The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 17–18 | Summary



Chapter 17: The Burden of Royalty

Chapter 17 discusses the difficulties faced by royalty, particularly kings, in two sections.

1. Royal and Priestly Taboos

Many early kings or priests were seen as incarnate deities closely tied to nature and the fate of the world; therefore, any inadvertent actions they took could "seriously disturb some part of nature." People believed if the king came to harm, the world itself might end. Unsurprisingly, such kings were subject to incredible restrictions and rules that governed their behavior. For example, the Mikado monarchs of Japan had to "take an uncommon care" of themselves and even perform seemingly "ridiculous or impertinent" acts. Their feet could not touch the ground, so they were carried everywhere. The sun could not shine on their head, nor could they cut their hair, beard, or nails. Many further examples are given: a priest who was forced to spend his life on top of a mountain, a king who lived shackled inside a hut so he might never accidentally lay eyes upon the sea, an emperor who was not permitted to eat warm food, and so on. An Egyptian king received strict rules regarding when he could walk, bathe, or even sleep with his wife. Such rulers could become "lost in the ocean of rites and taboos"; they became "a burden and sorrow to him." If he failed at his duties, the consequences could be dire: "Worshipped as a god one day, he is killed as a criminal the next."

2. Divorce of the Spiritual from the Temporal Power

James George Frazer notes the duties of civil government were taken up by "younger and more vigorous" leaders when priestly kings became overburdened by restrictions and taboos. In effect, the divine king retained his religious duties, but the country was ruled by others, such as generals or war-chiefs. Some priestly kings retained a certain level of influence or power, but others were merely figureheads with "no political authority." Frazer also says that oftentimes "no one could be induced to accept the dangerous distinction" of divine king, due to the likelihood of being put to death.

Chapter 18: The Perils of the Soul

Chapter 18 contains three sections and discusses a new topic: the nature of the human soul and various dangers to it.

1. The Soul as a Mannikin

Some cultures believed the soul to be a mannequin, or a little person living inside the person. The savage person, says Frazer, thinks "if an animal lives and moves, it can only be ... because there is a little animal inside which moves it"; so it is with human souls, too. Such souls were believed to greatly resemble the person, so "as there are fat bodies and thin bodies, so there are fat souls and thin souls." Furthermore, if such a mannequin animates the body, then the mannequin must be temporarily absent during sleep, and permanently absent after death. Frazer suggests many taboos observed in these cultures were intended "to prevent the soul from leaving the body" so the person would not die, or to ensure the soul would return if it did go temporarily absent. Frazer also notes that sometimes the soul was conceived of as an animal rather than a human.

2. Absence and Recall of the Soul

Frazer lists the ways the soul was believed to escape and come back to the body. Sometimes the soul would depart by the mouth, nostrils, or other bodily openings. This led to the custom of fastening fishhooks to the body to catch the soul if it tried to escape. Even yawning could allow the soul to escape. In some tribes people would "seal up the eyes, nose, and mouth of a dying person" to prevent his ghost from causing trouble. A sleeper's soul was also believed to wander, and the events of the dream are viewed as just as real as waking life. Thus, "a whole Bororo village has been thrown into a panic ... because somebody had dreamed that he saw enemies stealthily approaching it." The absence of the soul during sleep was seen as dangerous, because if the soul did not come back, the person would die. People thought one shouldn't awaken a sleeper "because his soul is away and might not have time to get back." People also were forbidden to move a sleeper or change his appearance, because the soul "might not be able to find or recognize its body upon return, and so the person would die." Souls might also depart while a person was awake, resulting in "sickness, insanity, or death." Frazer details many other instances of the soul's departure, including the soul being stolen by "ghosts, demons, or sorcerers." People took a variety of precautions to prevent this.

3. The Soul as a Shadow and a Reflection

Some cultures viewed the soul as a person's shadow or reflection in water or in a mirror. Thus, if a person's shadow were stabbed or beaten, the person would feel the injury. People took care not to let their shadows fall into coffins or graves, and some avoided the shadows of mourners, women, or their mother-in-law, all of whom were seen as "sources of dangerous influence." Similarly, some cultures believed reflections were the person's soul. "The reflection-soul," writes Frazer, "is exposed to much the same dangers as the shadow-soul." People avoided looking at their reflection, and the Greeks even believed that to dream of one's reflection signaled impending death. Some believed "water-spirits would drag the person's reflection or soul under water, leaving him soulless to perish." Frazer theorizes various people cover up mirrors after a death in the family for fear the soul—as a reflection—"may be carried off by the ghost of the departed." Portraits, too, were often thought to contain a person's soul, and some tribes feared being photographed for this reason. Frazer points out such beliefs regarding portraits still existed in parts of Greece and Scotland in his own time.


People have often envied kings and emperors, but James George Frazer's treatment of their daily routines reveals that their lives were not particularly enviable. The various taboos and restrictions enumerated in Chapter 17 dispel the glamour surrounding royalty in ancient times—and such protocols still exist today in monarchies. Modern royalty is often expected to observe specific etiquette, dress and speak in certain ways, attend state functions and events, and so on. Frazer's description of royal personages becoming "lost in the ocean of rites and taboos" is a poignant reminder that even people of the highest rank have their sorrows to bear. In Section 2 Frazer highlights the historical beginning of the separation of religious and political roles for leaders, a precursor to the modern idea of separation of church and state.

Chapter 18 tackles the nature of the soul, a subject people still find perplexing. To Christian Europeans reading Frazer's text, these ideas would have seemed novel, even heretical. The Christian idea of the soul is a unique, physical embodiment of the human being, with an eternal life capable of being resurrected with the body. The notion that animals could have souls or that souls could wander was anathema to many of his readers.

Today, however, many of the ideas Frazer presents are current in one form or another. Early man's idea of the soul traveling during sleep—as a mannequin—isn't far off from today's new-age notions of "astral travel" during dreams, shamanic journeywork, and even near-death experiences. Early man's belief in the soul as an animal echoes today in the notion of spirit animals or totem animals. Furthermore, the idea souls might be lost, stolen, or depart, resulting in physical or mental illness, exists today in modern shamanic beliefs and practices, such as soul loss, the idea trauma can splinter off a piece of a person's soul; soul retrieval, the finding and returning of such lost soul parts to the body; and shamanic extractions and journeywork for healing purposes. And the notion of the soul being stolen in a photograph lingers in the modern world in places such as the Amazon.

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