Hives and Honeybees

I remember being confused as a little girl by the words of the song “In Our Lovely Deseret.” I supposed that the word must be “desert” because I had no concept of deseret. Much like the many children who sing “little purple panties” instead of “little purple pansies” because they have no concept of what a pansy is, I belted out “in our lovely deseerrrt” trying to make the word I understood fit the music I’d been taught.

The word deseret doesn’t stay foreign for long if you grow up in Utah, however, since one quickly encounters the Deseret News, Deseret Book and Deseret Industries. But, what does the word deseret actually mean?

Of course, we learn from the Book of Mormon that the ancient Jaredites carried deseret with them, which by interpretation is a honeybee (Ether 2:3). Although we know almost nothing about the the language of the people of Jared, we do know that it was the uncorrupted language spoken by the posterity of Noah before the big babel breakdown of communication. The references we have for honey in the Old Testament: yahar (1 Sam 14:25), nophet (Psalm 19:10) and debash (Exodus 3:8) bear little resemblance to Deseret, although debash (Deborah–means honeybee) may be be a derivative. Still, deseret seems to be a unique Jaredite word.

L. Arrington reminds us that the early Mormons named their territory Deseret. In 1849 a call was issued to meet in Salt Lake City to prepare a petition asking Congress for the rights of self-government. Until that request was granted, a temporary government was set up under the name of the State of Deseret. Although the petition and the name were rejected two years later when the territorial form of government in Utah was established, it is clear that Deseret was the first choice for the name of the State. The State of Deseret was reorganized in 1862 for 8 years when the Civil War again gave the Saints hope of statehood. The name Deseret was used ubiquitously in the territory. There was the the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, Deseret National Bank, Deseret Telegraph, Deseret Silk Association, Deseret Museum, Deseret Mercantile Association, Deseret Iron Company, Deseret Theater, Deseret Currency and in 1854 Brigham Young even introduced the Deseret Alphabet.

Why did the Saints choose Deseret? The natural environment obviously ruled out Bountiful as a good option, but why didn’t they call the place Zarahemla or some other Book of Mormon place name? What was it about the honeybee that held such interest for them? We know the beehive represented the industry and frugality that it took to make the desert blossom like a rose. Certainly cooperation and thrift were (are?) central tenants of the Church. But is there more to this symbol than that? I think there is.

The ancient Greek text entitled Joseph and Asenath offers a fuller picture of the significance of the honeybee. In Joseph and Asenath we read about the transformation of the daughter of an Egyptian priest and what she must do to become an acceptable bride for the biblical Joseph of Egypt. Asenath is visited by an angel and compelled to find a particular honeycomb. The angel explains, “this honey the bees of the paradise of delight have made, and the angels of God eat of it, and all who eat of it shall not die for eternity.” Asenath is told that when she “discovers the sweetness of the honeycomb” she will receive a secure future in this life and after death. Asenath is in close contact with honeybees that are described as being “as white as snow with wings the color of hyacinth” and having gold diadems upon their heads.

In her commentary When Asenath Met Joseph, Professor Ross Kraemer gives us further insight on honeybees. It seems that bees and honey played substantial roles in the religious symbolism of the ancient Mediterranean world. In Egypt an early myth relates that bees were born from the sun God Re, thus establishing a connection between bees and the solar deity. Analogous to manna, honey was regarded as the substance that falls from heaven. The Pharaoh was typically identified with the honeybee, which was the symbol of sacred royalty. The goddess Nut could even appear in the form of a bee. For the Egyptians, bees were considered the guides of the dead during their journey to the next world.

