The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 34–37 | Summary



Chapter 34: The Myth and Ritual of Attis

Attis, sometimes identified with Adonis, was a god of vegetation in Phrygia, whose "death and resurrection were annually mourned and rejoiced over at a festival in spring." He was either the lover or son of Cybele, a fertility goddess in Western Asia, and was killed either by a boar—as was Adonis—or by castrating himself and bleeding to death. James George Frazer sees the latter story as "clearly an attempt to account for the self-mutilation of his priests, who regularly castrated themselves on entering the service of the goddess." Frazer then notes the Romans adopted the worship of Cybele, hoping this would help them drive back the invader Hannibal; this seems to have worked, as his armies departed within the year. Emperor Claudius also adopted "the Phrygian worship of the sacred tree" as part of the spring festival of Cybele and Attis. A pine tree was cut, wrapped like a corpse, and decorated with violets (said to spring from the blood of Attis). An effigy, likely of Attis, was attached. Priests and devotees, in a frenzy incited by wild music and ecstatic dance, would slash their arms or even castrate themselves, allowing the blood to flow over the effigy. Frazer speculates this "Day of Blood" was meant to strengthen Attis for his resurrection, and with it, the resurgence of nature. Afterward the effigy was buried. At nightfall the god was proclaimed as resurrected, and a Festival of Joy—Hilaria—commenced, in which "universal license prevailed." The festival ended with a procession to the Almo stream, where an image of the goddess was washed, along with other sacred objects. "Secret or mystic ceremonies" also occurred, in which initiates stood in a screen-covered pit, while a bull was sacrificed above them. Covered in its blood, the worshippers emerged "born again to eternal life," their sins washed away.

Chapter 35: Attis as a God of Vegetation

In Chapter 35 Frazer relates how Attis was both a tree-spirit and general god of vegetation. According to some legends, Attis was transformed into a pine tree, a tree the Phrygians worshipped along with ivy. Both were sacred to Attis, and were probably venerated because of their "constant and eternal" greenery, or undying nature. The festival effigy of Attis was, in some places, kept until the next harvest "to maintain the spirit of vegetation in life throughout the year." Ancient statues show Attis bedecked with corn, fruit, pinecones, and pomegranates, all symbols of nature's abundance. According to Frazer, the story of Attis's death and resurrection probably represented the reaping of the grain (death), its storage in a granary (burial), and then its "coming to life again when it is sown in the ground" (resurrection).

Chapter 36: Human Representatives of Attis

Frazer observes the high priest of Cybele often went by the name of Attis, and therefore probably played the role of the god during the annual festival. Based on the offerings of blood and the effigy hanged on a pine tree, Frazer theorizes human sacrifices may have been offered by hanging and killing victims on a tree. He offers as proof the legends of Marsyas, a Phrygian satyr who was tied to a pine tree and killed, and Odin, the Norse "God of the Hanged," who sacrificed himself by hanging from a tree. Artemis may also have been "annually hanged in effigy." Each of these and other examples may help support the idea "in Phrygia a man-god may have hung year by year on the sacred but fatal tree."

Chapter 37: Oriental Religions in the West

Frazer traces the infiltration of Eastern (Oriental) religions into the structure of Western civilization in classical antiquity, notably that of Rome and Greece. He theorizes the worship of Attis, with its bloody rites and ecstatic excesses, was more popular with the "less refined Romans and barbarians of the West." Frazer says such worship was "repugnant to the good taste and humanity of the Greeks," who took up the milder rites of Adonis instead. Frazer blames this spread of Oriental religions for undermining the very fabric of classical society, which depended on the individual's submission to the state "for the common good," an "unselfish ideal" of public service and personal sacrifice. The invading religions, on the other hand, championed the individual religious experience as the prime reason for existence, taking precedence over loyalty and service to the state, a philosophy Frazer calls "a selfish and immoral doctrine." This trend lasted "for a thousand years," says Frazer, until the end of the Middle Ages, when a revival of classical ideals "marked the return of Europe ... to saner, manlier views of the world."

Next Frazer details the worship of the Persian deity Mithra and compares the Mithraic religion to Christianity. Mithra, a sun god, was said to be born on the winter solstice, when short, dark days began to lengthen, an event generally observed on December 25. Frazer proposes the Christian church "borrowed directly from its heathen rival" in fixing the date of Christ's birth to the same day. Prior to 375 CE, Frazer says, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated at all, because "the Gospels say nothing as to the day of Christ's birth." Frazer holds the church deliberately superimposed the Christmas holiday onto the prior pagan celebrations of Mithra "to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the sun" to Christ. Similar claims are made for the Christian holiday of Easter, which fell over the spring equinox, the time historically devoted to the celebration of "the death and resurrection of Attis." Frazer also lists many other Christian holidays possibly superimposed over previous pagan festivities, including the festivals of St. George, St. John the Baptist, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and Feast of All Souls. Frazer notes there was a "bitter controversy" between Christians and devotees of Mithra, each claiming their god to have come first.

In Frazer's opinion, the triumph of the church over time was due to its tolerance of these earlier religious customs; rather than trying to stamp them out entirely, the church adapted pagan festivals to fit its own beliefs. Frazer laments this watering down of the ideal examples set by Christ (and also Buddha in Buddhism) but allows that "the world cannot live at the level of its great men," so accommodations must be made for "the prejudices, the passions, the superstitions of the vulgar." Indeed, by refusing to follow to the letter the high ideals of holy men—namely in celibacy—humankind avoided "the certainty of extinguishing the species."


In Chapter 34 James George Frazer demonstrates one of his habitual tendencies, which is to use myths to try to explain various religious customs. So, the priests of Attis must have castrated themselves based on the myth that Attis himself did so. Equally, his worshippers must have avoided eating pork because another myth held that Attis was killed by a boar.

Chapter 35 delves into the familiar theme of the dying and reviving god, in which Attis is a god of vegetation who is annually sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the crops. An interesting addition here is the inclusion of pine trees and ivy as "constant and eternal" plants enduring throughout the winter; this foreshadows the revelation of the Golden Bough itself, which Frazer reserves for the final chapters of the book. Hint: Like pine trees and ivy, the so-called Golden Bough is an evergreen.

Frazer is unable to offer proof in Chapter 36 of his theory about human sacrifices in the name of Attis. Instead he offers circumstantial evidence from other, distant cultures, from Scandinavia to the Philippines. His representation of Odin, in particular, seems off the mark in trying to cast the deity as a god of vegetation based on the fact he sacrificed himself on a tree. Subsequent human sacrifice to Odin may have occurred, but there is no proof such sacrifices were related to the earth's renewal or fertility. Frazer even notes Odin sacrificed himself to gain knowledge of the runes, not to promote the fertility of the land. The inclusion of Odin here as a possible support for Frazer's theories of Attis seems unconvincing at best.

In Chapter 37 Frazer exhibits extreme bias and moralizing on the topic of service to the state versus individualism. It is clear he views service to the state or the "common good" as "unselfish" and superior, in opposition to the individual pursuit of spiritual attainment, which he regards as "selfish and immoral." Which ideal is truly superior is purely a matter of opinion, and here Frazer reveals the influence of his era, a time in which self-sacrifice was considered the noblest of virtues and one all individuals should aspire to. Frazer's comparison of Mithra to Christ is an example of the type of material that scandalized the public when The Golden Bough was published. The suggestion the Christian church either fabricated or manipulated a number of its holidays to suppress paganism would not have been popular among the European Christian readers of the conservative Victorian Era.
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