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.