Sweetness and light with a sting

  • 2002-06-20
  • Ann Pellagrini
For Westerners, honey is just something you spread on the toast for breakfast. However, Lithuanians have a deeper relationship with this golden nectar, as Ann Pellagrini reports.

Honey. That sticky, messy sweetener, made by creatures which sting you for no apparent reason and which, even in the smallest quantity, has the uncanny ability to cover everything within a 10 meter radius. Why would anyone bother to use this stuff?

That was my opinion of honey formulated during the many years I lived in the United States. Since I grew up in a suburb of Boston, I had limited exposure to anything natural. I didn't need to understand or appreciate the miracles of nature or the bounty she provided because nature had been harnessed, purified and packaged in neat, sterile containers that were sold at the grocery store.

After living in Lithuania from 1999 to 2001, my opinion of honey changed drastically. Through my friends and colleagues, I developed a deeper appreciation for Mother Nature and the importance she plays in our daily lives. I also learned much about the importance of honey to good health and the pleasures of its many forms.

Fruit of the gods

Like all cultures, Lithuanians used gods and myths to understand the world around them. In Lithuanian folklore, there are two gods related to bees. The first is Babilas who is a fat creature with a sweet tooth. Babilas symbolizes fertility because he is like the drone bee that mates and cares for the queen.

The second deity is the goddess Austeja. Austeja is the patron of the flowers, the protector of bees and women, especially pregnant ones. She is also a fertility goddess. Her name is connected to the Lithuanian word "austyti" which means to continually go back and forth like in weaving (or flying back and forth from the hive).

Like the bee, both these deities are not earth bound. The Lithuanian beekeepers of old believed that by placing their constructed hives high in the trees, they were helping the bees to be closer to their gods. To honor the gods, people made sacrifices of honey.

In Lithuanian folklore, beekeepers were thought to be of strong morals because it was believed that the bee only allows those of good morals near her. It was also believed that the bee would only sting dishonest people so those that worked closely with her were thought to be good and trustworthy. Beekeepers of the wild hives developed a brotherhood among themselves because in order for them to survive, they could not steal from each other or do harm to other's hives. Therefore, they were considered by others to be very honest and honorable men.

Lithuanians incorporated honey in the wedding ceremony where it was smeared on the lips of the couple. They kissed, symbolizing the sweetness of the union and the beginning of their life together.

While living in Lithuania, I saw the many ways in which people held on to their pagan roots.

Lithuanians were the last people to convert to Christianity, and sometimes I wondered whether they ever really did. My friend Vita would tell me the stories about the different Lithuanian deities and what they represented. In many village weddings, the wedding party carries out many old pagan traditions to ensure a happy and fruitful union.

The most obvious link to their pagan roost was through the use of natural remedies. Several times I'd be with a Lithuanian friend and she would pick something from the ground, off a vine or from a tree and explain to me the ailment it would cure and how it was to be administered, often as a tea.

One evening during our weekly country sauna we were resting under a huge tree. Suddenly, all the women present began gathering armfuls of the blossoms from the tree as if they were gold.

Once they got over the shock that I didn't know what kind of tree it was (it was a Linden tree) or why they were gathering the blossoms, they told me how they would use their harvest. The blossoms would be dried, then steeped boiling water to make a tea that was good for treating an upset stomach.

Another use for this tea was to soften the hair and disinfect the scalp by using it as a hair rinse. I immediately began gathering blossoms because I knew from past experience that these women knew what they were talking about.

Sticking to tradition

In 1998, the Kaunas Beekeepers' Society estimated that there were 3,421 beekeepers in Lithuania with 41,000 hives each with an annual yield of 15 kg. Another estimate set the number of colonies within Lithuanian at 300,000.

Whatever the number, I can say from experience that if you don't have a beehive yourself, then you will find someone either at work or in your neighborhood who does and from whom you can get your honey supply.

My friend Vita was my supplier. Her father had a beehive as a hobby and would give her a large pail of honey that would be refilled when it was drained.

Honey has many different uses in Lithuania. As a food, Lithuanians use it in tea, but they also spread it on their homemade white cheese, which adds a delicate sweetness to this rather bland product. Honey is also spread on cucumbers, which is a wonderful way to enjoy this vegetable which appears everyday at every meal throughout the warm months in all Baltic countries.

During our visits to the sauna, people would cut and eat lemon slices because they believed it was a good internal cleanser. I could not eat the lemon slice without gagging or puckering the whole time. One night, someone gave me a lemon slice with some honey spread on it and it was the start of a new culinary affection.

For the skin, honey is used as a way to keep it healthy and moist and to treat skin problems. Years ago in an American women's magazine, I had read about honey face masks, but since I hated the stuff, I had no desire to try it.

However, while in Lithuania, I not only tried a honey face mask but also was treated to a honey body mask. While in the sauna, Vita used the honey from her father's hives and smeared it all over her skin. I too covered myself in honey from head to toe and was rewarded with incredibly soft skin.

When I developed a skin condition on one of my fingers, my friends instructed me use some bee cream from the pharmacy for this and for any skin problem I had. I used it on this finger and interestingly enough, the cream minimized then completely cleared up the problem.

But, the most common way in which honey is used in Lithuania is in a body message. I had heard about honey being used in massage, and I imagined that it was pretty messy. When the masseuse suggested one for treating my back problem, I was a willing participant. However, no one prepared me for this experience that was unlike any massage I had ever had.

The masseuse warmed the honey in her hands before spreading it all over my back. Next, she placed her hands on my back and then, without warning, quickly tore her hands away. It felt like all the skin on my back had been ripped off. I can't say whether it was painful because it was too shocking for me to feel anything else.

Lithuanians are hardy people and don't succumb to pain easily. When she saw the shock on my face and the way my body contorted, she offered to stop or to continue in a less vigorous manner. But, I declined because I wanted to fully experience this honey massage so that I could decide whether it provided any relief to my back pain. Plus, I felt like I was gaining greater insight into the Lithuanian mentality.

What I discovered about the honey massage was that while it certainly was not relaxing, it was not painful either. It was rough, invigorating, hot and very shocking at first. My back looked and felt like it had been beaten because it was red and hot from the increased circulation.

However, increasing the blood flow into a sore or injured area is exactly what a massage should accomplish because that is what will encourage healing. The increased circulation removes lactic acid build up and other waste by-products around the sore muscles, thus providing relief.

This was a very new and different way to achieve the results I desired and one that I will always remember. It reminded me of the broom beating which is done in the sauna, but that's for another story.