How difficult life must be for expatriates. Moving from the West coast to the East coast has made it difficult for me to find certain brands of food, and foreign foods are doubly difficult to come by. This week, anticipating a recipe created by the fabulous Nigella Lawson, I ran out to the store to get Lyle’s Golden Syrup. They didn’t have it, which is weird, because they had it three months ago. I drove to another store. Same problem! In the end I had to use King Golden Syrup, which doesn’t compare at all. If I’d had time for shipping, I’d have ordered Lyle’s online – it would totally be worth it.
Anyway, during my fruitless quest for syrup, I noticed something weird. The jars and tins of Lyle’s Golden Syrup feature a rotting dead lion. Now that’s an innovative choice of logo for a foodstuff! And when you add the swarm of flies around it. . . eeeuuw!
I’m not sure why it took me so long to observe this – perhaps when I have a jar in front of me, I’m too busy sticking a cookie, a spoon, my finger, etc. in the syrup to actually look at the label. Or perhaps the jars sold in the US didn’t have a dead lion on them; I can’t remember (whomever out there has a jar of Lyle’s, comment and let us know).
I am sure that a dead, maggoty lion would never be adopted by today’s companies for a flagship product. But Lyle’s is, according to Guinness, Britain’s oldest brand, its packaging virtually unchanged since 1885 (older than Coca-Cola) – and those Victorians were peculiar. As it turns out, those aren’t flies. They’re bees. It’s a little less gross, but still weird, since golden syrup isn’t made from honey, and doesn’t really taste like honey, and lions and bees don’t hang out together, as far as I know.
It turns out that the inspiration is a Biblical episode (I’d forgotten it completely) in which Samson kills a lion, and returning to its body, finds that a swarm of bees have assembled a honeycomb inside it. Implausible as this natural history may be, it inspired Lyle’s founder, Scottish businessman Abram Lyle, to put the lion and the phrase “Out of the strong came forth sweetness” on his novel sugar syrup (which was originally a waste byproduct of the sugar refining process).
According to Bryn Mawr’s Kate Thomas, Lyle’s “image of the lion and the bees and the biblical quotation testify to a peculiarly Victorian mix of moralism, industrial drive and budding concern for social welfare.” (source) But could it also speak to the early theory of spontaneous generation? (Mapping the Marvellous had this thought too.) Classical authorities like Virgil were convinced that bees originated in carrion:
A portent they espy: through the oxen’s flesh,
Waxed soft in dissolution, hark! there hum
Bees from the belly; the rent ribs overboil
In endless clouds they spread them, till at last
On yon tree-top together fused they cling,
And drop their cluster from the bending boughs. (Georgics IV, Virgil)
Virgil implies that there is a routine “recipe for bees,” calling for a fresh carcass, sunshine, and a few other ingredients: “oft, from putrid gore of cattle slain/Bees have been bred” (Georgics IV) . Shakespeare, too, gives the common association of bees with carrion a plug in Henry IV: “‘Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb/In the dead carrion.” (2 Henry IV; iv. 4. 79-80.)
There are, apparently, tropical carnivorous bees. But the origin of this idea in Europe, and of the Biblical story, probably lies in a confusion of bees with flies that closely resemble bees, like the astonishingly good mimic Eristalis tenax.
I wonder if the originators of King Golden syrup, with the lion head logo, were themselves striving to mimic the success of Lyle’s lion. . . .if so, they got the feline logo, but not the taste. It’s ironic that in the US, it’s so much easier to find King’s than the original Lyle’s. Hopefully my Lyle’s-less chocolate bars will be okay. . . but I still want a jar of Lyle’s. To eat. Right now.