The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 38–42 | Summary



Chapter 38: The Myth of Osiris

To open this chapter, James George Frazer notes Egyptian deity Osiris in one of his aspects was a personification of nature and the corn, much like Adonis and Attis. He then relates the myth of Osiris's birth, death, and resurrection. Osiris was born "outside of the year" of 360 days, during which five days were added to bring the lunar and solar calendars into sync. He married his sister, Isis, and the two brought to Egypt many marvels, including wheat, barley, fruit, and grape vines. However, his brother, Set, conspired to kill him, tricking him into a coffin to be flung into the Nile. Isis went to seek the body and eventually found it in Syria. She returned to Egypt, where Set tore the body into pieces and scattered them across the land. Isis gathered the pieces and buried them, but her mourning was so deep the other deities pitied her and "pieced together the broken body of the murdered god, swathed it in linen bandages," and carried out other rites over the body. Osiris then revived and became the Lord of the Underworld, where he judged the souls of the newly dead. According to Frazer, Egyptians viewed this resurrection as "the pledge of a life everlasting for themselves beyond the grave," and thus all people were buried in a similar manner thereafter to gain for themselves the same eternal life.

Chapter 39: The Ritual of Osiris

Chapter 39 has two sections about the popular and the official rites of Osiris. Due to the irregular Egyptian calendar, the official rites shifted in time each year, and eventually "revolved through the whole course of the seasons." The popular rites, on the other hand, were observed by the average people, particularly farmers, according to seasonal cues such as the flooding of the Nile.

1. The Popular Rites

The annual rituals of the average farmer were celebrated "to secure the blessing of the gods upon his labors." A festival of Isis was held when the Nile began to rise; people "believed that the goddess was then mourning for the lost Osiris," and her tears swelled the river. Frazer surmises this would make sense if Osiris were a corn god, because in midsummer the harvest was over and "the corn-god was dead." The next event was the opening of dams in August to inundate the fields with water via canals. At this time a young virgin, playing the role of "bride," might be thrown into the river, "to marry the river, conceived as a male power, to his bride the cornland," an act meant to ensure crop growth. New seeds were sown in November as the floods retreated, accompanied by rites of mourning because there was no guarantee the seeds would grow. The springtime harvest was also solemnized with mourning, as the farmers believed they were cutting down the body of the corn-god himself. Frazer then notes several other cultures observed similar mourning customs at the harvest, including the Cherokee Indians and groups in the East Indies, East Africa, and Moab.

2. The Official Rites

Among the rites performed by the priests of Egypt was a yearly passion play held to recreate the death and resurrection of Osiris, during which people mourned and lit lamps to burn all night. The priests would lament and imitate "the sorrowful search of Isis" for Osiris, and a golden casket would be carried to the sea. Water was poured into the casket, and "the spectators raised a shout that Osiris was found." Images of the god were made from vegetables and spices; these represented the resurrected deity. Frazer believes this festival may also have been a night of All Souls, honoring all departed dead. Funeral rites were held annually for Osiris, too, which lasted 18 days. The main events of these rites recreated his death, dismemberment, and revivification. Gold images of the god were cast in the form of a mummy, and "a ceremony of ploughing and sowing" took place. Water was poured over small "gardens" in pots, from which barley would grow to symbolize the god's resurrection and the flourishing of vegetation. Finally, an effigy of Osiris was laid to rest in a coffin in a holy tomb. Carvings on the temple of Isis at Philae show "the dead body of Osiris with stalks of corn springing from it." Moreover, many Osiris figures made of grain have been found in many tombs, the grains sprouting and thus symbolizing new life "to quicken the dead ... to ensure their spiritual immortality."

Chapter 40: The Nature of Osiris

Chapter 40 discusses various aspects of Osiris in four sections.

1. Osiris a Corn-god

Osiris's aspect as a deity of vegetation was celebrated yearly in "the festival of his death and resurrection" at the time of sowing. An effigy of the god was buried in a mock funeral, so "he might come to life again with the new crops." Frazer cites this as an example of sympathetic magic, "a charm to ensure the growth of the corn." Frazer speculates human sacrifices may have been offered, with the victim representing Osiris. The author notes several other cultures observed similar customs in which a deity was torn to pieces and then interred in the ground, including cultures from the Arab world, Europe, Rome, Greece, Norway, and British New Guinea. These practices all pointed to "a widespread practice of dismembering the body of a king or magician and burying the pieces in different parts of the country to ensure the fertility" of nature and humankind.

2. Osiris a Tree-spirit

Osiris's role as a spirit of trees may have predated his role as a corn-god. His image was carved from wood and then buried within a hollow tree trunk; this "was probably the ritual counterpart of the mythical discovery of the body of Osiris" closed up inside a tree. Also connected with Osiris were conifers and ivy, both eternal in their greenery, as well as fruit trees and grapevines.

