The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 43–45 | Summary



Chapter 43: Dionysus

James George Frazer relates the spread of the god Dionysus into Greece, with its "ecstatic worship, characterized by wild dances, thrilling music, and tipsy excess." This god of wine was at the center of a popular mystery cult, and was also considered a god of trees—especially cultivated trees and fruit trees, which he was believed to have discovered. From historical clues Frazer concludes Dionysus was also a god of agriculture and corn, and says, "Like other gods of vegetation Dionysus was believed to have died a violent death, but to have been brought to life again." His death and resurrection were reenacted at a biennial festival, offering hope of the soul's immortality to initiates of the mysteries. Dionysus was viewed as a god "of the lower world or of the dead" and was often seen in animal shape, particularly as a bull or goat. These animals—and sometimes humans—were often torn to pieces and eaten by his followers during their ecstatic rites, and Frazer maintains "they must have believed that they were eating the body and blood of the god."

Chapter 44: Demeter and Persephone

The myth of Demeter and Persephone is yet another example of figures "whose tragic story and ritual appear to reflect the decay and revival of vegetation," says the author. Young Persephone was abducted by Pluto, Lord of the Dead, who took her to the underworld to be his bride. Her sorrowing mother, Demeter, sought for her everywhere and then hid away at Eleusis to mourn. With her, she took the fertility of the land, vowing corn would never grow again until she regained her daughter. To appease Demeter, Zeus ruled Persephone would divide her time between her mother in the upper world and her husband in the lower world. Persephone's return to earth was associated with the coming of spring, and her return to the underworld with the advent of winter. The earth again became fruitful, and a mystery cult worshipping the goddesses sprang up at Eleusis. The central mystery revealed to initiates was likely a reaped ear of corn, representing the return of fertility to the land each year. Frazer names Persephone as the personification of new corn, spending the winter months underground and reappearing in the spring; and her mother Demeter as "the old corn of last year, which has given birth to the new crops." The mysteries of Eleusis also held out "the hope of a blissful immortality," suggesting death is only the beginning of "a better and happier existence in some brighter world unknown."

Chapter 45: Corn-Mother and Corn-Maiden in N. Europe

Frazer offers numerous examples of the Corn-mother or Barley-mother archetype, who was "believed to make the crop grow." Such a nature spirit existed among the Germans, Slavs, French, Scottish, Welsh, Russians, English, Swedish, and other Northern European cultures. At harvest time, the last ears or sheaf of corn were made into a doll or dressed in women's clothes. During the threshing of the grain, such a figure might watch over the process or even be beaten to drive out the Corn-mother. Alternately, it might be "drenched in water" to ensure rain. Often a person also represented the spirit, so the spirit was present in human form and in the form of vegetation—the sheaf or doll. This spirit or its likeness—doll, puppet, or sheaf—was called by many names, including the Rye-mother, Pea-mother, Flax-mother, Old Woman, Wheat-mother, Oats-mother, Harvest-mother, Great Mother, Grandmother, Old Woman, Old Man, the Maiden, Witch, Old Wife, Hag, Corn-queen, Harvest Queen, Child, Harvest-Child, Bride, and others. Sometimes the spirit was seen as old—"Grandmother"—and other times as young— "The Maiden." Frazer ends the chapter by pointing out there were no priests or temples in these rites, and generic spirits rather than individual deities were recognized. He emphasizes such rites were magical in nature rather than religious, as the rites were mean to "influence the course of nature directly through a physical sympathy" between the rites and their desired effects, rather than to propitiate a deity.


In Chapter 43 James George Frazer offers another example of the dying and reviving god in Dionysus. The author is rather judgmental when describing the original worshippers of the deity, the Thracians, whom he writes "were notoriously addicted to drunkenness." He compares this to "the clear intelligence and sober temperament of the Greek race," clearly showing a bias for the Greeks. Interestingly, Frazer's description of Dionysian worshippers "eating the body and blood of the god" touches on the same beliefs underlying the Christian act of taking communion.

In chapter 44 Frazer compares the myth of Demeter and Persephone with those of Aphrodite and Adonis, Cybele and Attis, and Isis and Osiris, all of whom have been explored thus far in the text, and all of whom represent—in Frazer's estimation—examples of deities of vegetation and fertility. The notable difference among the pairs is that Demeter and Persephone are mother and daughter rather than lovers. One theme touched on in the chapter is life after death, or immortality—a hope offered to the initiates of the cult at Eleusis. This theme is a perpetual one for humankind, as people today still seek the same comforting notion of an afterlife through religion. Indeed, Frazer compares Christianity directly with the cult of Eleusis at the end of the chapter, with both holding beliefs of an afterlife, and such beliefs serving to comfort those left behind at "the deathbed or the open grave of their loved ones."

The many examples of corn-spirits noted in Chapter 45 are reminiscent of the tree-spirits mentioned in Chapters 9, 10, 28, and elsewhere. Frazer writes, "Here the person wrapped up in the corn represents the corn-spirit, exactly as a person wrapped in branches or leaves represents the tree-spirit." In making this comparison, Frazer attempts to build further support for his main theory of the dying and reviving god as a spirit or deity of vegetation. He believes the more similar examples he can produce, the stronger his case for the King of the Wood becomes. In other words, he is trying to find a universal archetype to explain his original query regarding the priest at Nemi. However, his theory is still just conjecture, because similarities among stories do not provide the proof needed to confirm the nature of the King of the Wood.

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