The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 15–16 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 15: The Worship of the Oak

James George Frazer posits the chief deity for most of the Aryan people of Europe was "a god of the oak, the thunder, and the rain." For the Greeks, this was Zeus. A famous sanctuary to Zeus was located at Dodona, where thunderstorms were frequent, and on Mount Lycaeus priests of Zeus called for rain by dipping oak branches into a sacred spring. Indeed, Zeus was often honored "on the mountains where the clouds gather and the oaks grow." Lightning was also Zeus's domain, and he was said to travel "down in the flash from heaven." Frazer speculates Greek kings donned the guise of Zeus "just as the Italian kings personified Jupiter." The Celts and druids of Gaul also worshipped a similar god, as did the Germans, Slavs, and Lithuanians. The chief deity for each of these cultures was a god of the oak and the thunder, and often one that brought rain and fertility to the soil.

Chapter 16: Dianus and Diana

Now Frazer attempts to synthesize the information gathered thus far to illuminate the mystery of the priest of Nemi. He notes again early humans' belief in their own superhuman or divine powers; eventually, they came to see "the fallacy of this belief." Humans then began to believe that invisible beings controlled the world, and religion began to replace magic. These beings, however, were not seen as above humans, and in fact, people believed humans could become equally powerful and divine: incarnate human deities. Like the magicians who came before, such incarnate deities were expected to ensure the safety, health, and fertility of the people and the earth. They served both as king and gods, uniting civil and religious aims. Frazer again says the King of the Wood at Nemi likely fulfilled these same roles originally, especially by uniting in sacred marriage with the goddess Diana, Queen of the Wood, to promote fertility.

But which god did this King of the Wood represent? While the name of Virbius is known, it is also obscure; for proof, Frazer points instead to the continually burning sacred Vestal fire, fed by oak wood. This leads Frazer to conclude the deity in question was Jupiter, who "mated with the oak-goddess Diana." He then explains how Jupiter and Diana may have borne a variety of names: Jupiter and Juno, Dianus and Diana, Janus and Jana, and even the Greek Zeus and Dione. The author views these deities as "merely duplicates of each other," worshipped by different tribes in their own fashions. Frazer further disputes the idea Janus was merely "the god of doors," as some contemporary scholars believed, instead suggesting double-headed Janus was "the great god," a "divine watchman" guarding the comings and goings of homes and towns. From all this, Frazer concludes the priest of Nemi, whatever his name (Virbius, Jupiter, Dianus, or Janus) was essentially the same deity of the sky, thunder, and oak. As oak-god, he mated with the oak-goddess—whether under the name of Diana or Egeria—to ensure earth's fertility.

Analysis

Chapter 15 opens with more of James George Frazer's beautiful and detailed descriptions of places and events; these passages draw the reader in, recreating the sights, sounds, and sensory delights of the distant past in an immediate and compelling way. This is a strength of Frazer's writing and one of the reasons The Golden Bough became so popular in its time and afterward. Frazer's analysis of the similarities of Zeus, Jupiter, and the many other gods of the oak and thunder seems a great deal more convincing than some of his previous correlations.

The evolution of human thought continues in Chapter 16, as Frazer traces the shifting tides of beliefs. As private magic fell out of use, two separate beliefs began to emerge: a belief in "invisible beings" controlling the earth and a belief in incarnate human deities. It is likely these belief systems overlapped in time, with some cultures favoring one belief over the other, but the book doesn't indicate a clear timeline. This lack of linear structure can be confusing for the reader and is further complicated by the dizzying array of deities' names.

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