Cab, honig, kab, ksandra (Sanskrit), mel, mella, miel
Honey is a substance produced by the domestic honeybee (Apis mellifica) and by wild bees (Melipona spp., Trigona spp.) from the nectar and pollen of various plants. “Honey is perhaps the only predigested food that humans know” (Root 1996, 127*).
Honey has been used to make mead since the Stone Age. The fact that honey can be toxic and/or psychoactive—in other words, inebriating—has long been known and has been demonstrated throughout the world (Palmer-Jones 1965). Honey also has a long history of use as a healing remedy or a “heavenly medicine.” In Hippocratic medicine, honey was used as “a kind of psychopharmacological agent to treat depression and melancholia, and as a geriatric medicine.” It was also used as an antidote for opium overdoses (Uccusic 1987, 38 f.; see Papaver somniferum).
There are three categories of plants that are associated with toxic honey: 1) plants whose nectar or pollen kills the bees before they can transform it into honey (e.g., locoweed [Astragalus lentiginosus],Veratrum californicum, Vernonia spp.); 2) plants whose nectar is harmless to bees but when turned into honey becomes toxic/inebriating to humans (e.g., oleander [Nerium oleander], thorn apple [Daturaspp.], angel’s trumpet [Brugmansia spp.], mountain laurel [Kalmia spp.], false jasmine [Gelsemium sempervirens], Euphorbia marginata, Serjania lethalis); and 3) known poisonous plants that are harmless to bees and yield edible and often exquisite honey (e.g., Rhus toxicodendron, Metopium toxiferum, Jatropha curcas, Baccharis halimifolia, Ricinus communis) (Morton 1964, 415).
Xenophon (ca. 430–355 B.C.E.) reported in his Anabasis that soldiers became inebriated and poisoned by the honey that had been produced from the Pontic rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum L.) and apparently from a red-flowering oleander (Nerium oleander L.; cf. Rätsch 1995, 267 f.*) (Roth et al. 1994, 615*). “In modern terms, they ‘got high.’ . . . This condition did not last long amongst the Greeks and quickly abated” (Rüdiger 1974, 93). The toxicological literature refers to this Pontic (Turkish) honey as “mad honey” or “toxic honey of Asia Minor” (Fühner 1943, 203*). This inebriating honey was well known in ancient times (Krause 1926; Plugge 1891), and it may have had been involved with the Dionysian frenzies:
In the district on the Pontus, among the people of the Sanni, there is a kind of honey that is known as maenomenon [“mad maker”] because of the insanity it induces. It is thought that this is caused by the flowers of the oleanders [Rhododendron], which abound in the woods. (Pliny 21.77)
In ancient times, it was believed that oleander first came from the land of Colchis (on the Black Sea); it was regarded as a plant of the “witch”Medea (who may have been a Scythian shamaness). Apparently, oleander also had something to do with the wines that were drunk during the Dionysian orgies. Oleander was a popular subject in the wall frescoes of Pompeii, a city known for its Bacchic mysteries. Oleander leaves contain the powerful cardiac poison oleandrin, which can be life-threatening for humans and animals because it can paralyze the heart. Also present are digitalis-like glycosides (neriine, nerianthine, adynerin, cortenerin). The milky latex contains salacin and other alkaloids. Although oleander is frequently said to be toxic, the toxicological literature contains no observations of dangerous intoxications resulting from the consumption of the flowers and leaves (Frohne and Pfänder 1983, 47*).
On Cypress, the island of the great love goddess, honey is still regarded as “Aphrodite’s secret.”
Oleander (Nerium oleander) was once used as an inebriating ingredient in wine. The honey yielded by its flowers is also said to have inebriating effects. (Photographed in Delphi, Greece)
In the Yucatán, a liquor made with honey from Turbina corymbosa is known by the Mayan name for the vine: xtabentun.
