Virgil & the Vigil


With so many scientists, beekeepers, and agricultural stakeholders in a lather over “colony collapse disorder”—the mysterious phenomenon that is causing the disappearance of millions of honeybees around the world-everyone should welcome some good news in the bee department right now.

As it happens, I have some. It comes, surprisingly enough, from the new translation of the Roman Missal.

Like many observers of recent developments in the translation of liturgical texts, I have my concerns about the new translation of the Roman Missal that is on its way. The Vatican’s 2001 instruction on the translation of liturgical texts, Liturgiam authenticam, is fraught with serious problems, as Princeton scholar Peter Jeffery has pointed out (see his Translating Tradition). The translations taking shape at ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy) could very well result in the production of prayer texts that are clumsy and difficult to proclaim, as Bishop Donald Trautman has warned. The instruction has put a damper on ecumenical cooperation, and it has put a dead stop to the composition of new texts for the English liturgy that might have been inspiring examples of inculturation. But it will put the bees back into the Exsultet.

The Exsultet is the great song sung during the Service of Light at the Easter Vigil. It is also called the Praeconium Paschale or Easter Proclamation. Today, the Exsultet may be sung by a cantor, but traditionally it was sung by the deacon, whose office normally included the task of lighting lamps at the beginning of evening services. The practice of singing a song in praise of the paschal candle is very old. It dates back to at least the fourth century, and is probably older. We use a standardized text today, but the earliest versions of the song were improvised—giving scope to the poetic gifts and theological acumen of the deacon who sang it.

At some point early in its history, the custom arose of including a section in the Exsultet modeled on Virgil’s fourth Georgic ode, which waxes eloquent on the subject of bees. It is not so strange an intrusion, all things considered. Virgil was held in high esteem, the poem was a great one, and bees were implicated, after all, in the production of the candle. Honey and wax were important products in classical antiquity, and bees were highly valued. Virgil’s poem describes their habits and praises their virtues. The poem is sometimes understood simply as a bucolic ode, but Virgil may also have been interested in describing an ideal human society using bees as a model.

One of the more remarkable features of bees, the ancients believed, is that they reproduce without sex. We may scoff at this notion today, but it took human observers many centuries to figure out how bees mate. For anatomical reasons, the crucial event takes place during flight, with the queen in the midst of a crowd of drones high in the air. It is extraordinarily difficult to see this with the unaided human eye. In fact, the true manner of their reproduction was not discovered until 1791, after the invention of the microscope. Christians seized upon the bees’ presumed sexual innocence for their own purposes, and the bee became not only a tiny example of industry, organization, and art, but also a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

St. Jerome was having none of it. In 384 he received a letter from the North African deacon Praesidius. In this letter, which does not survive, Praesidius asked Jerome to assist him in composing a Laus Cerei, a song in praise of the candle. What has been handed down is Jerome’s exceptionally acerbic reply, in which he derides the whole business as unscriptural and an unbecoming example of the deacon showing off. He expressed an especially lively contempt for bees. Nevertheless, bees remained in what became the Exsultet, although at least one medieval source indicates that their praises were toned down as a result of Jerome’s opposition.

Virgil calls the principal bee of the hive the king and even details his “exploits of war.” Indeed, the assumption that the crucial figure in the world of bees is male is found generally in the literature of the ancient world, except for one reference in Aristotle, which notes an opinion to the contrary. The Dutch naturalist Swammerdam (1637-80) was the first to establish that the bee upon whom everything depends is the mother or queen bee, and his work was not published until 1752. It is interesting to note, however, that ancient and medieval Christian poetry concerning bees in the Exsultet has an entirely feminine character—whether because it suited the analogy with the Virgin Mary or because Christians had for independent reasons discerned that the key figure in the hive is female, it is impossible to tell.

In any event, apis mater, the mother bee, has had a good deal of staying power. Most of the bee-inspired poetry found in the Exsultet did not survive the Tridentine reform that resulted in the Roman Missal of 1570. Nevertheless, the Exsultet of that Missal retained the praise of bees in two places. They were honored first in general terms for the work of producing the candle and second for the precious substance of the melting wax that “comes forth from the mother bee to feed the flame.” (Poetic fancy, but it’s a good line.) These two references remained in the Latin text of the Exsultet in the Missal of 1970. They were suppressed, however, in the vernacular translation that the English-speaking world has been using since that time. Now, because the new guidelines for translation require a very close correspondence indeed between the vernacular and the Latin, the bees will reappear.

So just as actual bees are departing this world in large numbers and for mysterious reasons, English-speaking Catholics will again rise up to sing their praises. A bit of very old inculturation of the liturgy will speak to us anew. One can only hope that with the reappearance of bees in the Exsultet we might learn how better to cherish that truly Catholic sacramental sense that finds in even the smallest of creatures the mysteries of redemption writ large.


Parts of this essay are taken from Rita Ferrone's forthcoming book on the Easter Vigil, This Is the Night.

Related: "Lost in Translation" by John Wilkins
"Reforming the Reform" by Kevin Eckstrom

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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