On September 28, Jon Arregi, a historian and communicator, published a Twitter thread about an article in the Daily Mail (which we’ve linked to below) reporting that the British Royal Beekeeper had informed the bees of the queen’s passing and that there was now a new king. In that thread, he recalls that this is an ancient Basque tradition.
The journalist who penned the article, John Dingwall, defined this event as a “bizarre tradition dating back centuries.” The fact that this is “bizarre” is no doubt due to the break that has occurred between our society and its traditions. It’s left us orphaned from our own history. We’re sad to say we ourselves have been affected.
As the Daily Mail article reports:
“[the bees that make up the ‘royal hives’ are] predominantly Dark European Honey bees, specifically London mongrels.
These have been native to mainland Britain since before the closing of the Channel Landbridge, when sea levels rose following the last Ice Age.”
These bees reached the island of Great Britain when it was still joined to the European continent, crossing the land bridge just like the first settlers who came over who, according to reputable theories, were the same pre-Indo-Europeans who were leaving behind the “Franco-Cantabrian” shelter where they had settled during the ice age; those who stayed ended up becoming the Basques. Over the years, we’ve brought you many articles on the subject, two of which we’re linking to below, should you fancy reading them.
It is therefore quite easy to understand how this “bizarre” custom, rooted in the most ancestral traditions and habits of the very first Europeans, was common to us in all the territories of our country until just a few years ago.
Jon Arregi has written an article on how this tradition was practiced in the Basque Country, based on articles found in the Ethnographic Atlas of Vasconia. You, too, can consult it on their website or download the PDF.
It’s quite odd, and a bit concerning (“a bit” is there to soften the blow) that our society has been so surprised by the existence of this tradition. It was an important part of our cultural and social heritage until only a few decades ago. Now we find it as exotic as the English do.
Once again, we must thank all those who dedicate themselves to preserving who we were, which is (or should be) the base of who were are. Likewise, we must thank people like Jon Arregi, who remind us.
«Erleak, gaur hil da etxeko nagusia»: when the Basques told the bees of the death of a relative
Jon Arregi, historian
Jon Arregi is a historian, and although he makes a living in the world of digital communication and marketing, he is passionate about sharing the history of the Basque Country, its ethnography, the Basque language, and Basque culture
Among all the pageantry organized for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, there was one event that surprised many people. Buckingham Palace made sure to announce that the Royal Beekeeper, John Bhapple, had informed the million bees that live in the hives on the lands of the different palaces that the Queen had died, placing a black ribbon on each one of them.
But even more surprising is that this ceremony, which might seem incredibly exotic to us today, is strongly rooted in the rural environment of the Basque Country practiced for as long as anyone can remember, right up until the 1950s, though there are places where the tradition survived a little longer. In the mountains of Navarre, Javier Larrayoz, in “Encuesta etnográfica del Valle de Elorz,” tells that in 1974, the phrase “Erliak, erliak, gaur hil da etxeko nagusia” (Bees, bees, today the master/mistress of the house has died).
Bees, an essential part of the Basque farm
The bees were (and still are) a fundamental part of many Basque homesteads. In addition to pollinating different plants and crops, which is essential in the orchards, they also made wax which was used to create candles, which was often the only form of nighttime illumination. They also made honey, a delicious food packed with energy that, since ancient Egypt, has been associated with strengthening the immune system and curing colds and other typical winter diseases.
That’s why, up until the eighties, the bees at the farmsteads in the seven Basque territories were the protagonists of a small funerary act when one of the people at the farmstead of the lands the bees occupied passed away. As mentioned in “Ritos funerarios en Vasconia” in the Basque Ethnographic Atlas from ETNIKER, it was the widow or widower or their heirs who addressed the hives to let them know that someone in the family had died.
For the Basques, especially in rural areas, animals lived inside the home and, in a certain way, were part of the family. That’s why it was somewhat logical to inform those living in the home of the passing of a loved one.
Telling the bees was always done in a soft, affectionate way. In fact, the bees were treated with such respect that they were addressed as andreak (“mesdames”). By knocking three times on the hive with your knuckles or another tool, the message “nagusia hil da” (the master has died) or “extekoandrea hil da” (the mistress has died), as told to us by Resurrección María de Azkue. In some cases, the chronicles tell how black ribbons were tied to the hives, or the hives were covered with a black cloth with a hole so they could enter and leave. In other cases, an article of clothing owned by the deceased was left nearby.
