Lemon Balm, Bees, and the Melissae
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae), also known as bee balm and heart’s delight, has long been associated with bees.1 Since antiquity, beekeepers have crushed the leaves and spread them in and around hives to either draw swarms to new hives or calm the bees. The lemon-mint scent of the crushed leaves contains chemicals similar to the Nasonov pheromones ((Z)-citral, nerol, geraniol, nerolic acid, geranic acid, and (E,E)-farnesol) that worker bees spray in the hive to attract their hive mates to home or certain plants or the queen bee exudes to make the hive feel safe and at home.
The genus name Melissa (μέλισσα) meant both bee and honey in classical Greek; with meli (μέλι) also meaning honey.2 In the patriarchal Greek myths, Melissa was one of the nymphs who hid the baby Zeus from his father, Cronus, and who nursed him on honey and goat’s milk in a cave in Crete. The nymphs had the ability to take the form of bees and were known collectively as the Melissae. Demeter, Aphrodite, and Artemis were served by priestesses called the Melissae, and the Delphic Oracle was sometimes referred to as the “Delphic Bee.”
Before the time of patriarchy and the sky gods, bee priestesses served the goddess and were the intermediaries between the Sacred and society. Depictions can be found in Minoan jewelry of both bees and priestesses who appear to have heads of bees and are dancing around beehives. Lemon balm, which is a sedative, is thought to support dreamwork and connection with spirits, both keys to the Melissae’s oracular work.3 The herb has been associated with beauty, sexuality, fertility, and joy. As a heart herb, it was thought to be an emotional healer, to be bring comfort to those in sorrow, and as a stimulus for delight. As the scent attracts bees to the hive, lemon balm has also been used to attract one’s desires.
Centuries later, lemon balm would be an important herb for alchemists, royalty, and monastics.4 The Swiss physician and alchemist, Paracelsus (1493-1541), called the herb “the elixir of life.” He thought lemon balm to be supra-celestial, instead of being ruled by a specific planet, therefore being related to the quintessence, ether.5 Prince Llewelyn of Wales (13th/14th centuries) lived to 108 and was said to drink a tisane of lemon balm every morning.4 In France, during the 14th century, nuns from the Abbey of St. Just created the eau de cologne, Carmelite water, also known as Eau de Mélisse. Carmelite water has had many iterations over the centuries and has been used as a nervine, digestive aid, headache tonic, and to relieve menstrual cramps. A recipe for Carmelite water can be found here: https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/herbal-carmelite-water-recipe.
HerbClip™ Managing Editor
1Peterson J. Lemon balm: The immortal life of bees. The Herbal Academy website. https://theherbalacademy.com/lemon-balm/. September 12, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2021.
2Perry L. The Melissae: A bit of Minoan honey. Witches & Pagans website. https://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-paths-blogs/the-minoan-path/the-melissae-a-bit-of-minoan-honey.html. December 5, 2017. Accessed October 20, 2021.
3Kynes S. Mixing Essential Oils for Magic – Aromatic Alchemy for Personal Blends. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications; 2013.
4Lawless J. Aromatherapy and the Mind. London: Harper Collins Publishers; 1994.
5Cosgriff C. Oh sweet Melissa. Honeybee Herbals website. https://www.honeybeeherbals.co/blog/2021/9/6/ohsweetmelissa. Accessed October 20, 2021.