The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 29–33 | Summary



Chapter 29: The Myth of Adonis

James George Frazer opens Chapter 29 by reviewing how the cycles of nature came to be tied to the belief in "the waxing or waning strength of divine beings," with "the old magical theory of the seasons" being overtaken by religion. Magical rites were then undertaken to "aid the god who was the principle of life," to "recruit his failing energies and even raise him from the dead." Thus, the marriage, death, and resurrection of the gods gained precedence in restoring fertility to the earth. Rites celebrating this phenomenon were prominent in Egypt and Western Asia, Frazer relates, citing as an example the myth of Adonis. Originally named Tammuz in Babylonia, Adonis—from the Semitic honorary title Adon, meaning "lord"—was later adopted by the Greeks. As the myth goes, Tammuz/Adonis was the lover of Ishtar/Aphrodite, but then was killed by a boar and went to the underworld. Ishtar/Aphrodite journeyed there to bring him back, entreating the queen of the underworld, Eresh-Kigal/Allatu to let him go. During Ishtar's/Aphrodite's absence on earth, "all life was threatened with extinction," because man and beast failed to reproduce without her presence. Upon her return with Tammuz/Adonis, however, nature flourished again. Tammuz/Adonis was permitted to live on earth for part of the year but had to return to the underworld for the remainder. Each year, says Frazer, his departure was mourned by the people, often with songs of lament.

Chapter 30: Adonis in Syria

In Chapter 30 Frazer relates the worship of Adonis and Aphrodite—known as Astarte to the Semites—in Byblus, Syria, a holy city by the sea. Cinyras, the king, was said to be the father of Adonis. There were great sanctuaries and monuments to Astarte and Adonis both in the city and in groves in the surrounding countryside, set among high cliff walls, tumbling waterfalls, lush greenery, and gorgeous views of the sea. In one such forest temple, Adonis was said to have met Aphrodite, and it was there his body was buried. Each year, Frazer says, the people performed rites to lament Adonis's death.

Chapter 31: Adonis in Cyprus

Frazer describes the city of Paphos in Cyprus, an island located off the coast of Syria where the Phoenicians settled and worshipped Aphrodite and Adonis. He theorizes an earlier goddess, Baalath (or Astarte), must have "fused in one" with Aphrodite, and this "goddess of motherhood and fertility" was often represented in the shape of a cone, pyramid, or conical stones. In her sanctuary there and elsewhere in the region, Frazer says, "licentious" rites took place. These included the custom requiring unmarried women "to prostitute themselves to strangers" in "solemn religious duty" to the goddess, a practice begun by King Cinyras. His own daughters were not exempt from the custom, and one story holds Cinyras had incestuous relations with his daughter Myrrha, who then gave birth to Adonis. Frazer speculates this alleged royal incest arose from the custom of inheriting the crown through the female's blood. Thus, a royal king or prince might marry his own daughter or sister "to obtain with her hand the crown which otherwise would have gone to another man." Frazer also theorizes the kings of Cyprus were both the priests and lovers of Aphrodite, including the king Pygmalion, his son-in-law Cinyras, and Cinyras's son, Adonis. The title of Adonis appeared to be tied to the crown, and the king was likely seen as the mortal but divine consort of Aphrodite/Astarte, as portrayed by the "sacred harlots of the temple." Frazer points out, "Christian fathers" (founders) thus viewed Aphrodite as "a common whore." This custom of "sacred prostitution" was ended by the emperor Constantine, who "destroyed the temple, and built a church in its stead." Frazer ends Chapter 31 with the theory that "the witchery of music" was used in worship there, with harps, cymbals, and other instruments serving to induce an ecstatic trance in the temple priests, who would then "converse with the divinity" and issue prophesies.

Chapter 32: The Ritual of Adonis

Festivals of Adonis were held annually in Western Asia and Greece, where the death of the god was mourned, followed by the celebration of his resurrection. In Syria, this festival likely took place in the spring, when the mountains washed red earth down the river Adonis to the sea. "The crimson stain was believed to be the blood of Adonis," says Frazer. He then compares the festival of Adonis with the Indian and European ceremonies described earlier in the text, which included "the marriage of two divine beings" as effigies "mourned over and thrown into the water." Frazer proposes these effigies represent the vegetation, and the festival celebrating Adonis's death and resurrection was thus a celebration of the "decay and revival of plant life," particularly corn. Tammuz/Adonis as a corn-spirit gained precedence, says Frazer, when nomadic life went into decline and people began to depend on cultivated crops. "Hunger," the author notes, "was the mainspring of the worship of Adonis." Frazer also proposes a second theory: Adonis represents "the natural decay of vegetation," and his death was seen as "the violent destruction of the corn by man," or the harvest. Frazer finally conjectures that human sacrifices may have been offered to appease the corn-spirit, and the blood of the dead returned to life in the spring flowers and the fattening corn.