But why are the bees being told that someone has died? Anthropologists believe that this act stems from the beliefs of pre-Christian Europe, where bees were associated with helping souls cross over after death. So, it makes a kind of sense to tell them there’s a new soul that needs to be carried over to the other side, as told by Wilhelm Giese in “Notas sobre abejas y apicultura en el País Vasco”.
“Now I’m the master,” introducing the new head of the houshold
Normally, the bees were also told who was to be the new master or mistress from that moment on, and they were told that the new head would continue taking due care of them. “Orain ni nagusi” (I’m the master/mistress now). This notification was essential, since it is deeply rooted in the belief that not duly communicating the death of the master or mistress might cause the bees to stop making honey, to move away, or to die overnight.
Not only that, telling the bees about the passing had a more practical side, too: to ask them to please produce more wax than normal so as to make candles to commemorate the deceased. “Andreak, etxean hila bada, egin ezazue eztia ta argi-zaria” (mesdames, as there has been a death in the house, make honey and wax).
In the case of the typical candlesticks, oak or beech sticks were covered up in rolls of wax to make a tall, thin candle which provided light for the family service, the funeral, or other religious acts held in memory of the deceased, so their need for wax was greater than for the normal candles, which lasted much longer, so it was quite normal to ask the bees to increase production.
In different places in Navarre, they were asked to increase wax production with a popular rhyme or song, “Erletxuak, egizute argizaria, nagusia hil da, ta behar da elizan argia” (Little bees, make wax, the master/mistress has died and light is needed in the church), as told by Serapio Múgica in “Bueyes y carneros en los entierros.” Julio Caro Baroja also reported how in the Bera de Bidasoa area, the phrase to use was “Erliak, erliak, gaur hil da etxeko nagusia” (Bees, bees, the master of the house has died today).
So, both for mystical reasons and for practical ones, the role of the bees was important when someone at the farmstead passed away. We even have stories of places where the hives were turned to orient them to the path where the funeral procession would pass by. Indeed, if the tradition were not followed, it was believed some misfortune would befall them. “Bertzenaz, desgrazia etortzen da” (Otherwise, misfortune will befall us).
The other animals of the house
In addition to the bees, there are documented cases of other animals also being told of the death. However, this custom was far less widespread, and lacks the mystical and practical implications that go with the beehives (there was no wax in play). Moreover, given the testimonials we’re discussing, these other animals were considered to be inferior given the way they were addressed. For example, in Sare, Labourd, the oxen and cows in the stable were told of the death, as well as the chickens and hogs. It was believed that not doing so might cause disturbances among the livestock.
In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Lower Navarre, the stable animals were given the bad news with the formula “Kabale maiteak: etxeko nagusia hil zaizue” (dear livestock, the master/mistress of the house has died on you). In this case, the livestock, kabala, was addressed as “you,” a far cry from the “mesdames” that the bees received, as we’re told by Resurrección María de Azkue in “Euskalerriaren Yakintza” which also tells how in Baigorri, also in Lower Navarre, the cows’ bells were taken away for a time, and in Luzaide—Valcarlos, in Navarre, any animals which were lying down were made to stand up to receive the news.
Perhaps the most interesting case of the domestic animals being informed of a death might be that of Oragarre, in Lower Navarre, where the dog was informed, and then told to “go tell it to the rest of the animals” (Michel Duvert, “Donnèes Etnographiques sur le vécu traditionnel de la Mort en le Pays Basque-nord”). Of course, the bees were told directly, before the other animals.
The thrilling ethnographic history of the Basque Country
The countryside of the Basque Country was one of the last holdouts of a habit that had existedn throughout all of Europe before Christianity, and the only place where it has survived to our day is in the protocols of the British Royal House. The relationship of humans with bees has been unique since time immemorial (bees were represented in the hieroglyphics in the pharaohs’ tombs in Egypt), and the case of the death of the farmers holds a special place in the ethnographic history of our country.
That’s why, for anyone who may be interested in learning more about the culture and ethnography of the Basque People, we recommend reading the Ethnographic Atlas of Vasconia, published by ETNIKER in 1995, whose eight volumes can be read online for free at this website.
Daily Mail -10/9/2022 – Great Britain
Royal beekeeper has informed the Queen’s bees that the Queen has died and King Charles is their new boss in bizarre tradition dating back centuries
The royal beekeeper – in an arcane tradition thought to date back centuries – has informed the hives kept in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and Clarence House of the Queen’s death. And the bees have also been told, in hushed tones, that their new master is now King Charles III. The official Palace beekeeper, John Chapple, 79, told MailOnline how he travelled to Buckingham Palace and Clarence House on Friday following news of The Queen’s death to carry out the superstitious ritual.