The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Summary



The Golden Bough is a compilation of anthropological lore from around the world, from both ancient societies and contemporary ones of the author's era. Frazer's goal in researching and writing the book was to discover the mystery behind the Golden Bough and the King of the Wood. This so-called king guarded the sacred grove of the goddess Diana at Nemi, Italy, and likely served as its priest. Periodically, the priest-king was challenged by a successor, who first had to break off a piece of the Golden Bough to initiate the contest. The priest and his challenger fought to the death; if the challenger won, he became the new King of the Wood.

Throughout the book's 69 chapters, Frazer ties together possible historical clues to explain this tradition. He begins by detailing the key figures related to the Nemi story, including the Roman goddess Diana and her consort, Virbius, and their Greek counterparts, Artemis and Hippolytus. He then offers his theories on the nature of magic and religion, two of the book's key topics. Sympathetic magic is described as magic in which "things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy." Frazer breaks down sympathetic magic into two types: homoeopathic, or imitative, magic and contagious magic. In homoeopathic magic, the idea of "like affects like" applies. For example, if a magician wants rain to fall, he might sprinkle water on the ground as a "rain charm." In contagious magic, items that have been in contact are believed to remain in contact, including personal possessions, body parts, food one has eaten, and so on. A magician might use such items to work magic on a person.

Frazer proposes that magic evolved into religion and then into science, and claims religion involves a more sophisticated belief system than magic. This evolution happened over time, as "private magicians" who worked for themselves morphed into "public magicians" who worked for the community. Eventually, these public magicians gained prominence and power and became rulers. Frazer describes a wide variety of such figures, including "priestly kings," "magicians as kings," "incarnate human gods," and "departmental kings of nature."

Frazer then explores a different aspect of the King of the Wood myth: the worship of trees, nature spirits, and related lore. Such worship continued into Frazer's time in the various traditions of May Day celebrated throughout Europe. Underlying such celebrations is often the idea of a "sacred marriage" of male and female deities, such as Diana and her consort. Frazer specifically points to the worship of the oak, which was honored by European cultures such as the Greeks, Celts, and Germans. After this, Frazer offers several chapters on the burdens of royalty, including tabooed (or prohibited) acts, people, things, and words. In most cultures all people observed some taboos, but taboos were especially strict for royalty. This was because people believed their land's welfare depended on their ruler's welfare; if the ruler was sick or injured, the people and the land would fail. Taboos were also instituted to protect the soul. Various cultures believed the soul could escape the body or be stolen away, or believed the soul existed in a person's shadow or reflection.

Frazer then turns to kingship, particularly the "killing of the divine king." He theorizes kings gave up their life to restore fertility to the land. Sometimes a temporary king was appointed to die in the king's stead; this temporary king might even be the king's son. Frazer offers diverse examples of the "dying and reviving god," including Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus. A related tradition was the "killing of the tree-spirit," in which various figures representing winter or death were ceremonially "killed" so the new life of spring and summer could burst forth. Such figures included the Carnival effigy and effigies of Death. A May Queen and King or similar figures often represented spring and summer, respectively; their marriage would bless the land with abundant vegetation. Similarly, many cultures worshipped a goddess who personified abundant vegetation, grains, or nature in general; examples include Isis, Demeter, and Persephone, along with unnamed nature spirits such as the Corn-mother, Corn-maiden, Rice-mother, and corn-spirit. Sometimes the corn-spirit and various deities were perceived as animals; thus, eating certain animals could be a sacrament in one place and taboo in another.

Beginning in Chapter 55 Frazer discusses the transference of evil through magic. People believed they could rid themselves of problems by transferring their woes to objects, animals, or other people. Many cultures believed in demons—which could exist almost anywhere—and people had ceremonies to expel them. Often they appointed a "public scapegoat" to suffer the punishment. This could be an object or animal, such as a small boat or a sacred cow, or it could be a human. This object, animal, or person took on the community's evils and was generally sent away, destroyed, or killed. One such human sacrifice was the god in Mexico, who "died in the person of one human representative and came to life again in the person of another."

Frazer then relates the myth of Balder. The mischief-maker Loki tricked Balder's brother into killing Balder by shooting him with a sprig of mistletoe; Balder's body was burned in a funeral fire. Because people believed Balder would live again, Frazer considers him another example of the dying and reviving god. After Frazer shares this myth, he discusses fire festivals, which he believes were inspired by the myth of Balder. Such fires may have been charms to ensure plentiful sunshine, or they may have been aimed at purification, "to burn up and destroy all harmful influences." Some cultures burned effigies, animals, and even human sacrifices in the fire.

To end the book Frazer guesses at the identity of the famed Golden Bough; he concludes it is mistletoe. He notes mistletoe often grows on oak trees, which are sacred in various cultures; it is evergreen and thus undying; and it was seen to exist "between heaven and earth" because it grows at the top of trees rather than on the ground. For these reasons some cultures believed the soul of the King of the Wood god lived within the mistletoe, and the god was vulnerable to death if the mistletoe was plucked. Frazer proposes that this belief underlies the myth of the King of the Wood at Nemi, which explains why a challenger had to pluck the Golden Bough to defeat the current priest.

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