(Dead) lions and bees and syrup, oh my!


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.

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I believe that Bass Ale is older than all. The Red Triangle is the oldest trademark, anyway. TM #1.

I've used Lyle's Golden Syrup (and Lyle's Treacle as well) in making homebrew. Good stuff. I haven't used it in a while, but I remember seeing it at Top Foods near Seattle a few months ago.

I believe it's just invert sugar syrup -- it would be easy to make on your own. Though it would probably end up tasting a little different.

I'd never noticed the flies/bees either, funny!

If you *NEED* some, you might try looking at homebrew stores. They may have some lying around. Or, of course, British Pantry-type places.

Hey, you're back! Fun. Did you have a good conference?
The bees could have bred from Bad Translation too maybe.. Apis, bee; Vesp(a)(is)(not sure), wasp.. not very similar, true, but maybe the pious translator didn't have his natural history straight.. hardly surprising, since our religious brethren still don't have much of a bent for biology. Anyway, wasps would be way more likely to have a go at carcasses, and they probably lived in Italy then as they do now!

'Dust bunnies', another expression in which spontaneous generation lives on...

By Jan-Maarten (not verified) on 16 May 2008 #permalink

I believe the symbol depicted is Biblical in nature. See Judges 14. Samson, the Lion and the Honey.
" ... and behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion. And he took thereof in his hands, and went on eating ...

By Stephen P. (not verified) on 16 May 2008 #permalink

If your like foreign foods, I'd recommend befriending someone in the military. AAFES carries lots of imported foods for foreign-born spouses.

Enquiring minds want to know the recipe that you were making and how it turned out.

A dollop of syrup in porridge is a firm favourite in our household. But then, so is Treacle Tart (made with syrup, not treacle, it's just one of those quirky name things that don't make sense).

Since the point of the Samson story is that Samson got honey out of the lion's carcass, speculating that the insects involved might [i]really[/i] have been flies, or wasps, kind of misses the point. He didn't just see the bees, he took some of their honeycomb, and made a puzzle out of this happening.

The fact that this riddle was unsolvable in the story makes it unlikely that this was a common occurence. The riddle I doubt it has any relation to Shakespeare or Virgil (the Samson story is much older than both.) I doubt that the Samson story therefore is a reflection of theories of spontaneous generation. Is there any evidence that the ancient Hebrews believed in this?


The Samson story most certainly could have influenced Shakespeare, who was thoroughly familiar with the Bible and references it frequently. (To believe that Shakespeare influenced the Bible, as you seem to think I suggest, would require some sort of time-travel apparatus - as usual, I leave that to the theoretical physicists).

The point is that this bees-from-carrion idea, which was familiar enough to Lyle's contemporaries but which we have largely forgotten today, pops up in several different places - Biblical and classical. (and Shakespeare would have been familiar with both). Quite possibly they were influenced by a common (shared) tradition associating bees with carrion, and it's interesting to speculate how such an association might have arisen. Virgil's account clearly reflects an early idea of spontaneous generation: living bees are generated from the dead meat. But in the Biblical account, Samson doesn't see the bees develop out of the lion's carcass. He shows up after they've already appeared, and the bees could well have come from somewhere else. The point of his riddle is not the bees' appearance, but the honey's. That's why I left the association with spontaneous generation an open-ended question. The similarity between these different stories is provocative but hardly conclusive.

I'm sorry my comment was unclear. The Samson story in the bible is much older than Virgil or Shakespeare. The Shakespeare quote is a direct reference to the Samson story, as I'm sure everyone in his audience would have known. It is amusing that so few people read the bible now days that this story seems new to you! (Not that I think people should read the bible, it just kills many allusions people have used over the years.)

Near the end of your post you state: "But the origin of this idea ... probably lies in a confusion of bees with flies that closely resemble bees..."

I'm trying to get across the point that this is impossible. Flies don't make honey. So Samson couldn't have found fake-bees in the story, he found real bees and real honey. That's the only way the riddle works in the story. The fact that no one can figure out the riddle implies that bees in a lion carcass are something out of the ordinary. So I don't see this as being connected to widespread views about spontaneous generation. Otherwise someone in the story would have commented something like "of course, that's easy, bees always come out of rotting corpses."

That said, it's just a story. My take was the bees in the lion were supposed to be seen as something of a miracle, part of the myth building up Samson as being something special.

Gator, you amuse me. Of course I've read the Bible (that's why I say I'd forgotten the story early on in my post). However, you seem to read this entire post as being solely about the Samson story. It's not. It's about the fact that the Samson story, handed down to a largely oblivious public in an adapted form on a tin of syrup, is only one of a group of stories associating bees with carrion, which does indeed seem unusual (as I note in the post as well), and isn't that neat? What could be the reason a number of ancient texts associate bees with carrion in such a surprising way?

If you think the Bible story is the only interesting part of the post, and want to take it literally and in isolation, that's fine - but that's not my approach. Regarding the bee mimics, I'm hardly the first person to suggest this hypothesis, nor the link to spontaneous generation - note I reference a Mapping the Marvellous post on that topic. If this post was intended to originate a novel theory on the origin of the Samson myth, it would have been a lot longer, and as such, probably I'd never have found time to write it. ;)

I'm happy I can provide some amusement for you. ;)

The figure and quotation on the golden syrup can are taken directly from the Samson story. There is no question about this -- the quotation is straight from the bible. (Stephen P. pointed this out.) This would not have been a mystery to anyone at the time. The "oblivious public" only exists today. The question of whether this image on the can refers to spontaneous generation only applies to the biblical story, as that is the sole reference of the image and quote. By 1885, when Lyle invented that packaging, spontaneous generation had been proven wrong.

I suppose my insistence on this is because I feel you are sloppily drawing connections between various cultures and ideas that are widely separated in time and space. This whole riff of yours was started by your mistaking the bees for flies on the picture. Then you go on to state that the bees probably were flies, and imply those olden days folks were too dumb to know it. They certainly knew bees made honey. Flies don't.

If you are simply interested in bees and carrion, dig into Virgil. He does give an explicit recipe for making bees from a dead bullock, that he says comes from Egypt. Although, I'd be careful... this was written as an attempt to claim epic poetry for Rome, and was presented to Octavian. It is not necessarily an accurate rendition of the natural history of the time. It was written in part to curry favor with the growing power of Octavian and promote Roman ambition.

Gator, I'm not sure what is going on with your complete inability to read my post as written. I say quite clearly that the quote is based on a Biblical story about Samson - both you and Jason seem to have somehow missed the part where I talk about the original Lyle & his religious devotion. I never said the Victorians wouldn't have known the story - in my comment I said handed down to an oblivious public, which clearly implies several generations passing since Lyle. You bring up Virgil as if I didn't mention his bee recipe in the post. Honestly, since you seem to be more interested in accusing me of ignorance and stupidity than in accurately reading what I've written, I'm tired of this exchange. Consider your comments for this post closed, and please go read another blog, if you seem to find my ideas so sloppy and distasteful. Bye, and have a nice day.