The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 48–49 | Summary



Chapter 48: The Corn-Spirit as an Animal

Chapter 48 discusses the animal forms of the corn-spirit in Northern Europe in 10 sections.

1. Animal Embodiments of the Corn-spirit

James George Frazer tells of "a new aspect of the corn-spirit," in which the god or spirit is killed in the form of an animal. It is believed "the animal flees before the reapers" as they cut the corn, and is then "caught or killed in the last sheaf." The animal may be represented by a puppet and taken home on the harvest wagon.

2. The Corn-spirit as a Wolf or a Dog

This form of the corn-spirit was common among the French, Germans, and Slavs. When the last bit of grain was harvested, the person cutting it was said to "kill the Dog" or "catch the Wolf." He or she might also be called the Wheat-dog, Corn-pug, Rye-wolf, or another name after the spirit of the crop. A sheaf in the shape of a wolf might be made and kept in the barn during threshing, at which time the spirit is driven out or killed.

3. The Corn-spirit as a Cock

This form of the spirit of grain existed in Austria, Germany, and Transylvania. Similar customs are observed as in Section 2, with small differences. For example, the farmer might hide a live rooster under the last sheaf in the field, and whomever found it could keep it—if he could catch it. The rooster as corn-spirit might be beheaded, eaten, buried, or nailed up in the barn until the next harvest. Its feathers might then be scattered with the next spring's corn to offer "its quickening and fertilizing power" to the crops. Frazer notes, "Thus the corn-spirit, in the form of a cock, is killed at harvest, but rises to fresh life and activity in spring."

4. The Corn-spirit as a Hare

Some cultures viewed the corn-spirit as a rabbit; examples include Galloway, Germany, Sweden, Holland, France, Italy, Norway, and Lesbos. The last bit of corn standing might be woven into a knot, which the reapers vied to cut down by throwing their sickles. In cutting the last of the corn, a person was said to "kill the Hare."

5. The Corn-spirit as a Cat

In other traditions the corn-spirit was observed as a cat. A cat might be "decked out with ribbons, flowers, and ears of corn" as the corn-spirit, or it might be killed after the last of the corn is cut or threshed.

6. The Corn-spirit as a Goat

The corn-spirit as a goat was traditional in places such as Prussia, Norway, Switzerland, Bavaria, and elsewhere. The goat might be represented as a wooden carving, a straw figure, as two horns set on the last pile of corn in the field, or as a live goat "adorned with flowers and ribbons" and chased about the field until it was caught. The goat was then beheaded and served as a harvest feast, with a small amount of meat being preserved until the next year's harvest.

7. The Corn-spirit as a Bull, Cow, or Ox

In places such as Switzerland, Austria, and France, the corn-spirit was a bull, cow, or ox. As in the previous sections, a figure of the animal might be made or a live animal might be killed at the time of harvest or threshing. Sometimes the figure of a man or woman representing the bovine spirit might be called the Cow, Old Man, Buffalo-bull, or other names. Frazer points out "the confusion between the human and animal form of the corn-spirit"; this phenomenon happens with some of the other corn-spirit animals as well.

8. The Corn-spirit as a Horse or Mare

France and England had various horse corn-spirits. In Lille, France, the youngest horse of a parish would eat the last of the harvested corn. This horse represented "the corn-spirit of the following year, the Corn-foal, which absorbs the spirit of the old Corn-horse by eating the last corn cut."

9. The Corn-spirit as a Pig (Boar or Sow)

These final corn-spirit animals, like the others, were often named after the crops, such as the Oats-sow, the Rye-boar, the Wheat-sow, and the Corn-sow. The pig might be represented as a straw effigy or a bundle of straw ropes. In some regions the pig corn-spirit was present during spring sowing as well as during the harvest. A piece of cooked pig, particularly the tail, might be planted in the field for its "fertilizing power." In Scandinavia people baked a Yule Boar or Christmas Boar, a loaf made from corn or rye and often shaped like a pig. The loaf was kept until spring and then fed to the ploughman or the horses, or mixed in with the seed corn to promote the corn's growth.

10. On the Animal Embodiments of the Corn-spirit

Finally, Frazer discusses "the sacramental character of the harvest-supper" in which each of these animals representing the divine corn-spirit are slain and then eaten. In some cases, people substituted bread shaped like one of the animals. The author also reemphasizes the "complete parallelism between the conceptions of the corn-spirit in human and in animal form." He makes detailed comparisons of the various corn-spirits, showing the similarities of traditions across a wide range of locations. Frazer then names other animals that took the form of the corn-spirit, including the fox, stag, sheep, bear, mouse, quail, stork, and swan.

Chapter 49: Ancient Deities of Vegetation as Animals

Chapter 49 has five sections, offering details on deities of vegetation appearing as animals.

