The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 50–52 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 50: Eating the God

Chapter 50 has three sections describing customs related to "eating the god."

1. The Sacrament of First-Fruits

The first harvested corn was eaten as a sacrament—"as the body of the corn-spirit." The corn was baked into human-shaped loaves, sometimes representing "the Maiden," but other times shaped into a man. Frazer offers examples of eating the first fruit as a sacrament. In Lithuania people ate bread and beer; in Japan, cereal cakes; in East India, rice; in Niger, yams; in East Africa, porridge. Ceremonies worldwide included purification rituals before eating, blessings by medicine men, the burning of old possessions and procuring new clothes and household goods, fasting, dancing, divine fires that "purged away the sins of the past year," and other ritual activities to celebrate the first fruits. Frazer sees many of these sacraments as a "communion with a deity" living within the harvested plant.

2. Eating the God among the Aztecs

Frazer shares "the custom of eating bread sacramentally as the body of a god" in Mexico. Twice a year worshippers consumed bread shaped as a god. Frazer classifies this as an act of transubstantiation, in which the food becomes the body of the god to the worshippers, and notes this occurred "even before the arrival of Christian missionaries." Thus, the people "entered into a mystic communion with the deity" by taking the god's flesh into themselves.

3. Many Manii at Aricia

This section returns to the sacred grove at Aricia (Nemi). Frazer proposes that the "manii," loaves of bread shaped like men, were eaten there "when the divine King of the Wood was annually slain." The loaves were "made in his image" and eaten as a sacrament to honor the god.

Chapter 51: Homoeopathic Magic of a Flesh Diet

This chapter relates various beliefs about the magical properties of food, beyond the belief in partaking of the body of the god—in the form of bread, for example. Many cultures believed eating specific foods could endow a person with the "virtues and vices" attributed to the plant or animal. For example, in Native American tribes a person who ate venison would be "swifter and more sagacious than the man who lives on the flesh of the clumsy bear." While warriors of some tribes avoided eating the slow tortoise—lest they themselves should become slow—other warriors ate the animal in what Frazer calls "a curious refinement of savage philosophy." Through sympathetic magic, these warriors believed having "slow-footed" food in their stomachs would make the game they pursued equally slow-footed and thus easier to catch. Eating the heart was believed to impart courage—particularly the heart of a brave human foe. Frazer gives many additional examples of the supposed magical properties of consuming various animals from cultures around the world. He ends the chapter by returning to the idea of early peoples eating the god; by doing so, one could "shares in the god's attributes and powers." The author explains if a god is a corn-god, then the corn is his body; thus, eating the corn—or bread—is the same as eating "the real body and blood" of the god. Frazer gets in a parting shot, however, saying "reasonable men" can't possibly believe that "by eating bread or drinking wine he consumes the body or blood of a deity."

Chapter 52: Killing the Divine Animal

Chapter 52 discusses the killing of divine animals in five sections.

1. Killing the Sacred Buzzard

Californian Indians observed an annual custom of killing a great buzzard at a "bird-feast." They believed the buzzard to be the 'Panes,' a woman who was changed into a bird by a god, and she came to life again each year after being killed. Frazer surmises the tribe killed the bird in the prime of its life in hopes of infusing the entire species with fresh life and "all the spring and energy of youth."

2. Killing the Sacred Ram

The ancient Egyptians performed similar annual rites with rams, sacred to the god Ammon. They would place the animal's skin on an image of the god, mourn the ram, and then bury it in a special tomb. The ram was believed to be Ammon himself, and thus the god was killed. Frazer believes this annual ritual was performed to spare the god "the weakness and frailty of age."

3. Killing the Sacred Serpent

Various tribes of West Africa ceremonially killed a serpent once a year. As with the buzzard and the ram, the skin of the serpent was preserved and hung on a tree annually. The skin served as a protection for the people, because the serpent was their "guardian deity."

