The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Preface–Chapter 2 | Summary


The Golden Bough is divided into 69 titled chapters on various topics. Many of these chapters are further broken down into numbered sections that offer analysis on a specific aspect of the chapter topic.



James George Frazer states his book's main goal in the first sentence: "The primary aim of this book is to explain the remarkable rule which regulated the succession to the priesthood of Diana at Aricia." He says he has spent 30 years researching the topic; at first he thought it would be simple enough, but the more he delved into it, the more he realized in-depth explanations were required to illuminate the subject. He says he expanded the book to 12 volumes and then went on to create the abridged version "to bring the work within a range of a wider circle of readers." He points out the abridged version does not contain the many citations and notes given in the full work, and gives an example of this by offering some of the original citations from the section on "the practice of putting kings to death." He concludes the priesthood at Aricia was not "exceptional" but rather a practice observed in many cultures around the world. He also acknowledges his explanation may not be correct; this "must be left to the future to determine," and he is open to new theories. He further mentions two important topics he will address in the book: the worship of trees (including the so-called Golden Bough) and the fear of the dead, which he believes "to have been probably the most powerful force in the making of primitive religion."

Chapter 1: The King of the Wood

Chapter 1 discusses some of the key mythology underlying the priest of Nemi, the King of the Wood, and includes three sections.

1. Diana and Virbius

Frazer describes the beautiful landscape surrounding "Diana's Mirror," a small lake in Nemi, Italy—sometimes called Aricia in days gone by. This land is the setting for "a strange and recurring tragedy" of ancient times. In a sacred grove dedicated to Diana Nemorensis—Diana of the Wood—lived a sword-wielding man who "was a priest and murderer," vigilant against attack from the man who would become his successor. Such a man would "sooner or later murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead." This was how the priest of Nemi assumed office, and how his tenure ended—in murder. Frazer says this act has no precedent in classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome, for example), and "to find an explanation we must go further afield," to the customs of "a barbarous age ... the early history of man." Frazer believes if he can show how and why such a custom existed previously, then he can draw inferences regarding the priesthood at Nemi. He notes only a runaway slave was permitted to challenge the priest, but to do so he must first break off a branch of the Golden Bough, which grew within the grove.

Frazer then details the worship of Diana, which supposedly spread to Italy at the hand of Orestes, who fled to Nemi after committing murder in the far-off land of Tauris. Orestes carried with him a statue of the Tauric Diana, which became the foundation of her worship in Italy. Diana was a goddess of the woods, hunters, and fertility, "blessing men and women with offspring" and helping pregnant women during childbirth. A perpetual fire was likely maintained at her sanctuary. Her consort, Virbius, "reigned as king," and Frazer proposes Virbius was none other than the Greek hero Hippolytus—whom he addresses in Section 2 of the chapter. Hippolytus was wrongfully killed but brought back to life at Diana's wishes, who then hid him at her shrine "to live there, unknown and solitary, under the name of Virbius." Also present was Egeria, wife of the legendary Roman king Numa, a water nymph whose role was likely to aid in healing the sick and in easing childbirth. She may also have helped watch over Virbius for Diana. Frazer points out such stories "clearly belong to that large class of myths which are made up to explain the origin of a religious rituation [sic]," and they have no real historical foundation.

2. Artemis and Hippolytus

Frazer follows up on the stories of Orestes and of Hippolytus, lover of Artemis (the Greek name for Diana). Frazer theorizes about how these men are related to Virbius and the King of the Wood. He believes the murder of the priest at Nemi correlates to the murder committed by Orestes, and the statue of the Tauric Diana "could only be appeased with human blood." As for Hippolytus, Frazer proposes he is more or less a prop to Artemis in her role as a fertility goddess, for "she who fertilizes nature must herself be fertile," and therefore needs a mate. Hippolytus may have been a human companion or purely a mythological construct; either way, he exemplifies the archetype of "fair but mortal youths who paid with their lives for the brief rapture of the love of an immortal goddess." The "spilled blood" of such lovers was said to make flowers spring to life, their "youth and beauty" as "fleeting as the summer flowers." Frazer hints these fables echo "a deeper philosophy of the relation of the life of man to the life of nature—a sad philosophy which gave birth to a tragic practice."

