The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 63–65 | Summary



Chapter 63: The Interpretation of the Fire-Festivals

James George Frazer offers insights on fire festivals in three sections.

1. On the Fire-festivals in general

The various fire festivals had a number of common features. Features such as the bonfires, procession of torches, and fire-leaping were shared by most of the festivals. Only the Yule log differs significantly from the other fires, because of its domestic kindling indoors. The fire festivals also have similar aims: to ensure the fertility of the crops, the health of both the people and their livestock, and prevent ills such as disease, dangerous weather, infestations, and witchcraft. Frazer offers two competing theories of magic through which these benefits might be conferred—the solar theory and the purification theory—and explores these in the remainder of the chapter.

2. The Solar Theory of the Fire-festivals

The sun was seen as a positive, creative force, bringing forth life through its light and heat. By kindling fires, people used imitative magic to kindle the energy of the sun and stimulate the growth of crops people depended on for sustenance. Frazer notes that two of the most prominent festivals occurred at the summer and winter solstices, times directly related to the course of the sun. Other customs suggesting "a conscious imitation of the sun" were the flaming wheels rolled down hills and the burning discs launched into the air. In some cases people produced the festival fires using a great wheel to create friction; Frazer conjectures this wheel may have represented the sun. Because the fires were also thought to influence "the weather and vegetation," Frazer suggests they were sun charms kindled to drive away excessive rain or lightning, and the heat of the fire was meant to imitate the heat of the sun, "acting like sunshine on the corn." Similarly, the fires and smoke were thought to promote fertility and health for livestock, and even humans. Barren couples might jump over the fire in hopes of conceiving, just as driving the cattle through the smoke was believed to make them fertile. Blazing torches carried throughout the orchards or fields were thought to have the same effect, while at the same time driving away vermin.

3. The Purification Theory of the Fire-festivals

The fires were thought to burn away or drive out malignant influences, from disease to witchcraft. So, the fire would be a purifying force rather than a creative or generative one. As Frazer notes, fire is a "destructive agent," and the use of fire against witchcraft in particular backs up this theory. Because effigies or other representations of witches were so often burned in the fires, it is impossible to dismiss the purification theory as a strong explanation of the fire-festival customs. Witches were believed to harm livestock and steal milk from cows, so the fires were meant to drive witches away and save the animals from harm. Frazer suggests the fire festivals may have evolved for this purpose from the need-fire, which would have been kindled when disease struck the herds. The flaming wheels and burning discs may also have been intended to drive off witches or evil spirits lingering in the fields. By clearing away these malignant influences, the fields and animals could freely multiply and prosper.

Chapter 64: The Burning of Human Beings in the Fires

Chapter 64 has two sections relating the custom of burning humans—in in person or by effigy—and animals on the festival fires.

1. The Burning of Effigies in the Fires

Many effigies were burned as representatives of witches. In fact, the effigies were often called "the Witch" or some similar term. By destroying the effigies, people hoped to destroy real witches nearby—another example of imitative magic. But sometimes the effigies may have represented the spirit of vegetation. Just as burning the effigies of the figure of death were meant to promote fertile crops, the festival fires were similarly thought to ensure fertility in plants, animals, and even humans. Sticks or ashes from the festival fires were spread on the fields to promote growth as well. If the effigies were representations of vegetation, Frazer says, exposing them to the light and heat of the fire would, by imitative magic, secure light and heat from the sun for the crops to grow.

2. The Burning of Men and Animals in the Fires

Some customs suggest human sacrifice may have once happened during the fire festivals. For example, at several festivals, people pretended to throw a person into the fire. More convincing proof, though, comes from Julius Caesar's descriptions of human sacrifice as practiced by the Celts. Caesar's notes indicate that condemned criminals or war captives were sacrificed to the Beltane fire to ensure fertile crops. "Live men, cattle, and animals of other kinds" would be enclosed in huge wicker effigies and then burned alive, likely as "representatives of the tree-spirit or spirit of vegetation." Similar wicker "giants" were burned at spring and midsummer festivals throughout Europe, sometimes with live animals such as snakes or cats inside. Frazer conjectures that the humans sacrificed may have been "condemned to death on the ground that they were witches or wizards." Because witches were believed to be able to transform into animals (especially cats), the sacrificed animals may also have been thought of as bewitched. A counterpoint to this theory is the idea that people or animals may have represented the corn-spirit and thus were sacrificed to impart fertility to the land, though Frazer finds this unlikely.