The Pontic rhododendron or Pontic oleander (Rhododendron ponticum ssp. ponticum) is the source of an inebriating “mad honey.”
A violet-flowering Rhododendron ponticum var. variegatum.
The Japanese azalea (Rhododendron simsii) produces a honey that is feared as poisonous.
The honey collected from the flowering alpine rose (Rhododendron ferrugineum) is said to have toxic or inebriating effects. (Wild plant, photographed near the Aletsch glacier, Switzerland)
The honey of European ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) appears to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can have toxic or inebriating effects.
“The first ceremonial house (alnáua, arhuínese) was created by the ‘Great Mother’ in the ocean, at the same time as the levels of the universe and according to the same ninefold pattern. The ceremonial house had the shape of a beehive, but the upper structure was complemented below by another beehive, placed on its head and invisible, which it gave it the same egg-shaped form as that of the universe.”
GERARDO REICHEL-DOLMATOFF “THE LOOM OF LIFE”
“According to ancient beliefs, honey falls on the plants (trees and flowers) as dew from heaven or out of the air and thus is considered to be a kind of food of the heavens.”
WILHELM HEINRICH ROSCHER NEKTAR UND AMBROSIA [NECTAR AND AMBROSIA]
An alchemical papyrus dated from late ancient times contains a puzzling recipe made with “mad honey”: “Preparation of emerald. 1 part burned copper, 2 parts verdigris, and a corresponding amount of Pontic honey, cook for one hour” (in Hengstl 1978, 272).
Like all later alchemical recipes, this recipe appears to contain secret instructions for a consciousness process associated with the transmutation of matter. The inclusion of psychoactive honey is particularly interesting.
In ancient times, honey was mixed with ground medicinal herbs (such as wormwood [cf. Artemisia absinthium]) and other pharmaceutical substances to produce what were known as “lick agents,” a kind of pharmaceutical “hard candy.” Some of these may have had psychoactive effects, for example: “A remedy to cool the uterus: hemp is pounded in honey and administered to the vagina. This is a contraction [of the uterus]” (Papyrus Ebers 821 [1550 B.C.E.]; in Manniche 1989, 82*).
The Mayans regard honey (cab) as a gift of the bee gods (ah muzen cab), a food from the heavens (Tozzer and Allen 1910, 298 ff.). An indigenous form of apiculture was practiced in the Yucatán in pre-Columbian times (Brunius 1995). In the Yucatán and Selva Lacandona regions (Chiapas), several species of native stingless bees (Family Meliponidae) make their honey from the nectar of specific flowers. The Lacandon know that at certain times of the year (the flowering periods), bees produce types of honey that have psychoactive or inebriating effects, even when consumed in small amounts. As little as one tablespoon is sufficient to produce noticeable effects. I once tried two tablespoons of such a honey dissolved in atole (a maize drink) and experienced rather strong feelings of inebriation and extreme good cheer.
The Yucatec Maya have domesticated Melipona beecheii and now keep these bees in special hives (hollowed-out tree trunks) to produce honey (Buchmann and Nabhan 1996). The significance of this honey is more religious and ritual than culinary. It is offered at various planting rites and also is fermented to make balche’, which is thus a type of mead (Brunius 1995). In the Yucatán, the honey made from certain vines (Ipomoea spp. and Turbina corymbosa) is called xtabentum or xtabentun (Souza Novelo et al. 1981, 32). Such honey has psychoactive effects and is preferred for making balche’. A liquor known by the same name is produced in the region of Valladolid. This honey is usually harvested in November and December (Brunius 1995, 20).
Certain active constituents in plants can pass into the nectar of the flowers, and the bees metabolize these either not at all or only a little when they produce honey. For example, the toxic grayanotoxins present in rhododendrons and the tropane alkaloids (especially atropine) found in belladonna flowers can both pass into the honey that is derived from their flowers.
Some species of rhododendron, for example azaleas, contain the toxic terpene andromedotoxin (= grayanotoxin, rhodotoxin).426
See also the entries for balche’ and mead.
