The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 59–61 | Summary



Chapter 59: Killing the God in Mexico

In Chapter 59 James George Frazer relates the Aztec custom of "sacrificing the human representative of a god" in annual rituals. This was sometimes a captive, but other times a young man was chosen for his "personal beauty" and perfection of body. Each man was given "the name of the idol" and treated as a god incarnate, adored by the masses, and he feasted and made merry for some time; "only he was accompanied with ten or twelve men lest he should fly." At the appointed time, the man would be sacrificed and sometimes eaten. Women, too, could be sacrificed. Each year a young girl personified the Maize Goddess and was sacrificed on a pile of corn and vegetables, her blood serving to "quicken and strengthen the crops" with "the blood of the Corn Goddess herself." A priest would then wear her bloody skin and robes to "ensure that the divine death should be immediately followed by the divine resurrection." In each case, Frazer regards the ritual as a means of continuing the youthful vigor of the deity, "untainted by the weakness and frailty of age."

Chapter 60: Between Heaven and Earth

In the four sections of Chapter 60, Frazer opens discussion of the Golden Bough and how it relates to the taboos observed by royalty and girls at puberty.

1. Not to touch the Earth

According to certain customs of taboo, royalty "may not touch the ground." Instead, they rode or were carried from place to place, or walked over mats, carpets, or other ground coverings. This same taboo, while a permanent prohibition for some, was also observed temporarily at times by others, such as priestesses performing rites. Frazer surmises the person's "holiness" or "magical virtue" was conceived as "a physical substance or fluid" that could be "discharged or drained away by contact with the earth." Thus, the holy person must be "insulated" from contact with the bare ground.

2. Not to see the Sun

Royal or holy people were prohibited from looking upon the sun or having the sun shine upon them. Some royal children were even confined for years so they might not see the sun, for if they did, they "forfeited their lordship."

3. The Seclusion of Girls at Puberty

Young girls at the onset of puberty were sometimes forbidden to set foot on the ground, to see the sun, or both. Such girls might be confined to a dark hut reserved for their seclusion, in private rooms within the home, or even in small cages. Seclusion might last for a few days or even for several years, during which other taboos were also observed. The girls might not eat specific foods, receive visits by men (or indeed, anyone), or feed themselves, among other prohibitions. The girls might be considered unclean or unlucky, or thought to possess "supernatural power," threatening evil to the tribe.

4. Reasons for the Seclusion of Girls at Puberty

The overriding reason girls were secluded at puberty was the "deeply ingrained dread which primitive man universally entertains of menstruous blood." Some tribes imagined that contact with menstrual blood or menstruating females could cause young men to grow old prematurely, rivers and wells to dry up, and crops to fail. Even the Talmud, a central text of Judaism, states, "If a woman at the beginning of her period passes between two men, she thereby kills one of them." Such women were particularly forbidden from any contact with a hunter's weapons or even from walking where they might hunt or fish, lest she might ruin the hunt. Among European superstitions were the notions that menstruating women turned wine to vinegar, caused beer to sour, killed seedlings and gardens, and drove bees away, among many other domestic calamities. Secluding these women was meant to "neutralize the dangerous influences" they exuded during menstruation. Frazer reiterates the idea of the women being "insulated" was both for her own safety and for the safety of others. He also notes how the rules against touching the ground or seeing the sun effectively kept a secluded girl "suspended ... between heaven and earth." She is "shut off from both the earth and from the sun," and thus cannot harm either of these "great sources of life." Frazer concludes the chapter by comparing these girls to secluded kings or priests, all of whom are kept apart to contain the "mysterious energy" flowing through them.

Chapter 61: The Myth of Balder

Chapter 61 narrates the story of Balder, son of Odin, the primary Norse god. This wise and beautiful deity, much beloved by the immortals, dreamed Balder might die. So, the immortals tried to safeguard him from all dangers, causing all things on earth to swear they would not harm him. Only the mistletoe was overlooked from this vow. The mischievous Loki, jealous of Balder, tricked the god Hother into shooting a sprig of mistletoe at Balder, thus killing him. His body was burned on his ship, amid great sorrow. Frazer believes this story became the basis for a yearly ritual or magical ceremony throughout Europe, which the author proposes to show in the following chapters.


Chapter 59 further supports James George Frazer's theory that the divine King of the Wood at Nemi was sacrificed yearly as a spirit of vegetation. In gathering together similar stories worldwide, the author tries to establish the general custom as a rule to carry over to the priest at Aricia. He then begins discussion of the Golden Bough in Chapter 60, seeking to establish a sort of "safe zone" in which people under taboos might exist "between heaven and earth." Especially for a royal king or priest, he was thought to be best safeguarded—and to save others from harm—if he were "suspended between the two," neither touching the ground nor seeing the sun. While both royalty and menstruating girls were seen as powerful, the reasons for secluding them were somewhat different. Both were seen as potentially harmful to the people around them because of the supernatural energy flowing within them, but in the case of royalty, it was also feared this power could dissipate if the taboos were not observed, rendering the royal person powerless. Chapter 61 only briefly relates the myth of Balder as a teaser of sorts, laying the groundwork for further proofs Frazer wishes to show surrounding the myth of the King of the Wood at Nemi. He offers the reader just enough information to start connecting the dots, but not quite enough to see the whole picture just yet. He does, however, state Balder is such a deity that exists "neither in heaven nor on earth but between the two," a significant statement foreshadowing what will follow later in the text.

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