The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 46–47 | Summary



Chapter 46: Corn-Mother in Many Lands

Chapter 46 discusses variations on the Corn-mother in four sections.

1. The Corn-mother in America

The spirit of the grain is personified as the Maize-mother. As in European traditions, Peruvians would dress a portion of harvested maize in women's garments, hold ceremonies of worship, and keep it throughout the year to sustain the spirit of the grain and encourage crops to grow. Similar figures or puppets were made of plants and named the Coca-mother, Quinoa-mother, and Potato-mother, all crops common to the land. During the year, the people might ask the figure if she felt weak, and if so, they would burn the figure and create a new Maize-mother. James George Frazer sees this as another example of killing the god, in which a weak spirit or deity must be replaced by a vigorous one to ensure the health of the community and land.

2. The Rice-mother in the East Indies

Frazer compares harvest traditions in the East Indies with those of Europe. Frazer explains people in the East Indies region believe rice is animated and has a soul just like men do, and thus they worship cereals just as some cultures worship the dead. They treat the rice with the same gentleness as with a pregnant woman, so as not to scare off its soul before harvest. If a crop doesn't grow well, people may believe its soul is away and must be called back; this they do through song or chant. Prayers and charms are also spoken to ensure successful sowing of the fields. Representations of the Rice-mother may be kept in the barn after a harvest to watch over the crop, often in the form of a sheaf. Representations may also be made of a Rice-mother and Rice-child, which Frazer compares to Demeter and Persephone, or a bride and bridegroom.

3. The Spirit of the Corn embodied in Human Beings

In North American tribes old women portrayed the "Old Woman who Never Dies," a spirit who made the crops grow. Offerings of dried meat were given to the women to eat in exchange for "a grain of the consecrated maize" to help fertilize the new crop. Then there was the harvest-goddess Gauri of India, who was portrayed by a young girl, together with a bundle of plants dressed in costume.

4. The Double Personification of the Corn as Mother and Daughter

Frazer offers theories on why some cultures developed double deities to represent the grain. The most prominent example is Demeter—a Corn-mother—and Persephone—a Corn-maiden. Frazer suggests the Corn-mother initially was seen as the spirit of the corn itself, with the corn being animate. Over time, people anthropomorphized this spirit until it became sufficiently humanlike to morph into the deity Demeter, leaving the corn itself an inanimate object once more. Frazer theorizes that "the backward members of the community" held onto the "old animistic notions," and thus reinvested the corn with a new spirit: the Maiden spirit, which eventually became Persephone. Such ideas, however, are "purely conjectural," according to Frazer.

Chapter 47: Lityerses

Chapter 47 has four sections about songs sung during the harvest.

1. Songs of the Corn Reapers

Frazer seeks the origin of the dying and reviving god archetype in the "rustic rites observed by reapers and vine-dressers." He believes the archetype arose prior to the advent of dying god deities such as Persephone, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus, and its roots may be found in primitive agricultural customs. One such custom is the singing of lamentations as the crops are cut or harvested, which Frazer believes to be "a dirge for the death of the corn-spirit ... and a prayer for its return." Frazer offers examples of such lamentations, ranging from Egypt and Greece to Phoenicia and Western Asia.

2. Killing the Corn-spirit

The harvest song called Lityerses was named after a son of Midas, King of Phrygia. As Lityerses reaped the corn, he would challenge strangers passing by to a reaping match. He would then "harvest," or kill, them, wrapping them up in sheaves and throwing the bodies into water—until he himself was slain by Hercules in the same manner. Frazer compares this legend with the harvest customs of Europe, noting many similarities: contests to complete the harvest as fast as possible, dressing a person as the spirit of the corn (bound in corn stalks, for example), the "death" of the corn-spirit at reaping or threshing, and the corn-spirit as "represented either by a stranger ... or by a visitor entering it for the first time." Frazer offers various examples of each of these customs, pointing out strangers were rarely killed; they escaped by paying a forfeit. Generally, a mock death was carried out using harvesting tools, and sometimes a stranger was thrown into water.

3. Human Sacrifices for the Crops

People were sacrificed in various ways to ensure agricultural abundance. Such sacrifices happened in Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, among the North American Pawnees, in West Africa, the Philippines, India, and elsewhere. Victims sacrificed might be criminals, captives, slaves, children, old men, or others, and their bodies were often sown into the soil with the seed of new crops. Frazer gives particular attention to the Khonds tribe in Bengal, among whom victims for sacrifice are bought and treated with great reverence until the time of their death, which could be quite gruesome. The victim's flesh might be cut from his body while alive, and it was taken home to various villages and buried as an offering to the earth goddess. Flesh or the ashes of the body might also be buried in the fields or "mixed with the new corn" to make the crops grow. Frazer suggests the victim was a propitiatory offering to the gods and also possessed magical properties himself.

4. The Corn-spirit slain in his Human Representatives

In Europe and Phrygia—the origin of the story of Lityerses—"the representative of the corn-spirit was annually killed up on the harvest-field," Frazer says. The corn-spirit might be represented by a passing stranger, or possibly "selected by means of a competition on the harvest-field," with the loser becoming the sacrifice. Frazer also conjectures the master of the farm himself might sometimes serve as the corn-spirit. And because Lityerses is the son of a king, Frazer suggests the myth is connected to the custom of "slaying one of those divine or priestly kings," or in this case, laying the king's son in his stead. Frazer next compares Lityerses to Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation and "the embodiment of the corn-spirit," pointing out a representative of Attis was slain each year. The author surmises Lityerses and Attis might be identical, with Lityerses coming first in time and Attis evolving later. However, Attis was also a tree-god and probably slain in the spring, rather than at the fall harvest like Lityerses, so there is some doubt as to this theory. Another prominent example given by Frazer of the corn-spirit slain in his human representation is the Egyptian god Osiris, to whom victims were sacrificed annually at his grave.


Throughout Chapter 46 James George Frazer makes correlations between modern "primitive" societies such as in the East Indies and the society of ancient Greece, trying to figure out how the primitive mind works and to use this to better understand the ancient Greeks in their worship of the corn deities Demeter and Persephone. In Section 2 the author notes a lack of logic in the idea that rice has a soul, yet he overlooks his own lack of logic in trying to make connections between societies far removed in time and space. In Section 3 he notes some other races have "lagged behind the European races in mental development," and these races may offer better insight into the "original motives for observing these rustic rites" of the corn-spirits at harvest time. He further generalizes that similar customs "are not confined to any one race, but naturally suggest themselves to all untutored peoples engaged in agriculture." Frazer's descriptions of such societies and peoples as "primitive" and "backwards" is seen as outdated, stereotypical, or even offensive by many people today.

Chapter 47 continues the book's theme of the dying and reviving god with the various corn-spirits serving as the embodiment of vegetation killed and then reborn in the new crops. Frazer makes mention of both magical and religious ceremonies related to the harvest and the killing of the corn-spirit. The magical aspects of such rites were often sympathetic, such as dousing the representative of the corn-spirit in water as a means of promoting rain or the sprinkling of a victim's blood or flesh on the fields to promote new life. On the other hand, ceremonies were religious when a sacrifice was offered to appease a deity. As elsewhere in the text, Frazer tries to string together anecdotes from diverse cultures to support his favored theory of a vegetative god sacrificed and reborn to ensure fertility to the land.

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