The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Key Figure Analysis



The son of Odin, Balder is a wise and much-loved immortal deity who dreams he will die. To protect Balder, the gods make all the natural world swear not to harm him; only the mistletoe does not take this oath. On learning this, jealous Loki tricks Balder's brother into shooting a twig of mistletoe at Balder, and it kills him. His body is burned in a funeral pyre. Frazer surmises this myth relates to the many fire festivals of Europe, in which effigies were often burned to ensure abundant crops, trees, and good weather. These effigies, like Balder, were considered tree-spirits or gods of vegetation.


The corn-goddess Demeter is a central figure from the cult at Eleusis. The rites there reenact her union with Zeus, the sky-god, as represented by a priestess and priest. She is sometimes called "the Sorrowful One" because of her deep mourning when her daughter, Persephone, is carried off to the underworld to be the bride of Pluto, lord of the Dead. Demeter's mourning plunges the land into barrenness, and Zeus forces Pluto to return Persephone to her mother. Persephone then spends two thirds of the year with her mother and the remainder with her husband. Upon her return to the earth, Demeter causes the land to spring forth with corn and abundant vegetation. This myth is the basis of the cult at Eleusis, in which the coming of spring was heralded with Persephone's return to earth.


Although originally a virgin goddess, Diana comes to be viewed as an earth goddess who promotes fertility in both humans and nature. Her worship comes to Italy through Orestes, who founds her sanctuary at Nemi, near the lake called "Diana's Mirror." Her consort, Virbius, reigns there as her priest and king, and may be Hippolytus in disguise. At Nemi, Diana is personified by a sacred tree, which the King of the Wood guards with his life.


Dionysus, a personification of the vine, is also called "Dionysus of the tree." Because he is an agricultural deity, people make offerings to him to ensure an abundant harvest. Due to his violent death and resurrection, Frazer believes Dionysus represents another version of the dying and reviving god. Followers of his cult reenact his death and resurrection, and people believe he brings springtime with him when he returns from the dead.

King of the Wood

The King of the Wood is the central figure of The Golden Bough, and Frazer sets out to solve the mystery of this figure. The King of the Wood's sacred duty is to guard Diana's grove at Nemi, and he may also serve as her consort. He can be overthrown by a challenger to the crown, who must break off a piece of the Golden Bough to fight him to the death. According to Frazer this king is an example of a dying and reviving god of vegetation, and early people believe his annual resurrection ensures fertility to the land.


Persephone, young and beautiful, is gathering flowers when Pluto, the lord of the Dead, seizes her as his wife and takes her to the underworld. Zeus decrees she might return to earth to appease her sorrowing mother, Demeter, goddess of the corn. Before Persephone departs, however, Pluto gives her a pomegranate seed to eat. Because she has consumed food in the underworld, she is then bound to return and spend one third of each year with her husband. The arrival of spring heralds her annual return to earth. This myth became the foundation of the cult of the two goddesses at Eleusis.


Virbius is a shadowy figure in myth; not much direct evidence of him remains. However, Frazer proposes Virbius may be the Greek hero Hippolytus in disguise, brought by Diana to Nemi, a safe haven, to be her lover and priest. Virbius is the first of a line of Kings of the Wood, a mortal man whose queen is the goddess herself. As King of the Wood, Virbius can be killed by a successor, who will then become the new protector of the sacred grove. Frazer views this killing of the king as a symbolic renewal of the land's fertility. A new, strong king ensures the safety of the goddess and her grove and, as her consort, promotes the fertility of vegetation.

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