The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapter 28 | Summary



Chapter 28: The Killing of the Tree-Spirit

Chapter 28 contains nine sections relating various versions of the custom of killing a tree-spirit, "the spirit of vegetation," ensuring earth's fertility. James George Frazer points to the King of Nemi as an example of this and looks for other examples in various regions.

1. The Whitsuntide Mummers

Frazer discusses customs in Northern Europe, particularly "rural festivals of the peasantry." A tree-spirit figured prominently in Whitsuntide celebrations, which happen seven weeks after Easter. A mummer—a person who wears a disguise during a festival—played the role of the tree-spirit, decked out in leaves, branches, and flowers. He was escorted or chased throughout the village, where he or his escorts might receive presents from the villagers. This tree-spirit might be doused with water or dunked in a stream, and often people pretended to kill him, after which he returned to life again. Frazer compares these tree-spirits to the Grass King, May King, and other "representations of the vernal spirit of vegetation" from previous chapters. He proposes the killing of this tree-spirit is meant to purge the decay of winter and invigorate new life and growth in spring, "a revival or resurrection ... in a more youthful and vigorous form." He also compares the mummer being chased to the flight of the Kings of the Wood at Nemi.

2. Burying the Carnival

Frazer explains two figures, one of which is the "personification of the Carnival" and the other is death. Carnival, a time of merriment and free license, often ended with the pretend death of the carnival figure. This figure was often a giant puppet manipulated with strings by hidden men. The effigy was paraded through the streets on a chair atop a decorated car, followed by policemen passing out wine to the public. At last it was burned in a central square. Other figures might accompany the carnival, including gravediggers, pretend priests or bishops, the devil and angels, judges and lawyers, or the "wife" of the carnival in mourning. The carnival might also be represented as "a straw-man at the top of a pole" or "a living man who lies in a coffin." A mock trial might be held, as well as a funeral oration, and the figure might then be buried in a churchyard, burned, hanged, shot, or thrown in a river.

3. Carrying out Death

Some customs were similar to the burying of the carnival but centered on the figure of death. These festivities often ended with a ceremony or announcement meant to usher in "Summer, Spring, or Life." A straw effigy, doll, or puppets of death would be carried throughout the streets by boys or girls singing songs and receiving gifts at each home. One such song was, "Now we carry Death out of the village and Spring into the village." The children would then throw the figure of death into the water "to ensure a fruitful and prosperous year." Alternately, the figure of death might be burned, beaten with sticks, torn to pieces, scattered across the fields, or even tossed into the next village in the hopes ill luck would follow it there. Frazer notes the figure of death was "regarded with fear and treated with marks of hatred and abhorrence," and carrying out death was a means of protection from sickness and plague.

4. Bringing in Summer

A similar custom involved ringing in the new season either by announcement or in ceremony; this generally took place after the carrying out of the figure of death. Often a cut tree was adorned with ribbons, branches, flowers, clothes, and other decoration, and children or women carried it throughout the village, singing welcoming songs for summer. This figure was alternately called Summer, May, the Bride, or Life. In some places, the effigy of death would be stripped of its clothes, which were then placed on the cut tree or donned by a young girl who returned to the village, singing of the carrying out of the figure of death. To Frazer these customs clearly indicate "a kind of resuscitation" of the destroyed effigy, a symbol of new life emerging from death. In some cases, people carried back bits of the destroyed effigy to scatter on their fields or place among their livestock, believing it had "a fertilizing power." Frazer also equates the cut trees with the May trees of other cultures.

5. Battle of Summer and Winter

Frazer describes popular customs related to "the dormant powers of vegetation in winter" versus "awakening vitality in spring," which took place as a "dramatic contest." Groups of young men or individuals would battle in the guise of the seasons, decked out in furs, moss, and straw for winter, or leaves, ivy, and flowers for summer. In the end, winter was defeated in battle, dunked in water, or driven out of the village by summer.

6. Death and Resurrection of Kostrubonko

This section describes the death and resurrection of a mythical figure in Russia. A funeral was held for Kostrubonko, "the deity of spring," with a young girl playing the part of the dead figure who suddenly came to life again. Other mythical figures—Kupalo, Kostroma, Lada, and Yarilo—also played a role in similar rites, with girls, trees, straw figures, or other representations adorned in flowers, clothes, or ribbons, representing these personas. Such figures might be bathed or thrown into water, torn apart, or buried in a mock funeral. Games, dancing, bonfires, and processions often began or ended the ceremonies.

7. Death and Revival of Vegetation

Frazer restates the idea of the death figure as representing the dying vegetation. He then theorizes why these ceremonies of death were met with the conflicting emotions of fear, sorrow, and rejoicing. He postulates the fear might have stemmed from belief in the "infectiousness of the dead spirit of vegetation," so people would rejoice at death's defeat. Frazer notes these believers also felt sorrow, affection, and respect for the dead, which would explain their mourning. Moreover, they rejoiced at the coming of spring or summer.

8. Analogous Rites in India

Young girls in Kanagra, India, engaged in similar celebrations. The girls created a large pile of flowers and grass, and placed clay images of the deities Siva and Parvati atop. They sang in a circle around the heap, held a marriage ceremony for the deities, and hosted a feast. Later, they threw the images into the river, weeping over them as if at a funeral. Says Frazer, the point of this ceremony was "to secure a good husband." Frazer believes the deities to represent "spirits of vegetation" due to their placement on the flowers and grass, and compares the ceremony to the marriage of the May King and Queen in various European traditions. Also, the dunking in water and mourning are similar to customs seen in the carrying out of the figure of death, the "dead spirit of vegetation." The related notion of fertility returning to the vegetation would equally bless humans, thus helping the girls gain husbands.

9. The Magic Spring

Frazer again mentions cultures used magic "to ensure the revival of nature in spring," especially by means of homoeopathic (imitative) magic. People dressing in leaves and flowers or playing the role of death were thought to help the seasons progress. Frazer notes early humans were not secure in the knowledge of nature's laws, unlike modern humans, so they could not be sure "the great cosmic phenomena" would continue with "uniformity and regularity." Nature was "ever-changing and often menacing" because it was not understood, Frazer proposes, and thus every eclipse, meteor, or aurora might cause panic or terror. The author doubts early people had much understanding of the longer cycles of nature, stating "a year may well have been so long" that people "failed to recognize it as a cycle." Thus, early people developed rituals meant to restore or revive the seasons, the sun, and the moon. Frazer again points out these magical acts were "experiments" doomed to fail, but people repeated them over and over, "unaware of their failure." Over time, says Frazer, such ceremonies lost their original meaning and devolved into "simple pageants, mummeries, and pastimes," until they were finally abandoned.


Chapter 28 offers copious examples of the ceremonies various cultures enacted to usher in new life, fertility, and vegetation in the seasons of spring and summer, banishing winter in the effigy form of death. In each section, the killing of the tree-spirit is represented by various figures, often bedecked with the elements of nature—leaves, flowers, branches, and the like. In all these examples, James George Frazer hopes to support his theory of the Kings of the Wood as a dying and reviving god, representing and ensuring fertility with his death and rebirth. The scope of traditions in far-flung lands is impressive and thought-provoking, but again Frazer is unable to offer solid proof of a connection to the Kings of the Wood. In the final section Frazer reverts to speculation on the workings of early humans' minds, making assumptions about what people must have known and how they must have thought; again, this thought process—to him—falls short of the rational, scientific, and certainty-filled way modern humans view the cycles of nature.

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