3. Recapitulation

Frazer restates the relationships between the aforementioned mythical figures. Hippolytus, consort of Artemis, is identified with Virbius, consort of Diana. Frazer mentions other mythical pairs with similar stories: Adonis, paired with the goddess Venus; and Attis, paired with Cybele. Frazer then proposes Virbius was the "predecessor or archetype of the line of priests who served Diana under the title of the Kings of the Wood." Thus, the mortal priest of Nemi "had for his queen the woodland Diana herself," who was personified by a sacred tree in the grove.

Chapter 2: Priestly Kings

Frazer notes, "The union of a royal title with priestly duties was common in ancient Italy and Greece," which could explain why the priest of Nemi was called King of the Wood. The author lists similar figures, such as "the Sacrificial King or King of the Sacred Rites," whose counterpart was the "Queen of the Sacred Rites." He theorizes such priests rose to prominence after the Roman monarchy was abolished, because the priests could "offer the sacrifices which before had been offered by the kings." Similarly, some Greek kings had been viewed as the descendants of the god, and served as his priests. Frazer offers further examples of the crossover between kings and priests, from Asia Minor to Madagascar to Central America, where rulers "wielded at once temporal and spiritual authority, like the popes of medieval Rome." Such kings were often thought of as gods, Frazer states, endowed with the power to give blessings, make the rain fall, and produce abundant crops for those who worshipped them. "This is one way in which the idea of a man-god is reached," Frazer writes. He further theorizes early people may have viewed themselves as godlike, with magical powers to influence the weather and other natural phenomena.


James George Frazer uses the Preface to detail his aim and methods and explain how the publication process evolved as the project continued. He humbly allows his research may be disproved in the future, and he welcomes new ideas and theories. This sets an impartial tone for the book, one well in line with the spirit of scientific inquiry; facts trump feelings in science, and Frazer aims to be factual and scientific in his writing. In this, he shows his academic roots. However, his writing style also shows he is reaching beyond scholars in academia; he aspires "to bring the work within the range of a wider circle of readers." While the text can sometimes get bogged down in example after example after example (scientific thoroughness!), he intersperses these with beautifully written prose; these draw the reader in and are a pleasure to read. Furthermore, he uses a variety of metaphors, similes, and plain-spoken summations to make his points clear for the reader.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the main premise of the work, laying out the basic known facts of the priest of Nemi. Frazer's language can be titillating at times, such as when he describes this man as "a priest and murderer"—a pairing bound to pique the reader's curiosity. At times Frazer oversteps the bounds of science and veers into pure speculation. For example, he says because the priesthood of Nemi is the only one of its kind in classical antiquity, "to find an explanation we must go farther afield." Plainly speaking, he goes outside the bounds of the target culture—ancient Italy—to find evidence for his theory. And while his theory and the evidence he presents to support it may sound compelling, the so-called evidence may not be valid at all, because it often comes from disparate cultures and not from Italy. Frazer also says, "The stories told to account for Diana's worship at Nemi are unhistorical" and "clearly belong to a large class of myths" that explain religious rituals. While these stories seem unreal, Frazer has not offered concrete proof they are unhistorical. Some of the mythological figures named may be based in history; the truth of the matter lies buried in antiquity. Frazer has also been criticized at times for seeking evidence to fit his theories—no matter how farfetched the connection may be—rather than examining the facts first and then proposing theories.

Section 2 of Chapter 1 first makes use of the word "savage," a word today's readers will find objectionable. Frazer lived in a different time, and the common beliefs or language of his time may seem antiquated or even offensive today. Like the ancient cultures he writes about, Frazer is a product of his own age and its influences.

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