In the Greek and Roman cultural milieux, bees had even more complex and suggestive associations. Bees were known for their wisdom and virtues; for their chastity and sexual abstinence; for their love of cleanliness and their hatred of dirt; for their abhorrence of unpleasant smells and their abtinence of meat. Bees were believed to be diviners of the future, sometimes of misfortune. They symbolized peace as well as the virtues of the proper woman: chastity, purity and diligence. They were also the givers of the gift of eloquence of speech. Bees were associated with religious oracles and the name “honeybee” was given to women who participated in such festivals. Bees were also the symbol of the life force or the soul. Priestesses were called bees by the ancients. Those dead souls were called bees who, after performing those things that are acceptable to the gods, were promised to again return. This insect was thought of loving to return to the place from whence it first came. I don’t think it accidental that honeybees make both wax and honey. Honey might be considered an appropriate symbol of the sweetness of the Atonement that allows us entrance into the promised land flowing with milk and honey. Wax fills in cracks, healing breaches, making things whole again.

None of these symbols may have played a role in the decision to choose deseret as the name of the place to try again to build the Kingdom of God. Indeed, I have never come across anything that suggests that the early Church leaders grasped the ancient significance of the term deseret. Perhaps one of you have? Even if the choice was not deliberately made with all (or any) of these connotations consciously in mind, I think there are usually many layers of meaning in the symbols we are led to embrace.

12 comments for “Hives and Honeybees

  1. Julie in Austin
    June 9, 2004 at 10:47 pm


  2. June 9, 2004 at 11:34 pm

    My main question after reading your article is as follows. Who first proposed naming the state “Deseret?”

    I think If we could answer that question, we would also find the answer of why the residents of the territory embraced the name.

  3. June 10, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks, Melissa. The Deseret as industry thing has never resonated with me much — perhaps because I’m so lazy — even though I really like honeybees [my grandfather kept bees]. Now it’s taken on a richness I can appreciate — whether originally intended or not.

    Sidenote: I love that the Deseret alphabet has been encoded in Unicode. Note that if you scroll down to the bottom of that page you can download font sets.

  4. June 10, 2004 at 2:14 pm

    Addition: The formal Unicode proposal has a list of the characters as well as a brief history of the alphabet and a few images of it in use.

  5. Frank McIntyre
    June 10, 2004 at 2:19 pm

    So now any LDS web site concerned about becoming too big can just switch their blog to the Deseret Alphabet. Problem solved, guaranteed!

  6. Nate Oman
    June 10, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    Melissa: My dad did an article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism on the Beehive. It turns out that Brigham Young discussed its significance in a couple of sermons. The references to the JD are in the article. Also, I know that Fred Collier (a fundamentalist who has produced some pretty decent collections of 19th century documents) claims that the Beehive had some esoteric (Masonic?) meaning for 19th century Mos.

  7. June 10, 2004 at 2:44 pm

    I have to admit that I made a half-hearted [read: half hour] attempt to learn it several years ago by using a reproduction of the original Deseret Alphabet setting of the Book of Mormon that my family had inherited from my grandfather. It had a handy character guide in the front and I figured that it wouldn’t take too long since I knew the text quite well. After all, it’s just a matter of learning the symbol-sound relationship well enough to recognize the words at a rate fast enough for reading comprehension.

    But my love of esoteric knowledge wasn’t strong enough to keep my mind focused on the project.

  8. Kevin Barney
    June 10, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    Nibley famously proposed an Egyptian etymology for “Deseret,” in both his Era articles from the late 60s and his Message of the JS Papyri.

    But I have always wondered whether the term might not have a Semitic derivation.

    As Melissa mentions, the Hebrew word for bee is *deborah* (and thus the name). The -ah is a feminine ending. But in archaic Hebrew, the feminine ending was -t, not -h. So the -et in Deseret might simply be the archaic equivalent to the -ah in Deborah.

    But I’ve never been able to figure out how the s (or sh) of Deseret becomes a b in later Hebrew Deborah.

  9. lyle
    June 10, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    my brother can read/rite Deseret fluently. maybe we can use it as a code when the Church is being persecuted again? ;)

  10. Adam Greenwood
    June 10, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    Thank you, much, Melissa P. What a suggestive post.