3. Osiris a God of Fertility

Osiris also served as a paternal figure to "bless men and women with offspring" and "to quicken the seed in the ground." During festivals dedicated to him, women would carry "obscene images of him" to make his generative powers of fertility plain to see.

4. Osiris a God of the Dead

The deity held an additional role as "the ruler and judge of the dead." This was a major role because the afterlife was of great importance to the Egyptian people. It was Osiris who could "raise them from the dust to life eternal," just as he made the crops grow.

Chapter 41: Isis

In Chapter 41 Frazer postulates Isis was a corn-goddess, only fitting because her husband, Osiris, was the corn-god. She was identified with Ceres by the Romans and Demeter by the Greeks, both goddesses of grain, and was said to have discovered wheat and barley. Frazer says the worship of Isis in Rome was so popular, "some of the Roman emperors themselves were openly addicted to it." He also compares Isis to the Virgin Mary, not only as a "serene figure" of "spiritual calm," but also because artwork featuring Isis suckling the infant Horus have sometimes been mistaken for Mary and the infant Jesus.

Chapter 42: Osiris and the Sun

In this chapter Frazer weighs the issue of whether Osiris was a sun-god; he doubts it because there is little evidence to support the theory. Some writers theorized the myth of Osiris's death and resurrection related best to the daily rising and setting of the sun, rather than being linked with seasonal vegetation and crops. Frazer counters the theory with his own arguments; in antiquity, he says, people "classed together the worship and myths of Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, and Demeter, as religions of essentially the same type." Writers Frazer calls "intelligent and trustworthy witnesses"—such as Herodotus and Plutarch—agreed with this assessment, saying the worship of Osiris and Dionysus were "so alike as to be almost indistinguishable." Frazer also declares that the view of Osiris not as a sun-god but rather as a dying and reviving god is "an easy and natural" explanation and fits all of the aforementioned deities well.


In Chapter 38 the story of Osiris's birth during the five days "outside of the year" offers a prime example of mythology created to explain a natural phenomenon. In the original myth, the god Thoth won these five days from the moon and "added them to the Egyptian year of three hundred and sixty days." Such a story marries myth with science, giving a supernatural reason to explain the workings of nature. In Chapter 39 James George Frazer notes that the irregularities of the Egyptian calendar caused festivals to shift from season to season, which has made it hard to pin down when the festivals were originally supposed to take place. The difference between the official rites of Osiris, tied to this faulty calendar, and the unofficial rites people celebrated is curious. It seems common humans used common sense—and observation of nature's cycles—in fixing the rituals at appropriate times during the year. The priests, on the other hand, clung to a flawed calendar system; it eventually moved the seasonal rituals away from the seasons when they were intended to be celebrated.

Modern humans have found it particularly difficult to understand Egyptian deities because, as Frazer notes in Chapters 40 and 41, both Osiris and Isis served multiple roles and had multiple epithets, or names, during the long period in which their worship was observed. Partly, this was due to the influence of other cultures, such as the Greeks and Phrygians, who syncretized Osiris and Isis with gods of their own. Osiris was paired with Dionysus or Adonis, while Isis was viewed as another aspect of Ceres or Demeter. Over time, Osiris and Isis gained more and more attributes and became more complex in nature. It is clear how important Osiris was, as he ruled over man's very sustenance as the corn-god, nature as the tree-spirit, the future of humankind through reproduction as the fertility god, and even the afterlife as god of the dead.

Frazer displays his less-than-flattering view of religion in Chapter 41, when he says Roman emperors were "addicted" to the worship of Isis. His characterizes women who worshipped Isis as "gentle spirits" who were "shocked and repelled" by "bloody or licentious rites of other Oriental goddesses." Such a characterization seems to stereotype women of the time as meek, and seems to be mere conjecture—Frazer's imagining of what women of the time must have been like. Frazer's comparison of Isis to the Virgin Mary is another example of his treating Christianity the same as any other religion. He logically analyzes Christian traditions as mythology, a stance many of his contemporary readers found objectionable, being Christian themselves. Seeing the folly in another culture's religion seems perfectly logical, but applying the same scrutiny to one's own religion can be uncomfortable at best.

In Chapter 42 Frazer directly refutes a competing theory, something he rarely does; in this case, it is the theory Osiris was a sun-god. He offers logical arguments against those who theorize Osiris was a sun-god. For example, he asks: if Osiris's birth-death-rebirth story were really about the sun's daily rising and setting, then why was his festival only celebrated once a year instead of daily? Frazer's reasoning skills are impressive, and the reader might easily be swayed to his opinion, but convincing arguments are not the same as proof, a fact for which Frazer has sometimes been criticized.

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