June Mead Moon: Maeve, Honeysuckle and Bees

The month of June, named for the Roman Mother goddess Juno, is the time of the longest days and the shortest nights, a time to celebrate love, fertility and marriage. The Earth is now resplendent, trees decked in shimmering emerald leaves, cow parsley nodding at roadsides, and roses blooming in dazzling profusion. Swifts swoop in the evening skies while rivers and lakes are full of geese, ducks and swans protectively chaperoning their young, teaching them the life skills necessary for survival.

Gardens are spangled with the delicate mauves and purples of lavender, and the tendrils of honeysuckle are just starting to entwine tree trunks and bushes with their delicate golden blossoms, filling the evening air with their sweet scent.  Honeysuckle is associated with love and courtship and when hung over the door, will bring luck to any marriage. It is also associated with secret wisdom, waiting to be explored and uncovered, like the hidden delights buried deep in the blooms. [1]

Everywhere the bees are in full flow and this full moon is also known as the Honey Moon. Busily flying from flower to flower, they squeeze themselves into the nodding heads of foxgloves and emerge laden with their precious hoard, dizzy from its intoxicating scent. Their gentle humming adds an undertone to the midsummer garden, drawing us into a seductive dreamworld of rest and replenishment. Female forager bees return to the hive with their bounty, welcomed back and organised by those assigned to guard duty, regurgitating nectar into the mouth of the house bee, who then processes it some more before depositing it into a cell. Pollen stuck to the bee’s body is also removed by worker bees who pack it carefully for food, or convert some into royal jelly used to feed bee larvae laid by the queen.[2]

There are many traditions associated with the bee, all of which are ancient. For the Druids and the Celts, the bee was sacred and every aspect aspect of their lives was honoured and studied.  Britain was called the Island of Honey in Bardic traditions and in Ireland, the Brehon laws protected bees and their hives. Bees are attuned to the position of the sun and the direction of the winds, and use this orientation to communicate the location of pollen to members of the hive by dancing a sun dance in the shape of the lemniscate, or figure of eight, also known as the waggle dance.[3] Shamanic and goddess traditions including the Path of Pollen have used this sacred movement in a ritual context that pays homage to the social structure of the hive with the Queen Bee at the core.

All of the gifts of the hive have been honoured and used over the ages, from the nutritious and healing properties of honey, to the health benefits of propolis and pollen, the preserving and flavour enhancing qualities of honey when used on meat or salmon, and the uses of wax for candle making , polishing and sealing. Today we acknowledge bees as pollinators, one worker bee can visit up to 2,000 flowers in one day, and these services alone are valued at over 170 billion dollars a year. Yet bees are in decline suffering colony collapse disorder at an alarming rate. In Europe alone over the past 10 years this has risen to over 50% of all hives.[4]

Honey is one of the main ingredients of mead, one of the most ancient of alcoholic drinks. At the royal court of Tara, the assembly hall was known as Tech Midchuarta, the House of Mead Circling, as at festivals the mead was passed round in a goblet, circling all the participants until the last drop was drunk. [5]The mythical Queen Maeve, or Medb, of Connaught is associated with mead, as her name means ‘she who intoxicates.’ This could reflect her role as Sovereignty goddess, offering the chosen king of the land the cup of mead to bestow office upon him. Her story, as told in the Ulster Cycles, is a complex and often disturbing one. Here is it in abridged form:

Medb, ‘a fair-haired wolf queen’ was the daughter of the High King of Ireland and she was married to Conchbar, King of Ulster, as compensation for the death of his father. The marriage did not turn out well, and she left him. However, in her place her sister was given as a substitute. This did not suit Medb, and she murdered her own sister who was pregnant at the time of her death. The child survived and came back later to take vengeance for his mother’s murder.

In the meantime, Medb’s father installs her as the Queen of Connaught. But she is raped by her former husband Conchbar at an assembly at Tara, whereupon war broke out between the two nations. She marries several times and eventually finds a man who ‘is without fear, meanness or jealousy’ in the person of her bodyguard Ailill, when she marries forthwith. They have seven sons together and one daughter.

In the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, we are told of a conflict between nations that arose because of a competition between Medb and her husband over their respective wealth. Unfortunately for Medb it turned out that Ailill had a magnificent white bull and she had nothing to compare to this. Determined not to be outdone, she sent out her messengers to search the land, and eventually they came across the Brown Bull of Cooley. He was so magnificent that Medb had to possess him – even though a soothsayer warned of impending doom.  She offered endearments, gold, sexual favours, but Daire, the owner of the bull would not surrender it. Maeve would not take no for an answer: she  assembled a great army to invade Ulster and steal the bull. Even this did not work. Nothing, not even the curse of Macha (see above) and single combat could bring victory to her side. But on the eve of battle, Medb managed somehow to steal the creature and bring it back to Connaught.

The prized bull was placed in a pasture alongside Ailill’s magnificent white horned beast, but alas! The two animals gored each other to death. All the loss of life and warfare had been in vain. Several years later, it was Medb’s turn to meet a sticky end. One morning whilst taking her ablutions at a well, she was recognised by Furbaide, the son of her murdered sister. He acted quickly as follows:

‘He was eating a piece of cheese. He did not then tarry to seek a stone. He put the piece of cheese in the sling. When Medb’s forehead was turned towards then, he let fly the piece of cheese and it struck her on the crown of the head so that he killed her by the one cast in vengeance of his mother.’[6]

And that is the story of Medb of Connaught. There is jealousy, revenge, rape, murder and pointless warfare in this tale, but also a measure of human passion, folly, love and above all, power. Medb is certainly a force to be reckoned with, but like Villanelle in the Killing Eve series, with whom she has something in common, she  is not exactly your classic role model. Some of her power and passion can be attributed to her role as Sovereignty goddess where she bestowed and took away the power of kings, but there is an ambivalence towards this role in the telling of the tale that bears witness over the centuries to the changing nature of man’s relationship with the land. Maeve was said to be buried standing up, so as to face her enemies head on from the grave. I am hoping to visit her cairn at Knocknarea in August and hear for myself what her long since silenced voice has to say…


[1] ‘Honeysuckle’ in the ‘Green Man Tree Oracle’ by John Matthews and Will Worthington

[2] ‘The Bee Book’ by F Chadwick, S Alton, E S Tennant, B Fitzmaurice and J Earl, Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2016

[3] ‘Bee’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[4] The Bee Book, as above

[5] ‘Bee’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[6] The Violent Death of Medb’ ed. And trans. Vernam Hull

Picture credit: Queen Maeve by J.C Leyendecker, public domain

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