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How to 'Bee' a Good Wife

Michelle Martinez

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

            Birds do it, but it turns out bees don't. This paper places the bee-wife of Hesiod, Phocylides, and Semonides into conversation with scientific thought, specifically Aristotle's Generation of Animals and History of Animals. Bees represent the ideal wife because they fulfill Greek men’s fantasy of a world in which women contribute to the household but do not threaten it with their sexual appetite.

            Past studies on bees in ancient literature have examined bees and the state (Hudson-Williams 1935, Mayhew 1999, Van Overmeire 2011), bees and their mythic and cultic associations (Herren 2008), and later receptions of bees (Borthwich 1991, Bounas 2008, Kritsky 2015). Scholarship on the bee-wife in particular has focused on the bee’s hard working nature and Greek men’s anxiety about the idleness of women (North 1977, Sussman 1978). The bee’s work ethic can certainly help explain the popularity of the bee-wife image, inasmuch as it makes the metaphor very flexible: a bee hive aptly describes the correct functioning of the state and citizens as much as the management of the oikos (Xen. Oec. 7.17, 9.14-15). However, I propose that the bee is particularly appropriate to represent the ideal wife not only because bees were known to work hard but because it was also believed that they reproduce asexually.

            According to Aristotle's Generation of Animals, bees cannot be defined as either male or female, because they are both: "τὸ θῆλυ καὶ τὸ ἄρρεν" (GA 3.759b). Aristotle comes to this conclusion by sexing bees based on their gender roles in the hive: hive-bees have stingers (ἀλκὴν ὅπλον, 3.759b) which females of a species cannot have, yet they care for young, which males of a species cannot (and should not) do (3.759b). Bees are not sexually dimorphic and have never been observed having sex: τὸ μηδέποτε ὦφθαι ὀχευόμενον μηθὲν αὐτῶν· εἰ δ᾿ ἦν ἐν αὐτοῖς τὸ μὲν θῆλυ τὸ δ᾿ ἄρρεν, πολλάκις ἂν τοῦτο συνέβαινεν, "for none of them have been seen copulating with each other, but if there were a female and male amongst them, this would happen often" (759b). Therefore, they must reproduce asexually (cf. 759a).  

            Taking this scientific lore into account, I read Hesiod's Theogony (589-602) and Works and Days (373–378; 403–409; 702–705) together with the fragments of Phocylides and Semonides, to argue that the asexual nature of honey-bees is the ideal wife’s most important characteristic. As Hesiod explains, mixing 'business' (the oikos) and pleasure (sex) leads to ruin: οὐ μὲν γάρ τι γυναικὸς ἀνὴρ ληίζετ᾿ ἄμεινον τῆς ἀγαθῆς, τῆς δ᾿ αὖτε κακῆς οὐ ῥίγιον ἄλλο, δειπνολόχης, "For a man acquires nothing better than a good wife, but nothing more chilling than a bad one, a dinner-ambusher!" (Hes. WD 702-704). Phocylides and Semonides build on Hesiod’s idea by mapping women’s worst characteristics onto different animal species and ranking them in what I term a 'taxonomy of wives.' Phocylides and Semonides are not only concerned, as Hesiod is, that a wife be "a good housekeeper and know how to work," οἰκονόμος τ᾿ ἀγαθὴ καὶ ἐπίσταται ἐργάζεσθαι (Phoc. 7, ll. xx), but that "she takes no joy in sitting with women in places where they talk about sex," "οὐδ᾿ ἐν γυναιξὶν ἥδεται καθημένη ὅκου λέγουσιν ἀφροδισίους λόγους." (Sem. 90-91, ll. xx). Although the bee-wife cannot, like Aristotle’s bees, reproduce without having sex, she reflects the bee’s chastity by refusing to talk about it.

            Neither poetry nor 'science' exists in a vacuum; both discourses communicate with each other and are influenced by the same socio-cultural norms. Tracing the sex/gender of bees through Greek thought reveals that the bee-wife is a Greek misogynist’s dream (e.g. Eur. Medea 568–575): a woman whose identity rests mainly on her role as wife, who rears children and manages the household, but loses the baggage associated with the female of the species: sex.

Session/Panel Title:

Didactic Poetry

Session/Paper Number

28.2

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