The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 68–69 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 68: The Golden Bough

Chapter 68 brings the reader to the main subject of the book, the legend behind the Golden Bough and its relation to the King of the Wood at Nemi. James George Frazer proposes that the Golden Bough is mistletoe, the plant that contained Balder's life force and ended his life. Like royalty who could neither touch the ground nor see the sun, the mistletoe hung "between heaven and earth" high upon the oak tree. The author compares this to the King of the Wood at Nemi, who was possibly a personification of the oak. If so, it was "therefore, easy to understand why, before he could be slain, it was necessary to break the Golden Bough." If the priest's life was contained in the mistletoe, as it was for Balder, only by breaking off the bough could he be defeated. Frazer also states the bough was considered "golden" because when dried, it turned a "rich golden yellow." Furthermore, mistletoe may have been associated with the glowing fire of the sun, because it was mostly harvested on the solstices—dates associated with the sun. If the mistletoe did indeed contain some property of light and fire, this would explain why in Virgil's epic poem, Aeneas took the Golden Bough with him to the underworld—to combat the gloom and darkness there.

Finally, Frazer proposes a link between the King of the Wood at Nemi and the sun through the oak tree. Oak wood was used to kindle the fires at Nemi, and it was believed the property of fire lived within the wood the same as the tree's sap. Fire must be extracted by rubbing two pieces of wood together. Some believed the mistletoe appeared on oak trees in flashes of lightning, which were thought to be the god Jupiter visiting his favored tree on earth. Thus, in harvesting the sacred mistletoe people believed they were "securing for themselves all the magical properties of a thunderbolt." Frazer concludes people probably first worshipped the sky-god and later associated him with the oak tree because lightning struck the oak so frequently. Taking these facts into account, the author suggests the "twig of mistletoe" that killed Balder was instead a flash of lightning. Moreover, he views the King of the Wood as a representative of Jupiter, whose soul dwelled within the Golden Bough of mistletoe in the sacred grove. For this reason, the priest protected the tree and its mistletoe with his life.

Chapter 69: Farewell to Nemi

Frazer concludes his investigation with the statement, "If we have answered one question, we have raised many more." He declares the evolution of thought most likely evolved from belief in magic to belief in religion, and from there to faith in science as the pinnacle of human thought. Magic and science, the author reminds the reader, are both based on the idea there is order in nature, and natural phenomena can be predicted by observing orderly rules governing the world. While magic is based on ideas formed in the mind, science is based on "patient and exact observation of the phenomena themselves." He declares that humankind's future is tied to "the fortunes of science," but scientific understanding can change as new information comes to light and new understandings dawn. Even science, he believes, may at some point be replaced by some more advanced line of thought currently unknown to man. "The dreams of magic," he states, "may one day be the waking realities of science." This we cannot predict; only time will tell how the future course of humankind may unfold. He ends the book with a mental journey to the land of Aricia as it exists today, church bells tolling above the still-verdant forest where the rites of Nemi no longer take place. And yet he declares, "Le roi est mort, vive le roi!" The king is dead, long live the king!

Analysis

James George Frazer's incredibly thorough style of investigative writing can, at times, be a challenge to wade through, but as he draws the book to a conclusion, he weaves the disparate threads together like many roots supporting a mammoth tree. He begins and ends the book with the King of the Wood at Nemi and the Golden Bough, and all the various anecdotes on the pages in between serve to illuminate some aspect of this myth and mystery. His exploration of customs and beliefs relating to the mistletoe, the oak, sun deities, vegetative deities, and the motif of the dying and reviving god all serve to support his key theory that the King of the Wood could, indeed, have represented the sun god who was sacrificed yearly to ensure fertility to the land and its people.

As always, Frazer leaves the door open for new theories or methods that may advance human thought and understanding. While he believes science provides the best hope for humankind's future, he doesn't rule out the possibility some other disciple may arise to further human understanding of life. His final echo of "long live the king!" underscores the book's emphasis on not only the King of the Wood, but also humankind's own dying and reviving nature, in which new theories arise from the ashes of the old.

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