The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 57–58 | Summary



Chapter 57: Public Scapegoats

Chapter 57 discusses public scapegoats in four sections.

1. The Expulsion of Embodied Evils

James George Frazer picks up where he left off in Chapter 56, Section 2, when he describes two types of expelled evils: direct expulsion of invisible spirits and indirect expulsion of spirits within a living being or "material medium, which acts as a vehicle to draw them off from the people, village, or town." Such scapegoats might be one or more people in costume who "personify the devils," and who are chased off by noise, fire, mock fights, and other methods. Alternately, a wooden image might be used to capture a demon, which is then carried to a neighboring village and left there. The image continues to be expelled from village to village until it reaches a river, where it is carried away by the water.

2. The Occasional Expulsion of Evils in a Material Vehicle

From time to time scapegoats were expelled in a material vehicle, such as a boat. For example, when sickness struck a village, people might load a small boat with offerings of food and tobacco and entreat the sickness to "depart, and sail away from us directly." Sick people or their homes might be struck with branches, which were then tossed into the boat to be carried away by the water. Puppets or carved figures representing the sick people might also be loaded into the boat. If such a boat became stranded farther along the coast, it could incite panic and would be immediately burned "because demons fly from fire." Sometimes farm animals such as chickens, llamas, or cows were used as scapegoats instead of boats. They would be driven out of the village, sometimes to the neighboring village, supposedly carrying the illness with them. A person could also be a scapegoat who might be branded, driven out of the village, or even killed to rid the people of disease or dark magic.

3. The Periodic Expulsion of Evils in a Material Vehicle

Some customs otherwise similar to those of Section 2 occurred at regular intervals—often yearly. Boats loaded with offerings or with "the sins and misfortunes of the people" might be launched. Processions with dancing and singing might visit each house, collecting the ills into a pig or another scapegoat, which is then killed. In China an earthenware jug filled with "stones and bits of iron" to "represent the ills and disasters of the past year" was blown up with gunpowder to disperse the evils. Frazer gives numerous additional examples of regularly held ceremonies meant to expel evils, ensure good luck, and transfer the sins of the people onto the chosen scapegoat. Scapegoats might be animals, humans, divine animals, or divine humans offered for sacrifice or driven away from the village. Frazer also tells of the Jalno, a temporary ruler who took the place of the Grand Lama in Tibet, and the King of the Years, a man chosen as scapegoat to take on the people's sins. The two rolled dice to determine who would be expelled from the community, but the game was rigged and this lot always fell to the King of the Years. This man often died in exile before the year was out, and it was considered a good omen.

4. On Scapegoats in General

Frazer reiterates the main points on expelling evils. First, it effected "a total clearance of all the ills that have been infesting a people," and scapegoats served as the "vehicle" for expulsion. Second, annual expulsions of evil often happened at specific seasons of the year, such as the beginning or end of the rainy season or during winter—times when increased illness and death revived the fear of disease-causing demons. Third, such public expulsions of evil were often accompanied by a period of debauchery, lawlessness, or general license during which people, it seems, partied the evils out of their systems. Fourth, a divine man or animal often served as a scapegoat to "carry away the sins and sorrows of the people." Frazer compares this with the killing of the divine king, a spirit or deity of vegetation (noted earlier in the text). He surmises these scapegoat ceremonies might have been conveniently merged with previously existing customs that surrounded the dying and reviving god. The divine man, or a likeness, was killed annually to renew his vigor and save the god from "the degeneracy of old age," and Frazer believes some communities took the opportunity to cast away their sins upon this divine man at the same time.

Chapter 58: Human Scapegoats in Classical Antiquity

Chapter 58 has three sections, describing customs of using human scapegoats in the ancient societies of Rome and Greece.

1. The Human Scapegoat in Ancient Rome

An annual custom involved expelling a man dressed as the god Mars from the city in his guise as Mamurius Veturius, "the old Mars." Frazer suggests because Mars was originally a deity of vegetation, this expulsion represented the changing of the season into spring, when new vegetation would again spring forth from the earth. The author further guesses this figure might also have been a scapegoat for the city's ills, because he was driven out of the town. While others have suggested the Mars figure might represent "the old year," Frazer disputes this, stating, "The personification of a period of time is too abstract an idea to be primitive."

2. The Human Scapegoat in Ancient Greece

Various figures were beaten and expelled from Greek cities and colonies as scapegoats to take on plagues, evils, and calamities. For example, each year in Athens a man and a woman wearing strings of figs were first beaten on the genital organs with fig branches and then stoned to death. Fig branches were believed to have "a magical power of averting evil," so beating the scapegoats was probably meant to purify them and drive out evil. Frazer suggests the beating of the genital organs specifically was meant to release or purify their reproductive powers. Furthermore, the man and woman may have worn figs as imitative magic, to help the region's fig trees flourish and reproduce. Thus, Frazer presents this couple as possible representatives of vegetation, taking part in a sacred marriage to ensure the fertility of the land.

3. The Roman Saturnalia

Here, Frazer hopes to support his original theory of the priest at Nemi by showing that "the custom of putting to death a human representative of a god was known and practiced in ancient Italy" beyond the Arician grove. He offers this proof in the festival of Saturnalia, a yearly week of feasts, merrymaking, and pleasure in honor of Saturn, "the god of the sown and sprouting seed." Slaves and masters traded roles, and a mock king was crowned who reigned over the wild festivities. Frazer suggests the festival was meant to revive the Golden Age of Saturn, and the mock king may have represented Saturn himself. Sometimes this mock king was then killed—or he cut his own throat—"on the altar of the god whom he personated." Frazer interprets this custom as a reenactment of "the good god who gave his life for the world," which would correlate well to the character of the King of the Wood at Nemi. The author further theorizes the carnival figure in places such as Spain and France—influenced by the Roman Empire—were the descendants of this King of the Saturnalia.


Many of the customs described in Chapter 57 are similar to customs detailed earlier in the text. For example, the custom of passing on demons to a neighboring town parallels passing on a representation of the corn-spirit to neighboring farms at harvest time. The use of branches to transfer sickness out of people is an example of contagious magic, with the illness transferring into the branches. The subject of a temporary ruler, such as the Jalno of Tibet, is similar to the temporary kings described previously who were sacrificed in the place of the actual king. James George Frazer's comments on the possible relationship between public scapegoats and the dying and reviving god are pure conjecture, but an interesting theory nonetheless. Frazer gives a further example of this as possible proof in the carrying out of death of the figure as described in Chapter 28. The death figure was seen as a spirit of vegetation, and thus his killing was celebrated as a renewal of the land. However, the death figure was also feared, and Frazer theorizes this might have been because it, too, was believed to carry out the community's ills and sins at the same time.

In Chapter 58, after a long and winding path across the world of anthropological anecdotes, Frazer begins to zero in once again on his original query of the King of the Wood in Aricia, trying to find proofs closer to home. In his eagerness to find local proof of similar customs, though, Frazer makes myriad assumptions and conjectures with little or no concrete proof behind them. The chapter is littered with "ifs" and "probablys," and this type of unsubstantiated guesswork earned him criticism from later anthropologists. For example, there is no proof the figure of Mars served as a scapegoat in ancient Rome. Some would say Frazer is "spinning" circumstantial evidence to fit his personal theories rather than developing theories based on concrete evidence.

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