Chapter 33: The Gardens of Adonis

Frazer surmises "gardens of Adonis" are further proof Adonis represented vegetation and corn. Grains, greens, and flowers were planted in small pots or baskets for eight days but were left to wither away in the sun's heat. These gardens were then "carried out with the images of the dead Adonis" and thrown into water together; thus, Adonis was represented in both human form as images, and vegetative form, as gardens. Frazer then relates similar gardens cultivated in Bengal, India, Sardinia, Sicily, and elsewhere. The gardens were often planted in spring, midsummer, or at Easter. Some of the celebrations were Christian, with "a waxen effigy of the dead Christ" being decked with flowers, lamented by wailing mourners, and then buried. At the appointed time, a bishop announced "Christ has risen," and joyous festivities began. Frazer says, "The church has skillfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism," and he speculates that "the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis." Furthermore, Frazer tells of a grove dedicated to Adonis in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Christ. Bethlehem's name means "the House of Bread," and together with Christ's proclamation "I am the bread of life," Frazer connects Jesus with Adonis in his role as the spirit of the corn. He also connects the star followed by the three wise men of the Bible to Venus, the Morning Star, guessing its rising at a certain time of year must have been the signal to begin the festival of Adonis. So, Frazer draws another potential link between the festival of Adonis and the birth of Christ.


In these five chapters James George Frazer attempts to prove Adonis was one of many dying and reviving gods representing vegetation and fertility. Other gods representing this idea to Frazer are Tammuz, Osiris, the King of the Wood at Nemi, and the various May Kings and Queens of Europe. As with much of his foregoing material, Frazer offers interesting theories and potential correlations but little proof to support his ideas. He speculates about royal incest in Chapter 31 but can give no firm evidence. Similarly, in Chapter 32 he creates correlations between the Adonis festivals and celebrations held in India and Europe without proof that actual connections exist.

Chapter 31 raises the controversial notion of sacred prostitution, a practice disapproved of by Christians who later came to inhabit the same lands; and as Frazer notes, the practice was put to an end by Constantine. However, to its original practitioners, there was "no stain attached" to the practice of sacred prostitution. Indeed, Frazer writes, "Nobody scrupled to take one of these girls to wife when her period of service was over." These statements show sexuality was viewed very differently by early Christians and pagans. The Christian idea of sex being reserved for monogamous marriage stood in opposition to the pagan notion of sexual intercourse to honor the god and goddess and promote the land's fertility.

Chapter 32 offers two opposing assertions that can be confusing. First, Frazer equates the festivals with other, similar springtime festivals meant to celebrate the end of winter and return of abundant vegetation. Later in the chapter he theorizes the Adonis festivals actually celebrated the harvest, which would take place in the fall. This seems a bit of a stretch, and Frazer himself states on occasion the difficulty of pinning down dates for when the festivals were actually held. While Frazer's theories are compelling, much of his material on Adonis is a sea of speculation—a tendency for which he has been widely criticized by later anthropologists.

Chapter 33 provides another wonderful example of homoeopathic magic with the gardens of Adonis. "By mimicking the growth of crops," Frazer writes, the people hoped "to ensure a good harvest." The subject of Christianity is addressed in more depth in this chapter than it has been previously, with Frazer taking a dispassionate look at the religion through the lens of anthropology. While he describes the Easter rites factually, this did not prevent such material from provoking outrage at the time of the book's publication. Frazer directly correlates Christ with Adonis and claims the church grafted its own celebrations directly onto existing pagan festivals; this interpretation was not well received in Europe, which was largely Christian at the time the book was published. Perhaps Frazer was courageous to tackle the subject, but in later editions of the book many references to Christianity were moved to footnotes or excluded entirely. This raises the question of how well a society can view itself from an unbiased point of view. In this regard, it seems Frazer was ahead of his time.

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