The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 9–11 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 9: The Worship of Trees

Chapter 9 commences the discussion of the worship of trees, and has two sections.

1. Tree-spirits

James George Frazer discusses humans' veneration of trees, particularly in Europe, which was covered with massive ancient forests. To the Germans, "the oldest sanctuaries were natural woods," and similar outdoor worship was common to the Celtic druids, Lithuanians, Greeks, Italians, and many other cultures. Sacred groves were guarded zealously, and punishment for harming such trees could be extreme and gruesome. Some believed harming these trees would bring instant death or deformity to the culprit. To early humans "the world in general is animate," including trees and plants, which people believed had souls just like themselves. Some believed the trees suffered pain when they were cut down, so they would ask the tree's pardon or make offerings to appease the spirit of the tree. People might also injure a tree on purpose, striking blows with an ax and threatening to cut the tree down completely if it failed to produce fruit. Frazer also notes some cultures recognized trees' gender and knew how to fertilize them artificially by "shaking the pollen of the male tree over the flowers of the female." Other people believed the spirits of the trees were "the souls of the dead," and such trees were treated with special reverence. In some cases a tree-spirit was considered as bound to the tree, and if the tree died, the spirit died; in other cases, the tree was merely a host for the spirit, which "can quit it and return to it at pleasure."

2. Beneficent Powers of Tree-Spirits

Frazer opens this section by noting that "animism is passing into polytheism" with the belief a tree-spirit is independent of its host tree. The tree itself is just a tree—inanimate—and the spirit residing within is a "supernatural being," more of a "forest god" than the spirit of any single tree. Early peoples tended to anthropomorphize such spirits, imagining them in human form, often with attributes such as tree branches or other symbols of nature. These tree-spirits were believed to have the power to control the weather, make crops grow and herds of animals multiply, and to enable women to conceive children, among others. Frazer points out, "The very same powers are attributed to tree-gods conceived as anthropomorphic beings or as actually incarnate in living men."

Chapter 10: Relics of Tree Worship in Modern Europe

Frazer proposes that modern European customs observed on May Day, Midsummer Day (summer solstice), Easter, Whitsuntide, St. Bride's Day, or St. George's Day probably arose from the early worship of trees. The purpose of these celebrations in general was to welcome the return of vegetation and the arrival of spring or summer. Such rituals followed a similar pattern from culture to culture: people would cut down a tree from the woods and erect it in the village for a community celebration or feast. Alternately, people might adorn their homes with branches, bushes, or flowers, or a cut tree to invite "the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to bestow." Children or youths might go from home to home, singing songs of blessing and receiving gifts of food or money in exchange. In some lands, people decorated maypoles with leaves, flowers, ribbons, or other adornments and danced around them. The custom of lighting bonfires on the hills was also common, and people would dance around the fire or even jump over it.

Frazer also notes that in some cultures people dressed a tree branch in clothing, creating a personification of the tree-spirit. At the end of the festivities they flung the branch into a stream, a gesture meant to be "most probably a rain charm," according to the author. In many of these traditions Frazer says, "The tree-spirit is represented simultaneously in vegetable form and in human form," and may be a doll, puppet, or living person. Some of the human representations of vegetation were called the Lady of May, Little May Rose, Father May, Green George, the Queen of May, Little Leaf Man, Jack-in-the-Green, the Grass King, and so on. They were often clothed from head to toe in leaves, branches, flowers, or wickerwork, and almost invariably ended their ceremonial procession about town by being dunked in a nearby stream or trough, again as a rain charm. Such a figure was viewed "as an actual representative of the spirit of vegetation"; it would bless those who honored it.

Chapter 11: The Influence of the Sexes on Vegetation

Frazer theorizes such spring and summer festivals in Europe represented a marriage of the male and female powers of vegetation "in the persons of a King and Queen of May" and so on. The purpose of these ceremonies was, by homoeopathic magic, to encourage the growth of trees and plants. Some cultures took such celebrations a step further with "the real union of the human sexes," or sexual intercourse as a means of further ensuring the earth's fertility. In lieu of actual intercourse, sometimes young men and women, or even priests, would lie down in the fields and roll over them to quicken the growth of the crops.

Conversely, other cultures abstained from sexual intercourse during the time of sowing and sometimes until harvest, believing abstinence would best encourage the crops to grow. People believed this delay of gratification transferred their sexual vigor into the newly growing plants. Frazer judges this as an act of "self-preservation" rather than an act of moral virtue because the crops produced the food needed for survival. "In short," he says, "the savage is willing to restrain his sexual propensity for the sake of food." However, the author also praises this practice, noting that "the power of sacrificing the present to the future" advances the overall character of the human race, leading humankind to greater heights.

Analysis

The focus of Chapter 9, the evolution of tree-spirits into independent deities, shows the gradual evolution of human thought concerning magic and religion. As James George Frazer says, "Animism is passing into polytheism," the belief in multiple gods. Animism, the belief spirits reside in nonliving objects, particularly objects in nature and in natural phenomena (such as wind) is an important concept in the chapter and for religious study in general. Frazer notes early humans gave these tree-spirits human characteristics. This practice is called anthropomorphism, and remains evident today in mythical figures such as Mother Nature and in the many films and stories that feature talking animals or objects.

While much of the book focuses on exotic locales or cultures around the world, Frazer's discussion of modern European customs in Chapter 10 takes a critical look at his own culture, noting that remnants of ancient magic and religion are still evident—a fact many of his readers (and even readers today) may not have realized. His explanation of May Day and other spring and summer festival traditions lends a sense of history and a greater depth of understanding to modern culture. One such tradition, the lighting of bonfires, is explored more thoroughly in Chapters 62 through 64.

Chapter 11 includes a hint of Frazer's bias regarding the intellectual and moral superiority of modern humans to early humans. Frazer describes the seasonal abstinence of early peoples as an act of "self-preservation" rather than a choice based on morality. He says the idea that abstaining from intercourse can encourage crop is a "fallacy ... plain enough to us." He acknowledges such a practice could be useful in "bracing and strengthening the breed," making early humans seem almost like livestock. Frazer concludes that renouncing personal pleasure for the betterment of humankind is the "height of heroism"; this is purely opinion, an interjection of the author's personal beliefs into what is meant to be a scientific and factual treatise.

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