1. Dionysus, the Goat and the Bull

Dionysus, Greek god of the vine and trees, had several animal guises. Dionysus was often seen as a goat, in which form he is associated with such "minor divinities, the Pans, Satyrs, and Silenuses," all of which take on goat forms or body parts. In addition, he could be viewed as a bull. Bulls were often sacrificed as the corn-spirit, and Dionysus also played a role in the Eleusinian mysteries, which revolved around corn. Frazer points to these ideas as possible proof the god was associated with agriculture and the corn.

2. Demeter, the Pig and the Horse

The pig and horse were both common representatives of the corn-spirit in Europe. Frazer conjectures Demeter, the corn-goddess, originally may have been a pig but evolved over time into human form. He describes the autumn festival Thesmophoria, honoring the corn-goddess, in which women ate swine and preserved part of the meat to sow into the field the following year to ensure a fertile crop. Demeter was also said to have taken on the form of a horse as she searched for her missing daughter, Persephone.

3. Attis, Adonis, and the Pig

Frazer notes Attis may have been viewed as a pig, because he was killed by a boar and his followers did not eat swine. Adonis, too, may have been killed by a boar or killed by Hephaestus while hunting boar, but the connection is less certain than with Attis. However, pigs were sacred to the Syrians, and Adonis was worshipped there, so it is possible Adonis, too, was embodied by the pig.

4. Osiris, the Pig and the Bull

Frazer examines the Egyptian god's relationship to the pig and the bull. Frazer suggests the pig was a sacred animal there, which was offered and eaten only once a year as a sacrifice; the rest of the year, touching or eating swine was avoided. Osiris may have been killed by a boar, or may have originally been a boar himself and over time took on human characteristics. The annual killing of the pig thus may have represented the killing of the god in his role as a corn-spirit. Osiris was also seen as a bull in certain places, which also may have been a form of the corn-spirit.

5. Virbius and the Horse

Under the name Hippolytus, Virbius—King of the Wood at Nemi—was believed to have been killed by a horse. Horses often represented the corn-spirit, so Virbius as a god of vegetation may have taken the form of a horse. Frazer conjectures a horse may have been sacrificed annually at Nemi in the same way annual sacrifices of sacred animals were offered to other gods.


As in much of the rest of the text, James George Frazer offers a wide variety of similar customs from around the world as potential proof to shore up his theory of the King of the Wood at Nemi. These anecdotes, while striking, nonetheless do not directly prove his thesis.

In each section of Chapter 48, there are common themes for the various corn-spirit animals, including the following:

  • Contests often happened at reaping or harvest time. Nobody wanted to be last in reaping their grain because they often had to take on the name of the corn-spirit and suffer ridicule, abuse, or mock punishment—and they might have to keep the name for the entire year until the next harvest.
  • Dances and feasts after harvest were commonly celebrated.
  • Of a sick or lagging harvester, it was often thought the corn-spirit caused his ill. For example, "the Harvest-goat has pushed him" might be an excuse for a lagging harvester.
  • When one farm's harvest was complete, the corn-spirit might be passed on to a neighbor in the form of an effigy if the neighbor had not yet finished his harvest. The corn-spirit was thought to flee from field to field to hide among the unharvested grain. A person caught passing on the corn-spirit might be ridiculed, detained, or otherwise punished.
  • The corn-spirit was thought to live among the crops. Thus, children were warned not to go in the fields because the spirit could harm them. When the wind blew, people often said it was the spirit rustling the leaves and stalks.
  • Often people kept some of the sacrificed animal's meat until either spring sowing or the next harvest. This was believed to maintain the corn-spirit year-round and to imbue the spring sowing with the spirit's power of fertility.

These corn-spirit sacrifices may be compared to the tree-spirit sacrifices Frazer discusses earlier in the text. They are similar in nature, though the corn-spirit sacrifices are focused specifically on cultivated crops, while the tree-spirit sacrifices seem to have extended more to nature in general.

In Chapter 49 Frazer embraces the theory that the deities in question were once themselves animals. Frazer believes that in very ancient and primitive times, these animals were seen as corn-spirits. Over time, as human thought became more sophisticated and shifted toward religion, the spirits took on human qualities and evolved into individual deities. Then animals were seen to represent rather than be the deity. There is also much debate in the chapter over "unclean" animals, particularly swine. Cultures such as the Egyptians and Jews avoided eating or touching swine except on one day a year. Frazer theorizes the animal was originally seen as sacred, and people's distaste for swine was a result of "religious awe and fear" of its "supernatural powers." However, the sacred nature of the pig was forgotten as anthropomorphic deities rose in prominence, and eventually only fear and revulsion of the animal remained.

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