    From time to time in the bloggernacle or in the larger Tabernet (Desernet, whatever) one always comes across a debate on what a mormon symbol should look like. What to do instead of the cross? i always wonder why the beehive is not more mentioned on these occasions.

  11. Rob
    June 10, 2004 at 4:23 pm

    Here’s what Lance S. Owens had to say about the masonic connections to the honey bee

    This exact metaphor of the honey bee as the alchemist and the hive as the alchemical retort is presented on the title page of Michael Maier’s Examen fucorum (Frankfurt: Nicholas Hoffman for Theodor de Bry, 1617), facsimile in Klossowski de Rola, The Golden Game, 65. (See Fig. 5.) The bee and beehive seems to have entered the symbolic vocabulary of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through a rediscovered and influential work of the third century Neoplatonist Porphyry, De Antro Nympharum (On the Cave of the Nymphs). In this short essay, Porphyry examined several verses from the thirteenth book of Homer’s Odyssey and showed how they were to be interpreted as an allegory of the immortal soul’s passage through mortality and on to liberation. The bees and hive are among the objects encountered in this “cave of generation.” As Kathleen Raine notes in her introduction to Thomas Taylor’s translation of the work, “Porphyry’s interests in symbols and myths is central–in what Henry Corbin has called the mundus imaginalis, the imaginal world where sensible images are informed with meaning, and where higher worlds may be discerned under symbolic forms. . . . With the revival of Neoplatonic learning in Renaissance Florence, De Antro Nympharum spoke immediately to the imaginative genius of those gifted painters whose works communicated the profoundest philosophic realizations in the lightest vestures” (“Introduction” in, Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs [Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1991], 10, 13.) It is this same intent to convey an understanding of “higher worlds” through symbolic forms that subsequently animated the seventeenth-century genre of “hieroglyphic” alchemical emblems; and it is only natural that they would pay homage by echoing imagery from De Antro Nypharum. Porphyry associated Homer’s Cave of the Nymphs with the cave-temples of an ancient mystery religion and gave a long discussion to the symbolic, allegorical meanings of the bees and honey combs found there. The web and beehive were subsequently linked together in emblems identifying the royal patron of the Rosicrucian enlightenment, Fredrick V, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia (this linkage helps identify their joint origin in Porphyry, a fact I have not seen elsewhere noted). Fredrick’s reign became the focal point of reformative aspirations, and under his patronage in Oppenheim several of the most influential emblematic “Rosicrucian” books were published. These included works published by the de Bry firm and several authored by Michael Maier (Examen fucorum, noted above, is an example–on the title page Maier identifies himself “Count Palatine, Free Knight of the Empire, Doctor of Medicine”). The Rose Cross, spider’s web, and beehive are again linked on the title page of Robert Fludd’s and Joachim Frizius’s collaboration, Summum bonum, The True Magic, Cabla, and Alchemy of the True Fraternity of the Rose Cross (Frankfurt, 1629) (Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, 72, 102). The symbol of the beehive subsequently entered into Freemasonry as one of the ten emblems (including the “All-seeing Eye”) given to a Master Mason at the time of his ceremonial initiation; in Masonry it was associated with the motto “industry” (Jabez Richardson, Richardson’s Monitor of Free-Masonry [facsimile reprint, Chicago: Charles T. Powner, Co., n.d.], 40). Nearly every priesthood leader of Joseph Smith’s church present in Nauvoo was “given” these two symbolic emblems when entered as Master Masons (see discussion below). In a bizarre historical twist, after the failure of the reign of Fredrick V, the next political kingdom to which this symbol would be widely linked was Brigham Young’s Kingdom of Deseret. The beehive and the motto “Industry” remain today the emblem and motto of its successor, the State of Utah.

  12. June 10, 2004 at 5:30 pm


    Very interesting to hear that the beehive had significance in Masonry. I wonder if it meant more to the Masons than mere industry.

    Thanks for the reference to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. I’ll check the JD references when I get home tonight.

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