The Works of Fiona Macleod, Volume V, TheSunset of Old Tales


"Knowing that knowable spirit, let not death disturb you."- -The Prashna Upanishad.

A friend writes to me asking what is "the wisdom of the wild bees"?  He read the phrase, he says, in something I wrote once, and also in an Oban paper last year, quoted there as a Hebridean saying. I am not sure if I have heard it in English. But in Gaelic, either as "the old wisdom of the bees," or "the secret knowledge of the bees," the phrase occurs in tales of the islanders of Tiree, Coll, Iona, Colonsay, and Islay as naturally as phrases such as cho marbh ri sgadan, "as dead as a herring," or cho luath ris na luin, "as swift as the wave-tops"; or as, in tales of second-sight, mar thubradh anns an dailgionn, "as was spoken in the prophecy"; or as, in tales of love, a ghraidhean -mo chridhe, "thou dear one of my heart"; or as, in the telling of the "Tri Broin nan Sgeulachd" ("The Three Sorrows of Story-Telling "), or other old tales, mention of the slacan druidheachd, the magic wand, or being fo gheasaibh, under enchantment.

In old In Iona, some years ago, I heard woman speak of the robin-redbreast as "St. Columba's Companion, and of the wild bees as his children: "They have Colum's wisdom," she said. But I imagine that, in most instances, the phrase is used without much thought of the lost or time-worn meaning, as are used the other phrases I have given. "Ask the wild bee for what the Druids knew," and "ask the children of the heather where Fionn sleeps," and the like, point to an old association of the wild bee and ancient wisdom. And, doubtless, the story-teller of today might naturally use figuratively or directly allude to a creature so familiar to him; as, last year, in one of the isles, a shepherd speaking to me ended his narrative with "and I would go to that country, and look till I found, if I had the three wisdoms of the bee, that can find its way in the grass, and over the widest water, and across the height of hills." Here, of course, is meant the natural knowledge of the bee, not the wisdom of druid, or of Colum Cille, or of the masters of illusion, or of the cumhachdan siorruidh shuas, the everlasting powers above. I remember a line too, as part of an invocation or oath, though I cannot recall the latter exactly. The line was fifth or sixth, and ran, "by the wisdom of the air-travellers," or words to that effect (possibly birds in their migration, and not bees, were meant). The invocation, if such it were, began:--

"'Air a ghrian anns an iarm,
Air an adhar os do chionn,
Air an talamh os do bhonn,
Air an dreighinn naoimh,'

and invoked also other things of earth and elemental things. And not long ago I heard a phrase used by a Gaelic prcacher so nearly in the words of a great writer that I thought it was a quotation from some poem or legendary tale familiar to me, and it was not for some time, in "Who was it put wisdom on the bee, teaching her the direction of the fields of the air, and the homeway to the hive on hillside or in glen; or who showed the salmon to leave the depths of the sea, and come up narrow streams; or who gave the raven the old wisdom of the hills?" . . . that I recognised an unconscious iterance of Bacon's noble measure:--"Who taught the raven in a drowth to throw pebbles into an hollow tree where she spied water, that the water might rise so as she might come to it? Who taught the bee to sail through such a vast sea of air, and to find the way from a field in flower a great way off to her hive? Who taught the ant to bite every grain of corn that she burieth in her hill, lest it should take root and grow?"

In Ross, I was told by a man of the Gairloch, they speak . . . in a folk-tale I think he said, but possibly colloquially . . . of the bees as "lords of wisdom" or "the little kings of wisdom." It is a fine phrase, that . . . the lords of wisdom: and not one to forget.

Oftenest, however, the allusions to the bee are, doubtless, to its "knowingness" rather than to its "wisdom"; its skill in tracking the pathless ways, its intuition of the hour and season, of the way of the wind, of the coming of rain, of gathering thunder.

But I recall from childhood a memory of another kind: though I cannot say, now, how much is old thought drowned in dreams, or how much is due to the ceaseless teller of tales who croons behind the heart and whispers the old enchantment in the twilights of the mind.

One day when the young Christ was nine years old he saw Mary walking by a thicket. He ran and hid in the thicket, and sent three wishes of love to her, and gave to each the beat of two wings and the pulse of song. The first rose on wings of blue and sank into the sky, carrying a prayer of Mary. The second rose on white wings and fled seawards by the hills of the west, carrying a hope of Mary. The third rose on wings of green, and sank to the grasses, carrying a dream of Mary.

Then a voice came from the thicket: a voice so sweet as to send the birds to the branches . . . chuireadh e na h'eoin 'an crannaibh:--

The Yellow Star, O Mary, to the bird of the blue wing! . . .
The rainbow, O Mary, to the white bird! . . .
The wild bee, O Mary, to the green bird! . . .

At that, Mary worshipped. "O God in the thicket," she said, "sweet the songs and great the beauty. But lo! the birds are gone." Then Christ came out of the thicket, and took her hand. "Mother," said the child, "no trouble to your heart, dear, because of the Yellow Star. Your prayer was that my Father would not forget His secret promise. The sun is steadfast, and so I say that the Yellow Star is set upon your prayer. And no trouble to your heart, Mother, because of the Rainbow to the white bird: for your hope was for the gates of the west and the hidden garden of Peace: and even now the gates are open, and spices and balms are on the green wave that flows the long way east of the sun and west of the moon. But as to the wild bee, Mother, of that I cannot speak."

At that, Mary was sad, for she knew that when a Druid of the east had told her to give her son the friendship of the wind, of the blown dust, of the grass, of the leaf, and of the wild bee, she had done all those things but the last. So she stood and wept.

Then the young Christ, her son, called to a bee that was among the foam-white pastures.

"What was your dream, Mother?" he said.

"My dream," said Mary, "was that I should know death at the last, for in the flesh I am a woman, and that of me that is mortal desireth death."

So Christ asked the wild bee. But the bee said, "Can you see the nine hundred and ninety-nine secret roads of the air?"

"No," said the child.

"It is on one of these roads," said the wild bee, "that Mary's dream went."

So when Mary, sad at heart, but in this thing only, went back to the house where she dwelt and made ready the supper for that day's end, Christ gave friendship to the wild bee, and became a bee, and floated above the pastures. And when he came home at twilight he knew all the secrets of the little people of the air.

That night, after the meal was done, he stood looking at Mary and Joseph.

"I have known many wisdoms," he said, "but no wisdom like the wisdom of the wild bee. But I have whispered to them a secret thing, and through the years and the ages they will not forget. And some of the children of men shall hear the wild bees, and many shall call upon them; and to that little clan of the unwise and foolish, as they shall ever be accounted, I will send the wild bees of wisdom and of truth."

And Joseph said, "Are the bees then so wise?"

But Mary whispered: "I do not think it is of the wild bees of the pastures that the Christ my son speaks, but of the wild bees of the Spirit."

Christ slept, and put his hand in Mary's, and she had no fear: and that of her which was of heaven deepened in joy, and that of her which was mortal had peace. But Joseph lay awake, and wondered why to a little clan of those held foolish and unwise should come, as secret wings in the dark, the sound and breath of an ancient wisdom.


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