Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Childeric's Bees

Doing a quick self-referential link search for the last post, I am floored to see there isn't a single post in this blog about Childeric's bees.

Image:  Wikimedia
Drawings of the original, widely flared-winged bees

King Childeric was Clovis I's father, and may have been the son (certainly he was the successor) to Merovech, the Frankish king whose name was the basis for the name of the Merovingian dynasty.  There is reason to believe that Childeric, a federate client-king within Rome's empire, owned a great deal of wealth - his tomb, discovered in 1653, yielded the most astonishing treasure.  (In the opening scenes of The Ax and the Vase, Childeric's grave goods are described in detail, including a prodigious series of funereal sacrifices.)

The most famous treasure of all was Childeric's bees.  Napoleon himself had these millennium-deep symbols of France and the monarchy embroidered into his coronation robes.  (Interestingly/possibly ironically if you like, Napoleon is said to have chosen the symbol of the bees to eclipse the Bourbon fleur de lys.  It is also said that the bees were in fact the inspiration for the fleur itself, though there are many origin theories for the symbol.)

Image:  Wikimedia
Fleur de Lys wall

Sadly, almost all these incredible artifacts were lost in the first third of the nineteenth century.

The significance of bees spans many centuries and much of the globe, and often they are used as living avatars in tribute to work - perhaps what we today would call "teamwork" - what in many cultures through history might have looked at more as service.  Bees are associated with gold, and the sweetness of honey, and there is some ambiguity as to why a bee might be chosen as a royal votive offering, never mind the emblem of monarchy and authority.  Theories reach back to the goddess Artemis.  The fact is, three hundred of these tiny treasures were sewn on a prodigious red cloak in the tomb of Clovis' father.

Of the funeral scene, and the offering of these gifts in tribute to the late king, I had this to say of the bees:

            My sister and Basina approached the grave from another direction.  The horses having died at Childeric’s feet, the women approached toward his crown.  In Basina’s hands was a cask of great dimension, heavy enough to beg assistance—yet she would not depend upon a slave, nor even Audofleda.
            Her eyes, grey as his had been, were dry and steady, but seemed as heavy as her movements.  Her hands moved smoothly, but as if dazed.  Her posture was automatic, calm, but no longer regal, as she had been just weeks before.  I saw her let her head bow forward in silence.
            “To the King.  To my husband—this last gift, before you depart.”  Her voice was quiet; yet in the aftermath of the women’s mourning, she was easy to hear.
            Knelt beside him for the last time, she opened the box before her, and revealed a trove of tiny golden bees, swarmed upon brocaded, blood-red linen.  Finally, she allowed the her daughter to join in her last greeting to the King.  Together, they unfurled a great cloak—of such prodigious length it might grace a god or daemon—and spread it across the body of my father.  The bees glinted in the cold air, warding away greasy smoke and death itself.  They settled in dimples between puffs of rich red, and their field settled slowly between them; three hundred golden symbols of regeneration, wisdom, royalty … immortality.
            Basina’s gift was the richest one of all, an offering of thanksgiving to the king who had given her gifts still greater, but no more potent than the worker-creatures eternally wrought to accompany him, in precious, glinting gold.

There are those (see the second link above) who do not even see bees in these tiny artifacts.  I do, and they are most famously presumed to be bees, but theories do abound.

Image:  Wikimedia
Replicas commissioned by the Emperor Leopold, Innsbruck, Austria

Do you see a fleur de lys here?  Do you see flies, or bees, or that intriguing, mystical insect, the cicada?  Perhaps the head of a spear - or even the flower, the lily?  Perhaps not the weapon, the totem, that gave the Franks, and France itself, its name:  the francisca, the ax carried by Frankish men from even long before Clovis' own period.  It isn't the narrow shape of the axe's head, but then it's not a literal image of a bug, nor flower, nor another weapon either.

It has a face; I am content to see Childeric's bees as bees.  What do you think, out of all the legends ... ?

1 comment:

Mojourner said...

Of the legends, I would go with bees, especially with the cross-wise bands which negates the fly theory (although wing position favors the fly version, any dead man at that time was probably swarming with actual flies, and god ones would have been gratuitous).

My first impression, though, is badminton shuttlecock.