Dæmon in the Wood; Hide and Seek

The Miracle of the Bees

Nothing in the tale “What a Little Thing Did” either before or after the discovery of the bees explains why the story-teller inserted such a fantasy into a narrative that was otherwise entirely colorable up to that point. If there were nothing besides this story from which to derive an understanding, learning the source and the meaning of the fantasy could be very troublesome. Consider the plight of Biblical scholars confronted with a similar story in the Old Testament Book of Judges. There the story of Samson begins, like the Lamba story and like much of the world’s oral narrative besides, with ostensibly plain narrative about sex and kinship (Judges 13:24-25).7

The woman gave birth to a son and called him Samson. The child grew, and Yahweh blessed him; and the spirit of Yahweh began to move him in the Camp of Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

14:1 Samson went down to Timnah, and there he noticed one of the daughters of the Philistines. 2 He came up again and told his father and mother this. ‘At Timnah’ he said ‘I noticed one of the daughters of the Philistines. Get her for me, then, to be my wife.’ 3 His father and mother said to him, ‘Is there no woman among those of your own clan or among your whole nation, for you to seek a wife among these uncircumcised Philistines?’ But Samson answered his father, ‘Get this one for me; get her, because I like her.’ 4 His father and mother did not know that all this came from Yahweh, who was seeking an occasion for quarrelling with the Philistines; since at this time the Philistines had Israel in their power.

Samson’s father has counselled endogamy, but Samson is firm in his purpose to marry a foreigner. The marriage is destined to be childless and full of woe for both the bridegroom and his foreign relatives; indeed, the whole legend of Samson is about the terrible consequences of his exogamy and his liaisons with alien women.

But the plain narrative about Samson’s ill-starred wedding plans has scarcely begun when, like the Lamba story “What a Little Thing Did,” it too is interrupted by a digression into fable. The fabulous incident of lion-slaying at the vineyards of Timnah has no apparently logical connection with the previous account of Samson’s resolve to marry abroad:

5 Samson went down to Timnah, and as he reached the vineyards of Timnah he saw a young lion coming roaring towards him. 6 The spirit of Yahweh seized on him, and though he had no weapon in his hand he tore the lion in pieces as a man tears a kid; but he did not tell his father or mother what he had done. 7 He went down and talked to the woman, and he liked her. 8 Not long after this, Samson came back to marry her. He went out of his way to look at the carcase of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the lion’s body, and honey. 9 He took up some honey in his hand and ate it as he went along. On returning to his father and mother, he gave some to them, which they ate too, but he did not tell them he had taken it from the lion’s carcase.

Honey bees do not nest in carcasses of lions or other carrion in the Near East any more than they inhabit stalks of grass in Central Africa. Yet an impossible hive of wild bees intrudes in the ancient story of Samson just as it did in the modern Lamba tale, and at a similar place in the plot. In both stories a man proposes an exogamous marriage to another man who has jurisdiction over it but who is not eager to permit it; then the bridegroom discovers honeybees where they cannot be. The exact relevance of the bees to the marriage is initially as obscure in the legend of Samson as in the Lamba tale, but they occur insistently early in both narratives.

Samson marries the Timnite woman after he and his parents eat the wild honey. At his wedding-feast he uses a riddle based on the fictitious bees in a contest of riddling with his bride’s countrymen. Since the famous Riddle of Samson is something impossible that exists only in the story of Samson, it is a classic “unfair riddle,” i.e. a riddle which no one could guess:

14:10 Then he went down to the woman, and they made a feast for Samson for seven days there, for such is the custom of young men. 11 But because they were frightened of him, they chose thirty companions to stay with him.

12 Then Samson said to them, ‘Let me ask you a riddle. If you find the answer within the seven days of the feast, I will give you thirty pieces of fine linen and thirty festal robes. 13 But if you cannot find the answer, then you in your turn must give me thirty pieces of fine linen and thirty festal robes.’ ‘Ask your riddle,’ they replied ‘we are listening.’ 14 So he said to them:

Out of the eater came what is eaten,
and out of the strong came what is sweet.

But three days went by and they could not solve the riddle.

Finally the Philistines induce Samson’s new wife to learn the secret of her husband’s riddle and betray it to them. She does this in an adumbration or multiform of the Delilah story:

14:16 Then Samson’s wife fell on his neck in tears and said, ‘You only hate me, you do not love me. You have asked my fellow countrymen a riddle and not even told me the answer.’ He said to her, ‘I have not even told my father and mother, why should I tell you?’ 17 She wept on his neck for the seven days their feast lasted. She was so persistent that on the seventh day he told her the answer, and she in turn told her fellow countrymen what the answer to the riddle was.

18 So on the seventh day, before Samson entered the bridal room, the men of the town said to him:

What is sweeter than honey,
and what is stronger than a lion?

He retorted:

If you had not ploughed with my heifer,
you would never have guessed my riddle.

Samson is enraged by his wife’s treachery, and after paying the wager he has lost in riddling, he returns home alone to his own father. Meanwhile his father-in-law further disrupts the society of Samson’s affinal kin, giving Samson’s unconsummated bride to another man. Samson is again furious, and he cleverly incriminates his father-in-law so that the Philistines intervene in their private conflict and publicly settle it in favor of Samson, who is the younger of the two disputants:

15:4 So Samson went off and caught three hundred foxes, then took torches and turning the foxes tail to tail put a torch between each pair of tails. 5 He lit the torches and set the foxes free in the Philistines’ cornfields. In this way he burned both sheaves and standing corn, and the vines and olive trees as well.

6 The Philistines asked, ‘Who has done this?’ and received the answer, ‘Samson, who married the Timnite’s daughter; his father-in-law took the wife back again and gave her to his companion instead.’ Then the Philistines went up and burned the woman and her family to death.

Samson’s use of the lion and the impossible bees in his riddle does in one sense establish a connection between them and his marriage. Samson the exogamous bridegroom uses the bees to subordinate his new affinal relatives (as does the Lamba father-in-law), but they exploit their consanguineous kinswoman to turn the bridegroom’s trick with the bees to their own advantage. Still, the question remains, why are specifically the lion and bees used when any unfair riddle (one whose answer is something that does not exist) might have sufficed to win Samson’s wager with his bride’s kinsmen? Or to put that question differently, why are the subjects of his riddle such as to taint Samson himself with fabulosity, and why did the Hebrews tolerate such a blatant aberration from plausible fact in a legend about Samson, a national dignitary? Thus the fabulous bees are a similar problem in both the ancient legend of Samson and in a modern African tale.

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