The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 12–14 | Summary



Chapter 12: The Sacred Marriage

Chapter 12 has two sections presenting the "sacred marriage" of male and female deities as representations of vegetation.

1. Diana as a Goddess of Fertility

James George Frazer relates the drama of the sacred marriage, a custom observed by many cultures in Europe in which the god and goddess unite in marriage to bring abundant vegetation to the world. Frazer assumes such rites originated long ago, "when the forefathers of the civilized nations of Europe were still barbarians" and had only "a very crude conception of natural law." The custom survived into modern times "in the shape of pastoral plays and popular merry-makings," according to Frazer. However, such "shows and pageants" were no longer religious or magical in nature in the modern age, nor were the actors consciously portraying the gods and goddesses. Frazer then connects the sacred marriage to the story of the King of the Wood at Nemi and the goddess Diana. He asks whether these two figures might not be the predecessors of the modern King and Queen of May or the Whitsuntide Bridegroom and Bride, as observed by various European cultures. "Direct evidence that it was so there is none," he admits, but in his belief, the character of Diana as a goddess fits the role well. Not only was she a tree goddess, but over time she came to personify all of nature, "both animal and vegetable," wild and domestic. Moreover, she was believed by some to be the harvest moon, a goddess ensuring fertility both to the land and to humans. Frazer again says Diana, as a goddess of fertility, "must herself be fertile," thus necessitating a partner, Virbius—the original King of the Wood. Their union was meant to make the earth fertile, the celebration of which Frazer assumes occurred on an annual basis.

2. The Marriage of Gods

This section describes many ancient rituals of the sacred marriage. In Babylon and Egypt, a woman slept in the temple of the god and became his consort, forbidden to lie with other men. In Egypt, this was often the queen herself, as her husband was considered the god Ammon incarnate. In Athens, Dionysus, the god of the vine, married the queen each year, "and it appears that the consummation of the divine union ... was enacted at the ceremony," Frazer states. The god may have been represented by an image or played by a man; it is unclear. At Eleusis, the sky-god Zeus wed the corn-goddess Demeter, a union enacted symbolically rather than bodily by a priest and a priestess. This union of deities brought forth a child—the corn—a clear symbol of vegetative fertility. Frazer describes many other instances of ancient sacred marriages, including several in which virgin girls become the honored consorts of the god for a period. Other stories tell of young girls whose lives were sacrificed periodically to appease the demands of a god and bring prosperity to the land.

Chapter 13: The Kings of Rome and Alba

Chapter 13 discusses the ancient kings of Rome and Alba in two sections.

1. Numa and Egeria

Frazer discusses the water-nymph Egeria, helper of Diana in matters of childbirth. Because Egeria is connected to the spring water at Nemi, Frazer concludes these waters must have had "the power of facilitating conception as well as delivery." He postulates Egeria might be "only another form of the great nature-goddess Diana herself." He then notes that the waters of many springs or wells were used by priestesses to make prophecies. This would explain Egeria's great wisdom, which she imparted to her husband, Numa, a Roman king. From Egeria's association with water, Frazer also concludes that her union with Numa may have been a form of sacred marriage meant to bring not only fruitful vegetation but also abundant rain. In short, the author surmises Egeria and Numa may have embodied Diana and her consort, the King of the Wood.

2. The King as Jupiter

According to Frazer the Roman king likely impersonated Jupiter, "the god of the sky, the thunder, and the oak," in ceremony. The king would wear or carry the sacred attributes of Jupiter, including purple and gold robes, a scepter with an eagle atop it, and a crown of oak leaves. Frazer notes that before Rome was founded by people from Alba Longa, the kings of Alba probably observed the same tradition of honoring Latian Jupiter—the deified form of their ancestor Latinus. Such kings, in the guise of Jupiter, may also have staged fake demonstrations of lightning and thunder to impress the people, and perhaps also as a rain charm. Frazer then suggests that each year the Romans celebrated the sacred marriage of Jupiter and Juno, the King and Queen of the deities, through their representatives on earth, the human king and queen. Numa and Egeria seem to fit this bill, in Frazer's opinion.

Chapter 14: Succession to the Kingdom in Ancient Latium

Next Frazer considers the kings of Ancient Latium, where Alba was located. He asks what the rule of succession was among these people, because there were several kings among the various tribes. The lines of succession were complicated, but Frazer concludes, "The right to kingship was transmitted in the female line, and was actually exercised by foreigners who married the royal princesses." Frazer rationalizes this line of succession, which discounts paternity and instead focuses on the maternal line, to downplay those occasions when a royal female "has been gotten with child by a man unknown." This happened especially during the Saturnalian celebrations, when "a special relaxation of moral rules" gave license to more freedom of sexual expression. Frazer notes these celebrations often happened in summer and were a time of great revelry, "a festival of lovers and of fire." Latin kings may have been conceived during such events.

Frazer further states the father's rank did not matter as long as he was "physically and mentally fit" and thus able to impregnate the royal female. He could be "of humble birth" or even a foreigner or a slave. Such a custom may have given rise to fairy tales in which "an adventurer, coming to a strange land, wins the hand of the king's daughter and with her the half or whole of the kingdom." Frazer further notes sometimes the princess was married to the winner of a race or other contest, possibly even the games at Olympia—the Olympics. Such races or contests took place well beyond Latium, in locations such as Northeast Asia and the Germanic and Norse regions. Frazer suggests such races were "designed to test the fitness of a candidate for matrimony" and the tradition continued in Rome under the name of "the Flight of the King." Each year, Frazer proposes, the current king would run against a crowd of competitors. If he won, he continued as king for another year; if he lost, he was replaced by the winner (or even slain). This king would then play the role of the god in the sacred marriage to the goddess, "designed to ensure the fertility of the earth by homoeopathic magic." Frazer also suggests such a tradition might explain the plethora of stories of ancient Roman kings who came to violent ends.


In Chapter 12 James George Frazer's attempt to connect the modern custom of the King and Queen of May to the King of the Wood and Diana could be justifiably called a stretch of the imagination. The customs in question are both distant in time (from ancient Rome to modern day) and in distance (many of the May Day customs he has described take place hundreds of miles away from Italy). Frazer himself says there is no direct evidence to prove the theory; he cannot trace the path of the ancient Roman custom across national borders and time into today. Here, Frazer may be attempting to find evidence to suit his purpose rather than sticking strictly to the facts. The same holds true for Chapters 13 and 14. Frazer offers a plethora of interesting information in comparing three important pairs: Numa and the King of the Wood, Egeria and Diana, and Rome and Alba (or Ancient Latium). He sees parallels in all these pairs, but parallels and interesting tidbits don't necessarily prove the connections.

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