4. Killing the Sacred Turtles

The Zuni Indians of New Mexico retrieved turtles from a distant lake and returned with them to the village. They believed human souls transmigrated into turtles, so the turtles were the reincarnations of their ancestors. Members of the tribe would spend time communing with the turtles at home. Then the turtles would be killed and returned to a nearby river as a "way of sending back the souls to the spirit-land." In this way, the tribe stayed in touch with the spirits of the departed. Frazer also conjectures this ritual was part of a larger ceremony intended to bring rain for growing crops, and perhaps these ancestor turtles were meant to aid in the endeavor.

5. Killing the Sacred Bear

Various tribes killed bears in sacred rituals. For example, the Aino of Japan held an annual bear festival in winter during which they captured a cub and then worshipfully raised it for a few years. They would then kill and eat the bear, "sending the god away" to its ancestors. Although the bear was considered divine, it was also believed to exist to provide food and clothing for the tribe. "It is now your turn to sacrifice yourself for us," said one tribesman in addressing the sacrificial bear. The bear was also seen as a messenger, able to entreat God to send abundant wildlife for the tribe to eat throughout the year. In addition, people believed they would gain the bear's strength and courage by eating its flesh. Similar festivals took place in Siberia as well, and were performed not only with captive bears but when bears were killed in the wild.

Analysis

In Chapter 50 James George Frazer's description of the eating of bread as a form of communion, or transubstantiation, helps the reader better understand the ancient custom, because the Christian communion would have been well known to most of his readers at the time—and indeed, to many readers today. Because these ancient cultures believed in a corn-spirit living within the grain, eating the bread was—quite literally to them—eating the god, whereas in modern Christianity the act of transubstantiation is said to transform ordinary bread—having no indwelling spirit—into the body of the divine. Both are examples of religious acts, yet Frazer would likely classify the former as more primitive and the latter as more evolved on the spectrum of religious thought. In the discussion on manii in Section 3, the author also toys with the idea bread loaves may have been a substitute for human sacrifices (based on woolen effigies that once served this purpose). In the end he rejects this complicated notion, which is too much of a stretch, even for Frazer's imagination.

Chapter 51, with magical properties assigned to various animal foods, calls to mind characteristics people still assign to animals today. For example, people may say someone has the "heart of a lion," meaning he or she is courageous, and indeed some early tribes would eat a lion's heart—or the heart of a fierce warrior—to gain courage. When Frazer notes "reasonable men" couldn't possibly believe in transubstantiation—bread or wine becoming the body or blood of the god—he again reveals his bias against religion.

In a departure from the usual focus on agricultural rituals, Frazer remarks in Chapter 52 that the killed animals most likely "date from the hunting or pastoral stage of society." These animals were wild rather than domesticated, and seemingly had no relation to agriculture. The killing of the buzzard in Section 1 can be compared with the killing of a tree-spirit or deity of vegetation; each was killed to infuse fresh life—the buzzard giving life to its own species, and the tree-spirit or deity of vegetation to the forests and fields. Section 2 offers another example of possible anthropomorphism in the form of the part-human, ram-headed deity Ammon. Frazer surmises this form of the god was an intermediary one, with the original god possibly being merely a ram and the later god being fully human in appearance. Chapter 52 also offers a more in-depth look at totemism, in which various tribes mentioned believed specific animals served as guardians of their people. Some of these tribes believed they were descended from the totem animals, which may explain their reluctance to kill the animals except in special ceremonies. Transmigration of souls and reincarnation, which have been briefly alluded to previously in the book, are also given special attention in Section 4 during the discussion on turtles. Then Section 5 introduces a new concept in divine beings: the animal sent to earth specifically to provide for humankind and to serve as an envoy to God. Frazer struggles with whether to classify the bear as a deity, because it was worshipped and treated with the same respect and deference a tribe might offer a true deity. The various eyewitness accounts of the bear-killing ceremonies leave the impression it was not a true god, even if it was treated as one.

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