The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 55–56 | Summary



Chapter 55: The Transference of Evil

Chapter 55, in four sections, discusses how people attempted to transfer "disease, misfortune, and sin" away from themselves.

1. The Transference to Inanimate Objects

James George Frazer notes that "the cunning and selfish savage" would try to banish troubles by conveying them into objects. For example, in the islands of East India, a person with epilepsy would be beaten with leaves, which were then thrown away; the affliction was believed to transfer into the leaves and thus away from the sufferer. Similarly, herbs or stones might be used to relieve toothaches, then thrown away or buried. It was believed the next person to encounter or walk over these items would acquire the affliction, while "the original patient recovers." Alternatively, a clay effigy of the patient might be made and buried to take away the malady and transfer it to another person. Frazer considers these acts magical rather than religious, as there was no veneration offered to spirits or deities.

2. The Transference to Animals

People transferred their aches and pains to animals such as goats and wild boars. In the Arab world a camel was led through the streets to take on the town's plague and then strangled, while in India, a buffalo calf was paraded around the corpse of a dead man to take on his sins. Many of the animals used to take on the ills of humans were then killed or driven away, never to be seen again. It was thought the evil died or disappeared along with the animal.

3. The Transference to Men

Often people foisted their ills onto other people or onto a willing scapegoat, such as the Cingalese devil-dancer. This man would dance in devilish masks, drawing out the "demons of disease" and taking them into his own body, then pretend to die to release the ills. Similarly, in New Zealand, one individual wearing a fern would take on the sins of the entire tribe, then jump into the river and release the fern—and the sins. Criminals, holy Brahmans, or slaves might also serve as human scapegoats. To take away sins or ills, these scapegoats might be exiled or devote their lives to prayer, or even be beaten and left to die in a far-off place.

4. The Transference of Evil in Europe

Frazer offers examples of transference of evil from "the civilized nations of Europe, both in ancient and modern times." The French would touch their warts with small stones, then leave the stones in the street; whomever picked them up was believed to inherit the warts. In England and Wales, a person with a cough would place a strand of hair into a sandwich and feed it to a dog who would then take on the cough. Hindus would chant, "O consumption, fly away, fly away with the blue jay!" to transfer their sickness to blue jays. Frazer recounts some of these "cures" being practiced as late as 1855 in Wales. Inanimate objects such as trees or bushes were often believed to take on maladies, too, sometimes by tying a thread or knot onto the tree, other times by depositing the sick person's hair or nail clippings in the tree.

Chapter 56: The Public Expulsion of Evils

The three sections in Chapter 56 give insights on public rituals meant "to free a whole community from diverse evils that afflict it."

1. The Omnipresence of Demons

Humans in earlier times sensed spirits everywhere, whether "fairies and goblins, ghosts and demons" or other invisible beings. Such beings were blamed for illnesses, losses, and accidents by early people; every so often they would make "a desperate effort to chase the whole pack of them from the land." Frazer declares such entities have been mostly "banished by the magic wand of science" in his own time, but to the "savage" mind these spirits were very real.

2. The Occasional Expulsion of Evils

Frazer defines two classes of expelling evil. Invisible evils were directly expelled, and evils embodied in a scapegoat were indirectly expelled through the scapegoat. Techniques for expelling invisible evils included beating the air with sticks, stamping the ground, yelling or making a great deal of noise, or carrying blazing torches to "drive away the devil" or evil spirits. These entities were thought to cause all sorts of misfortune, from sickness to crop failure. Exorcisms of spirits dwelling within a home are also counted in this class. On the flip side, sometimes people simply abandoned their homes, leaving the evil spirits to dwell there in peace.

3. The Periodic Expulsion of Evils

Occasional expulsions of evil eventually turned into regular events, often yearly. Such cleansings were done so "people may make a fresh start in life, freed from all malignant influences" thought to surround them in the form of devils, ghosts, or spirits. Evils might be expelled using weapons, fire, branches, magical song, prayer, frightening masks, loud noises, dances, bathing, housecleaning, animal sacrifice, offerings of food and flowers, verbal banishments, and so on. Many of these expulsions took place during festivals at significant times of the year, such as the New Year, an equinox, or at harvest time. Processions might be made to all the homes of a village or to the fields to drive out evils, after which periods of silence might be observed so the spirits could not find their way back to their old abodes. In Europe such expulsions were directed at witches as well, through church bells, torch-lit processions, brooms, cracking whips, horns, wild noises, and shouted chants of "witch flee, flee from here, or it will go ill with thee."


In Chapter 55 the idea of transferring one's ills or sins onto another could be classified as a form of contagious magic, in which anything in contact with one person may be transferred to another person—or in this case, an object or animal. This is seen clearly in the customs of rubbing a stone over a toothache and then throwing it away (in Section 1) or in depositing a sick person's hair or nails into a tree (in Section 4). James George Frazer makes no bones about his disdain for such practices, judging "the cunning and selfish savage" for "palming off upon someone else the trouble which a man shrinks from bearing himself." This is another instance in which the author shows his cultural bias and can't resist a bit of moralizing. To be fair, though, Frazer not only details the strange customs of exotic lands, but also includes superstitious remedies still in existence in Europe in his own day. As superstitions persist even into modern times, it is possible some of these same folk remedies are still in practice. Frazer also notes another interesting custom: the willing volunteer who takes on the sin of others, particularly of a dying or newly dead person. This could imply a belief in an afterlife or a deity who punishes sin, although Frazer does not address this subject here.

The festivals and activities described in Chapter 56 could reasonably be compared to the killing of the carnival or death effigies in Chapter 28. These celebrations or rituals were all intended for the good of the entire community, and served the purpose of "out with the old, in with the new." In the case of the carnival or death festivals, the spirit of the old vegetation was killed so new vegetation could flourish. The annual expulsion of evils, on the other hand, were intended to wipe out old ills and sins, giving a fresh start to all the inhabitants of the village. The belief in invisible entities continues unabated in modern times, as witnessed by paranormal "ghost busters," religious exorcisms of evil spirits, and many other customs, both religious and nonreligious in nature. Witch hunts still continue as well, occasionally making the news in locations around the globe.

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