The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 25–27 | Summary



Chapter 25: Temporary Kings

Chapter 25 gives an overview of cultures with a temporary king, from the King February of Cambodia to Siam's King Hop. James George Frazer notes this was likely a softening of the custom of regicide—neither the king nor a substitute was killed, though there was sometimes still "a mock execution ... as a memorial of the time when he was actually put to death." The reign of a temporary king often lasted just a few days but was sometimes as long as a year. Sometimes the temporary kings were drawn from the royal family, but this was not always the case. Temporary kings often had all the powers of the actual king, and were entitled "to seize and confiscate" money and goods from the markets and ships, along with other royal prerogatives and lavish treatment. Some of these kings served the magical purpose of ensuring fertility for the crops as well, such as by plowing and sowing the fields with seed. Frazer also notes that in some places temporary kings were not appointed regularly, but "only to meet a special emergency, such as to relieve the real king from some actual or threatened evil." The temporary king would stand in the real king's place to take the brunt of any such evil.

Chapter 26: Sacrifice of the King's Son

Continuing the theme of substitute kings, in Chapter 26 Frazer says oftentimes it was the king's son who was chosen to be sacrificed in his stead. This was seen as most appropriate because "no one could so well represent the king in his divine character as his son." For example, King Aun of Sweden sacrificed nine of his sons over the course of his reign; so, he lived well into old age. In Alus, Greece, the oldest royal son of each generation in the family of the king Athamas was sacrificed to Laphystian Zeus to prevent the failure of the crops. Similar sacrifices of royal progeny were offered to Dionysus in Greece and by Cronus, king of the Semites in Western Asia, who sacrificed his son "as a ransom offered to the avenging demons" during times of crisis.

Chapter 27: Succession to the Soul

Chapter 27 opens with commentary on the various ways tribes or individual families died out due to the practice of killing their own members. Initially, this topic references the idea of divine kings being put to death, to which Frazer says that "it may be objected that such a custom would tend to the extinction of the royal family." However, he explains that this objection was not usually one considered by early humans. The author says, "Many races ... have indulged in practices which must in the end destroy them." Among these practices, he lists several instances of tribes killing their infant children, and of one tribe practicing "the poison ordeal" in which members take poison to prove their innocence or guilt. Frazer notes such tribes had no hesitancy to wipe out their own kind, and says, "To attribute such scruples to them is to commit the common ... mistake of judging the savage by the standard of European civilization."

Frazer then relates the death of divine individuals to "the idea that the soul of the slain divinity is transmitted to his successor." This was sometimes achieved by the king's son or other successor catching his last breath in a bag or by sucking it in through a tube. The king's spirit could also be obtained by possessing parts of his body, such as bones, nails, or hair. In some cases the successor must even eat a part of the dead king, such as his tongue or heart.


In these chapters James George Frazer continues to explore the topic of killing the divine king, which he began in Chapter 24. He offers more anecdotes suggesting such a king had a magical function—the fertility of the earth—and sacrifices were required to ensure abundance continued. Frazer himself notes that "direct evidence ... is wanting" in many regards. He connects changes in these customs over time, from killing the king to killing one of the king's relatives or another substitute, and finally to not killing either the king or a substitute. Frazer seems to view this progression as a positive evolution in human thought, a gradual refinement of humankind away from "barbaric" traditions to "the standard of European civilization." Here, Frazer shows his bias toward his own society over earlier cultures.

Frazer's commentary in Chapter 27 on the ways in which royal families and cultures destroy themselves through killing is striking. In modern times, the family unit is often considered of supreme importance, but it seems this was not the case for tribes in ancient times. In Frazer's interpretation, blood relations, including newborns, do not seem to have held the same importance for some tribes then as they do now for many people. The welfare of the tribe was, apparently, placed above individuals' welfare. This is demonstrated in the killing of infants, which Frazer notes might slow down the women when the tribe was "on the march." It is also seen in the use of the poison ordeal, which tribe members willingly took, even though it could end their individual lives. In any case, it seems clear the tribe was valued more highly than the individual, and tribe members were willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure the good of the tribe—even killing their own children.

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