Of Ash-Trees, Of Honey
They were the wives of the Silver Race of Man and mothers of the Bronze, the third generation of mankind. They nursed their sons on the honey-sap (Greek meli) of the ash, and armed them with spears crafted from the wood of their trees (Greek melia). The Bronze were an overly warlike race who incurred the wrath of Zeus and were destroyed in the floods of the Great Deluge.
The Meliai were probably the same as the honey-nymph (meliai) nurses of the god Zeus--Ida and Adrasteia. The manna (meli) of the ash and the honey (meli) of bees were both thought to be ambrosial foods rained down from the stars of heaven. In Hesiod's Theogony the Meliai were born alongside the Erinyes--avengers of the castrated Ouranos--and the Gigantes. The latter appear to be the Kouretes (Curetes), the male guardians of the infant Zeus. As children born of Heaven's castration, it is appropriate that the Meliai and their brothers would have some role to play in the downfall of the perpetrator Kronos (Cronus).
FAMILY OF THE MELIAE
[1.1] BRAZEN RACE OF MEN (Hesiod Works & Days 150)
[1.2] ARKADIAN MEN (Statius Thebaid 4.280)
ME′LIA (Melia). In the plural form Meliai or Meliades is the name of the nymphs, who, along with the Gigantes and Erinnyes, sprang from the drops of blood that fell from Uranus, and which were received by Gaea. (Hes. Theog. 187.) The nymphs that nursed Zeus are likewise called Meliae. (Callim. Hymn. in Jov. 47; Eustath. ad Hom. p. 1963.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
Hesiod, Theogony 176 f (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
"Then the son [Kronos (Cronus)] from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father's [Ouranos' (Uranus')] members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Gaia (Gaea, the Earth) received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes (Furies) and the great Gigantes (Giants) with gleaming armour and the Nymphai (Nymphs) whom they call Meliai (Meliae) all over the boundless earth."
[N.B. The Gigantes and Meliai of Hesiod are probably the Kouretes (Curetes) and Nymphs of Mount Ida in Krete who cared for the infant Zeus. The name Meliai suggests both "ash-tree" Greek melia and "honey" meli. Cf. Callimachus, Hymn to Zeus below.]
Hesiod, Theogony 560 ff :
"[Zeus] would not give the power of unwearying fire to the Melian race of mortal men who live on the earth."
[N.B. This early race of men were sons of the Melian nymphs, see Works and Days below.]
Hesiod, Works and Days 106 ff :
"Or if you will, I will sum you up another tale well and skilfully--and do you lay it up in your heart,--how the gods and mortal men sprang from one source . . .
Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from Ash-Trees (Meliai); and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Haides, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun."
[N.B. The ancient Greeks made spear-shafts from the wood of the ash-tree, so the sons of the Melian nymphs are intrinsically warlike.]
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 1642 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"[The bronze-giant Talos] a descendant of the brazen race [of men] that sprang from Meliai (Meliae, Ash-Trees)."
Callimachus, Hymn 1 to Zeus 42 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
"[The Arkadian nymph Neda handed the infant Zeus over to his nurses on Mount Ida in Krete (Crete) :] The Nymphe [Neda], carrying thee, O Father Zeus, toward Knosos (Cnossus) . . . Thee, O Zeus, the companions of Kyrbantes [the Kouretes (Curetes)] took to their arms, even the Diktaian Meliai (Dictaean Meliae) (Honey-Nymphs), and Adrasteia laid thee to rest in a cradle of gold, and thou didst suck the rich teat of the she-goat Amaltheia, and thereto eat the sweet honey-comb."
Callimachus, Hymn 4 to Delos 75 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
"[Rivers and springs flee the approach of the pregnant goddess Leto, fearing they would incur the wrath of Hera should they provide sanctuary :] Fled, too, Aonia [Boiotia] on the same course, and Dirke and Strophia [Boiotian springs], holding the hands of their sire, dark-pebbled Ismenos . . . And the earth-born Nymphe Melia wheeled about thereat and ceased from the dance and her cheek paled as she panted for her coeval oak, when she saw the locks of Helikon (Helicon) tremble. Goddesses mine, ye Mousai (Muses), say did the oaks come into being at the same time as the Nymphai (NYmphs)? The Nymphai rejoice when the rain makes the oaks to grow; and again the Nymphai weep when there are no longer leaves upon the oaks."
[N.B. The Greek word for "oak" drys is also the generic word for "tree."]
Virgil, Georgics 4. 1 ff (trans. Fairclough) (Roman bucolic C1st B.C.) :
"Heaven's gift, the honey from the skies."
[N.B. Honey-sap or manna which was harvested from the leaves of the mountain-ash, was believed to fall from the sky. Compare this with the tradition that the Meliai, nymphs of the ash-tree and manna, were born from the sky's blood.]
Virgil, Georgics 4. 149 ff (trans. Fairclough) (Roman bucolic C1st B.C.) :
"Qualities which Jove [Zeus] himself has given bees [i.e. to be social animals], I will unfold--even the reward for which they [the bees] followed the tuneful sounds and clashing bronzes of the Curetes, and fed the king of heaven within the cave of Dicte."
[N.B. The Meliai ("Honey Nymphs") nourished Zeus with the honey of the bees.]
Statius, Thebaid 4. 275 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"The Arcadians an ancient people, older than the moon and stars . . . they were born, 'tis said, of the hard trunks of forest trees, when the wondering earth first bore the print of feet; not yet were fields or houses or cities or ordinance of marriage: oaks and laurels suffered rude child-birth, and the shady Mountain-Ash [Greek meliai] peopled the earth, and the young babe fell from the pregnant Ash-Tree's womb. 'Tis said that, struck with terror at the change from light to murky darkness, they followed far the setting Titan [Helios the Sun], despairing of the day."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 14. 203 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"[Rhea summons the rustic gods and spirits to join the army of Dionysos for a campaign against the Indians :] These combatants were joined by Bakkhai (Bacchae) [female devotees of the Dionysos], some coming from the Meionian rocks, some from the moutain above the precipitous peaks of Sipylos. Nymphai (Nymphs) hastened to join the soldiers of the thyrsos, the wild Oreiades (Oreads) with hearts of men trailing their long robes. Many a year had they seen roll round the turning-point as they lived out their long lives. Some were the Epimelides (Medlars) who lived on the heights near the shepherds; some were from the woodland glades and the ridges of the wild forest Nymphai Meliai (Melian Nymphs) of the mountain Ash coeval with their tree. All these pressed onwards together to the fray, some with brassbacked drums, the instruments of Kybelid Rheia, others with overhanging ivy-tendrils wreathed in their hair, or girt with rings of snakes. They carried the sharpened thyrsus which the mad Lydian women then took with them fearless to the Indian War."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 16. 228 ff :
"A tree was near him [Dionysos] when he spoke; and through her clustering leaves an ancient Melia (Ash-Tree) heard the cry of womanmad Dionysos, and she uttered a mocking voice : ‘Other masters of hounds, Dionysos, hunt here for the Archeress [Artemis]; but you are huntsman for Aphrodite! . . .’ So she mocked the timid mind of Bakkhos (Bacchus), and vanished into her coeval tree."
- Hesiod, Theogony - Greek Epic C8th - 7th B.C.
- Hesiod, Works and Days - Greek Epic C8th - 7th B.C.
- Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Callimachus, Hymns - Greek Poetry C3rd B.C.
- Strabo, Geography - Greek Geography C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.