The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 23–24 | Summary



Chapter 23: Our Debt to the Savage

James George Frazer recaps some of the main points he has set forth in the text, particularly the existence of divine humans who were spiritual leaders and the strict rules they had to observe. The author again notes that ordinary tribe members could choose whether to obey such taboos, but "in the case of the god-man it is enforced under penalty of dismissal from his high station, or even of death." The author calls the reasoning behind this system "crude and false," yet he allows that "it would be unjust to deny it the merit of logical consistency." Frazer declares it would be "ungrateful" to "stigmatize these premises as ridiculous" because they laid the foundation for further human progress. He acknowledges this debt to the "nameless and forgotten toilers," calling for gratitude for their achievements, which "have largely made us what we are." In each age, Frazer says, humankind can add only small contributions, and modern humans should not count their own achievements as greater than those of earlier people. He cautions against "contempt and ridicule and abhorrence and denunciation" toward "the savage and his ways," advising thankfulness for early humans' contributions instead. Their ideas were "simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time," he says, and "after all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best."

Chapter 24: The Killing of the Divine King

Chapter 24 contains three sections, considering various aspects of the killing of divine kings.

1. The Mortality of the Gods

Frazer says early people believed gods to be mortal just like themselves. These beliefs encompassed gods who died and came to life again as well as those who simply grew old and died. He gives several examples, including the graves of Zeus, Dionysus, and Apollo, and the tombs and mummies of Egyptian gods.

2. Kings killed when their Strength fails

Early people believed the health of the land and people were bound to the health of its divinity, a human god; thus came the fear of what would happen when the deity grew old and feeble. To preserve the world's prosperity, early people determined "the man-god must be killed as soon as he shows symptoms that his powers are beginning to fail." His soul was transferred to a "vigorous successor" so it would not be lost or captured "by a demon or sorcerer." Thus, many man-gods were not allowed to die a natural death; they might be stabbed, strangled, clubbed, hanged, starved, suffocated, poisoned, speared, or otherwise killed, often by the appointed successor. Frazer also notes some kings were open to attack at any time, even in the prime of life and health, by a rival to the crown—including his own sons. He was then forced to battle to the death to retain his title and power. Furthermore, a king's failure to satisfy his wife or wives sexually could sound his death knell, for if the king is no longer seen as fertile, then he can no longer safeguard the fertility of the land. Frazer equates all of this to the priests of Nemi who were tied to the land's fertility and regularly killed to ensure its abundance.

3. Kings killed at the End of a Fixed Term

This section tells of similar customs, but in this case the allotment of time for a king's rule was predetermined. The length of time might be 12 years, as in Southern India, or one year, as in Babylon. At the end of the prescribed time, the king was either killed or committed ritual suicide. In some cases, any man who killed the king at the appointed time earned the crown—but he himself might be immediately killed by another contender for the throne. In other cultures the monarch could appoint a substitute to die in his stead, whether it was his own son (as in Sweden) or a "tribute of seven youths and seven maidens," said to be imprisoned or devoured by the Minotaur in Crete. Prisoners also sometimes died in the place of the king.


In Chapter 23 James George Frazer uses metaphors, similes, and analogies to make his points hit home with readers. In discussing the early man-gods, he says the many taboos were like "cobwebs"; they "spun about the path of the old king" and trapped the king like a fly in the spiderweb. Later he says modern humans are "like heirs to a fortune," the wealth of knowledge passed down by earlier generations. He also compares early and modern humans: each form their own hypotheses in the search for the truth. Frazer recognizes that someday even modern humans' hypotheses may be viewed as "crude and false," so he advises a grateful indulgence of any flaws in early humans' line of reasoning. In writing this chapter Frazer steps away from purely scientific analysis and offers his own opinions, telling readers how to view early humans' accomplishments. While his points seem noble and gently phrased, some readers might not appreciate being told how to think, and may feel such opinions do not belong in scholarly works.

Chapter 24 provides food for thought regarding the nature of divinity, notably the idea that deities could be mortal, perish, and be replaced by a successor. Such a concept may be unfamiliar to readers from monotheistic cultures with an eternal deity, one who is not born and will never die—Christianity's God or Islam's Allah, for example. The idea that ancient pilgrims or tourists might have traipsed over the grave of Dionysus or Zeus can be rather mind-bending, blurring the lines between mythology and history. In Section 2 Frazer's portrayal of the various reasons a king could be killed—and the gruesome ways this might be accomplished—underscores the precariousness of a king's position. It is easily understandable why some cultures had a hard time finding a willing monarch. As Frazer says, it is no wonder "the throne stands vacant" at times. This contrasts with those eager candidates in Section 3 who scrambled to gain the throne by killing the current king.

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