores, the learned Phoenicians knew this land as Barat-anac, the country of tin. A mineral they prized for ensuring a high quality bronze. This land, it’s economy and it’s people have been embroiled in the arms trade ever since, and perhaps long before. The skilful Phoenician mariners, traders and scribes, who were using letters before the Greeks, held the British aboriginals in high regard, and commented upon an intoxicating drink that they made of honey and wheat. Honey drinks and meads seem to have been omnipotent here. Mead, the drink of the gods, beverage of kings, dainty drink of the gentry and elixir of immortality is abundantly celebrated throughout many of the traditional stories, songs and poems of Britain. Some say that Ceridwen was fermenting honey and grain in her cauldron heralding the developments in the craft of brewing. If one looks back far enough, the name for mead and honey is one and the same, Med. Numerous and numinous are the clues for us to understand the reasoning behind this land being named after honey.
Wherever there are bees, there is health.
Archaeologists are undecided upon a date, and even the era, that we stopped ‘honey hunting’ and started ‘keeping’ bees in this neck of the woods. There is no hard evidence for beekeeping here before the Romano-British period, yet baskets and logs rarely turn up in the archaeological record. The natives of this land were considered to be most proficient in all types of basket work. Before the Roman settlements occurred here we may have been managing wild colonies in trees, perhaps also log hives, perhaps wicker hives plastered with a composite material like daub. It is pertinent to note that there was nothing written or recorded to say that we weren’t keeping bees, which would have been something noteworthy to those writing about the indigenous cultures here. The ancient tin trading link forged with the Phoenicians, who were accomplished beekeepers, inspired themselves by the Minoan culture, may have influenced apicultural advances here. There is of courses a pertinent link between metalwork and bees – beeswax. The process of ‘lost wax’ was used in casting objects from gold, silver and bronze. As an old saying teaches us, “If you want to make something in metal, you must first make it in wax’’.
It is also tempting to draw connections between the Bel, Beli and Belenos, lords and deities of the Honey Island, and Baal or Ba’al of the Phoenician religions. Their main port of call was Cornwall, once known as the kingdom of Belerion. Beltane, the prehistoric root fertility fire festival of Mayday, is interpreted literally as ‘Bel-Fire’. The waxing power of the Sun at that time ensures the greening of the land, and as beekeepers well know, desirable early prime swarms of bees. As an Irish version of a well known old saying explains:
A swarm of bees in May,
Is worth a cow and a half that day:
A swarm of bees in June,
Is worth a silver spoon:
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a butterfly.
The past is veiled, but the heritage is richly and verdantly spread.