Chapter 65: Balder and the Mistletoe

Frazer now endeavors to show how various customs already discussed illuminate the myth of Balder, first detailed in Chapter 61. He begins with the mistletoe, which was sacred to the druids, especially when found on an oak tree. A "supernatural" plant "sent from heaven," mistletoe was believed to be an antidote to all poisons, to cure barrenness, epilepsy, ulcers, and virtually every disease imaginable. The mistletoe was harvested with great care at special times of the year, especially midsummer. It was cut with a golden knife—never iron—and was "not allowed to touch the earth," but would be harvested into a white cloth instead. As a parasitic plant, it grew "without having roots in the earth," and its evergreen nature was seen as an indicator of immortality. Some believed the plant would protect from fire, especially fire caused by lightning, and it was believed to ward off witchcraft and induce prophetic dreams as well.

Frazer notes that in Scandinavia people gathered the mistletoe during a midsummer festival, which may have been the season of Balder's mythical death. Moreover, the fires lit at such times were called Balder's balefires, which Frazer equates to the mythical burning of Balder's body on a funeral pyre. The author theorizes the Balder myth became the basis of the fire festivals in general, and effigies or people who were sacrificed in the fire "did so in the character of tree-spirits or deities of vegetation." He speculates Balder himself must have been such a spirit or deity, perhaps even the personification of the oak tree, the most sacred tree throughout the tribes of Europe. Oak was used to kindle the need-fires and to keep perpetual fires burning in various temples, and it may also have fed the festival fires. The author concludes that if Balder, an oak-spirit, could only be harmed by mistletoe, his immortality was dependent on the plant. Mistletoe may have been "the seat of life of the oak," so to kill the god—in other words, burn the sacred tree—the mistletoe first had to be removed from the oak. In a manner, Balder's life force was contained outside his body, within the mistletoe itself.


In Chapter 63 James George Frazer considers two competing theories, both of which have merit in his view. In the end, he seems to prefer the purification theory over the solar theory, due in part to the prominent scholars who supported the idea of festival fires rather than sun charms as purifying. Without concrete evidence to make a final determination, Frazer instead lays out the reasons for and against each theory and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusion. Imitative magic is again an important concept in the section on the solar theory, because the fires may have been sun charms meant to foster abundant sunlight or to clear away inclement weather. Furthermore, the occurrence of festivals at the solstices supports this notion. Midwinter festivals may have encouraged the sun to return to earth, strengthening the feeble winter light with strong light and heat from the bonfires. Midsummer fires, held as the longest days of the year began to shorten, may have been intended to prolong the sun's reign over the crops.

The meaning behind the effigies discussed in Section 1 of Chapter 64 is not clearly determined. It is possible, though, that the effigies changed in meaning over time. Just as sacred animals such as bulls or pigs came to be identified with anthropomorphic deities like Dionysus and Demeter, so the effigies may have evolved over time. They may have started as simple representations of the corn-spirit, but this identity may have been forgotten. The effigies may have taken on individual characters, becoming, for example, Judas or a witch. Whether the effigies represented spirits of vegetation or witches, though, one intended effect of burning them was the same in the mind of early man: to increase the fertility of the land. In the former case, burning a corn-spirit effigy was clearly meant to bring new life to the fields. In the latter case, burning a witch effigy was thought to remove the witch's evil influence on the land, thus enabling crops to better grow and livestock to flourish.

Chapter 65 brings together the information on mistletoe, fire festivals, and the myth of Balder to create one coherent thesis: Balder represented the spirit of vegetation—as a personified oak tree—with his immortality dependent on the mistletoe that clung to the heights of the oak tree; the reenactment of his funeral pyre was observed in the bonfires of the fire festivals. Frazer believes this myth forms the underlying basis of the fire festivals across Europe and notes similar beliefs about the oak and mistletoe in Italy, where the King of the Wood reigned. The idea of the evergreen mistletoe as ensuring immortality explains why people believed it could cure all diseases. Moreover, its nature as a parasitic plant living high in the air touches on the idea of existing "between heaven and earth." It has no roots in the ground, yet it is not quite of the sky, either—it exists in an in-between place, a place of magical possibility.

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