Brunius, Staffan. 1995. Facts and thoughts about past and present Maya traditional apiculture. Acta Americana 3 (1): 5–30.
Buchmann, Stephen L., and Gary Paul Nabhan. 1996. The survival of Mayan beekeeping. The Seedhead News 54:1–3.
Charlton, Jane, and Jane Newdick. 1996. Honig. Munich: Irisiana.
Glock, Joh. Ph. 1897. Die Symbolik der Bienen und ihrer Produkte in Sage, Dichtung, Kultus, Kunst und Brauchen der Völker. Heidelberg: Th. Groos.
Hazslinsky, B. 1956. Toxische Wirkung eines Honigs der Tollkirsche (Atropa belladonna L.). Zeitschrift für Bienenforschung 3 (5): 93–96; 3 (10): 240.
The long-nosed Mayan god Ek Chuah, with honeycombs and the bee-shaped god Ah Muzencab (“the honey gatherer”). This black god is also the protector of cacao and appears to have numerous other associations with psychoactive plants, mushrooms, and brews. (Codex Tro-Cortesianus 109c)
Some Plants Known to Produce Psychoactive/Toxic Honey
An early-modern-era apiary. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)
Hengstl, Joachim, G. Häge, and H. Kühnert, eds. 1978. Griechische Papyri aus Ägypten: Zeugnisse des öffentlichen und privaten Lebens. Munich: Heimeran.
Huber, Ludwig. 1905. Die neue, nützlichste Bienenzucht. 14th ed. Lahr: M. Schauenburg.
Krause, K. 1926. Über den giftigen Honig des pontischen Kleinasien. Die Naturwissenschaften 44 (29, 10): 976–78.
Morton, Julia F. 1964. Honeybee plants of South Florida. Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society 77:415–36.
Palmer-Jones, T. 1965. Poisonous honey overseas and in New Zealand. New Zealand Medical Journal 64:631–37.
Palmer-Jones, T., and E. P. White. 1949. A recent outbreak of honey poisoning. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 31:246–56.
Plugge, P. C. 1891. Giftiger Honig von Rhododendron ponticum. Archiv der Pharmazie 229:554–58.
Ransome, Hilda M. 1937. The sacred bee in ancient times and folklore. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1978. The loom of life: A Kogi principle of integration. Journal of Latin American Lore 4 (1): 5–27.
Roscher, Wilhelm Heinr. 1883. Nektar und Ambrosia. Mit einem Anhang über die Grundbedeutung der Aphrodite und Athene. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner.
Rüdiger, Wilhelm. 1974. Ihr Name ist Apis: Kleine Kulturgeschichte der Bienen. Illertissen: Mack.
Schwarz, H. F. 1948. Stingless bees (Meliponidae) of the Western Hemisphere. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 90:1–536.
Souza Novelo, Narciso. 1940. Plantas melíferas y poliníferas que viven en Yucatán. Mérida: El Povenir.
Souza Novelo, Narciso, Victor M. Suarez Molina, and Alfredo Barrera Vasquez. 1981. Plantas melíferas y poliníferas de Yucatán. Mexico City: Fondo Editorial de Yucatán.
Tozzer, Alfred M., and Glover M. Allen. 1910. Animal figures in the Maya codices. Papers of the Peabody Museum (Cambridge) 4 (3): 277–372.
Uccusic, Paul. 1987. Doktor Biene. Munich: Heyne.
Valli, Eric, and Diane Summers. 1988. Honey hunters of Nepal. London: Thames & Hudson.
White, J. W., Jr. 1966. Honey. In The hive and the honey bee, ed. Roy A. Grout, 369–406. Hamilton, Ill.: Dadant and Sons.
Humans have gathered and prized honey since the Stone Age. This Stone Age painting showing honey being gathered was discovered in the caves of Araña, near Valencia, Spain.