Who knew? There is an Irish patron saint of bees. And a woman at that!
February 12 is the celebration of St. Gobnait, 6th century patron saint of healing for the sick. In 2008, I visited Ballyvourney, County Cork where the shrine built for Gobnait in the 12th or 13th century still stands. On the land given to her by St. Abban, she established a nunnery, with an old graveyard and medieval parish church known as Teampall Ghobhatan ( the church of Gobnait). There is also a holy “healing” well for the ailing who come to partake of the waters. The interesting thing I noted is that Gobnait had bees crawling up her cloak (cement bees that is) and the base of the statue was adorned with bee symbols (look closely!) Little did I know back then, where the trajectory of my life would take me…back to the hive.
Gobnait was [also] the patron saint of bee keepers and kept her own bees. There are a number of legend in which she unleashes her bees to attack enemies. In one story soldiers came to Ballyvourney and stole livestock, as they left the village the saint let loose her honey-bees upon them. Another version of this tale has a band of robbers stealing her cattle and she sends her bees after them and they promptly return the cattle. It is this legend that inspired the Harry Clarke window. Many modern depictions of the saint associate her with bees such as the statue at her shrine in Ballyvourney by Séamus Murphy.
In my beekeeping years, I have come to study the powerful association of bees to human art, literature and theology. Evidently the history books show that we have an ancient, deep and abiding connection with bees. I’m not surprised that our wonder and awe of bees has been re-animated as they have become endangered.
For millions of years, bees have been associated with resurrection, thrift, prosperity, healing, fertility and many other fascinating adjectives. More are returning to the folkways of bee medicine. All the elements of the hive are full of healing properties—from the sting for arthritis to pollen as protein and allergy antidote, to propolis and honey as anti-bacterial. And of course honey is wildly delicious!
I end with a lovely bit of a poem/prayer by Christine Valters Paintner….in honor of St. Gobnait and the bees.
Is there a place for each of us,
where we no longer yearn to be elsewhere?
Where our work is to simply soften,
wait, and pay close attention?
She smiles as bees gather eagerly
around her too, wings humming softly
as they collect essence of wildflowers,
transmuting labor into gold.