The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 53–54 | Summary



Chapter 53: The Propitiation of Wild Animals by Hunters

Chapter 53 relates the custom of appeasing hunted or wild animals people kill for food, or in vengeance for the death of a relative. According to James George Frazer many tribes believed animals have souls, feelings, and intelligence, just like humans, and thus harming an animal was not done easily or willingly. Early peoples refrained from killing animals except when necessary, believing the animal's spirit could return to haunt its killer or could drive away other game the tribe depended on for food.

Rituals or ceremonies to propitiate the animals were performed before or after the act of the hunt, including offering prayers, food, libations, lamentations, and honorary speeches to the animal's spirit. People asked the animal's forgiveness, treated it with great hospitality, and asked the animal's spirit to tell other wildlife how well it was treated by the tribe. Special care was given to the animal's remains. The skin was often preserved, displayed, or worn in ritual. The meat was entirely consumed in a feast, with a portion often offered to the dead animal itself. The skulls and bones were buried or neatly arranged, never burned, nor were dogs allowed to gnaw on them. These customs were followed because early humans believed the animal would come to life again, its flesh forming around the bare bones. Fearsome animals that people enjoyed eating were particularly venerated, such as bears and buffalo. The greater and more fearsome the animal, the longer its ceremony would last. Similar customs were observed in fishing cultures, and even to propitiate rats, birds, or weevils infesting a tribe's grain. All these traditions sought to preserve life-giving food, either in the form of wild game or in the tribe's store of corn.

Chapter 54: Types of Animal Sacrament

Chapter 54 has two sections about animal sacraments in diverse cultures.

1. The Egyptian and the Aino Types of Sacrament

Frazer relates Aino customs for killing bears, on which they depended on for food and clothing. As noted in Chapter 52, the tribe singled out one bear cub to treat with special regard as a representative of the species. In doing so, they made atonement for having to kill other bears for survival throughout the year. Frazer distinguishes two types of animal worship, which are basically opposites: "In one, the animal is not eaten because it is revered; in the other, it is revered because it is eaten." Accordingly, there are two customs of killing the animal god: killing the god only "on rare and solemn occasions," such as in an annual ritual, and an "ordinary and everyday atonement" in which a hunter immediately propitiates the spirit of the animal with "apologies and sacrifices." Frazer labels the former type of sacramental killing Egyptian (annual) and the latter type Aino (everyday or regular). He then offers examples of the Egyptian style of animal sacrament from various tribes worldwide, from the Caucasus to India to Africa.

2. Processions with Sacred Animals

Parallel customs involved taking a sacred animal from home to home as a form of communion within a community. The Gilyak tribe would lead a bear around the village, while in India, a Snake tribe would carry a snake made of dough around in a basket. Presents of cakes, butter, or corn might be offered as a gift to the snake, and its bearers might sing songs as they proceeded. In each case, the animal was then killed in a sacred ritual. Some such ceremonies still existed in Europe at the time of writing as well, including the "hunting of the wren" in which this sacred bird was annually killed, often at Christmas time. The bird was then carried from house to house, songs were sung, and money or food for a feast was collected. The bird was often buried in a churchyard and laid to rest with dirges and dancing. The procession was held so that every household "may receive a portion of the divine virtues" of the sacred animal.


Chapter 53's discussion of animal souls echoes the book's earlier discussion of taboos and rituals observed at the death of humans. Precautions were taken with both animals and humans to prevent the spirit of the dead from returning to cause troubles to the tribe or to the killer—whether warrior or hunter. Rituals or ceremonies celebrated both the human and animal dead, and were often much alike in nature, offering prayers, singing, dancing, feasts, lamentations, and so forth. In the case of animals, special pleas were made to ensure game would continue to be available to the tribe and the dead animal would not warn or chase away the wildlife the tribe depended on for survival. Interestingly, this topic is one instance in which James George Frazer concedes "savage" beliefs might be superior to those of modern humans. At the opening of the chapter he says early humans' belief in animal souls is "more liberal and perhaps more logical than the civilized man, who commonly denies to animals that privilege of immortality he claims for himself." Even though Frazer has his own bias and opinions, he does tend to leave the door open for other possibilities and speculation. The author continually strives to uncover the real nature of humankind rather than simply reinforce his own notions—though he sometimes does this, too.

Throughout the text, Chapter 53 included, Frazer pulls together examples from diverse cultures separated by time and distance. The similarities can be quite striking, and the reader may easily see how these accumulated anecdotes might have influenced the work of Carl Jung, the famous psychologist. Jung proposed the existence of a "collective unconscious," a shared unconscious mind all humans can access, containing universal ideas and archetypes. Information from the collective unconscious is accessible, says Jung, through such activities as dreams or shamanic journeywork—and shamanism was widely observed in early cultures. Whether the similar ideas arising in cultures around the world were accessed through the collective unconscious is an unproved yet intriguing theory.

Chapter 54 revisits themes previously explored in the text. The animal processions described in Section 2 are quite similar to the May Day processions of Europe, though the reason for the processions differed. May Day and similar processions (as described in Chapter 10) were based on tree worship and celebrated the return of vegetation to the earth in spring, whereas the sacred animal processions of Chapter 54 were meant to bring the blessing of the particular animal to each household. Two similarities of the processions, however, were the worship of nature and the use of ritual to ensure good fortune, blessings, or abundance for the entire village or tribe.

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