The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Symbols


The Oak Tree

According to James George Frazer, the oak tree was worshipped by "all the branches of the Aryan stock in Europe," where oak trees were plentiful and tree worship was common. Frazer notes, "To the savage the world in general is animate, and trees and plants are no exception to the rule. He thinks that they have souls like his own, and he treats them accordingly." Thus, many trees or groves of trees were considered sacred, with the oak being the most important tree for many cultures. Oak trees were seen as protective and were themselves guarded from harm.

Indeed, Diana's grove at Nemi was believed to be an oak grove, and as "a goddess of the woodlands," then she, too, was connected with the oak. The Italians also associated the oak tree with their highest god, Jupiter, whose counterpart was Zeus. When a Roman king costumed himself as Jupiter, he wore an oaken crown, which was "regarded as the god's special emblem." By personifying Jupiter, the kings became "the human representative of the oak-god," as symbolized by the oak crown and other attributes.

Similarly, for the Greeks the oak tree was connected to the king of the gods, Zeus, and his wife, Hera, in their roles as the oak-god and oak-goddess. Frazer says, "In Arcadia, when the corn and trees were parched with drought, the priest of Zeus dipped an oak branch into a certain spring on Mount Lycaeus," and thereafter rain would fall as a gift from the god. Lightning-struck oaks were thought to be particularly powerful, because Jupiter/Zeus was a sky-god who "wielded the thunder and lightning as well as the rain."

The Celtic Druids, too, venerated the oak as sacred. Their rites were likely held in oak groves, and even their name may mean "oak-men." Frazer relates "their old word for sanctuary seems to be identical in origin and meaning with the Latin nemus, a grove or woodland glade, which still survives in the name of Nemi." These and many other cultures honored the oak tree as a symbol of the gods.

The Golden Bough

In Virgil's The Aeneid, the Golden Bough was a mythical plant Aeneas carried into the underworld for protection. Frazer proposes this was the same plant involved in the succession of the King of the Wood at Nemi. Each candidate to become the priest at Nemi had to pluck a branch from a certain tree before he could challenge the current priest in a fight to the death for the kingship of the grove. Frazer further theorizes that this Golden Bough is mistletoe, which grew from oak trees in particular; by logical deduction, the priest of Nemi personified the oak-god Jupiter.

This theory also relates to the idea of the "external soul," or the notion the soul can be housed outside of the body in a plant, animal, or object. In Frazer's view, the Golden Bough was viewed as a repository for the soul of the King of the Wood, the human incarnation of the oak-god, Jupiter. Mistletoe appears to grow from thin air, high up in trees. Moreover, mistletoe is evergreen—it does not die, even in the depths of winter. Frazer suggests "primitive man seeks to preserve the life of his human divinities by keeping them poised between earth and heaven, as the place where they are least likely to be assailed by the dangers that encompass the life of man on earth"—in short, within the mistletoe, an undying plant suspended between heaven and earth on a tree sacred to the god, the oak. Frazer posits the life of the priest of Nemi was bound up with the life of the oak and its mistletoe; thus, when the mistletoe was plucked, he was vulnerable to being killed. By plucking the mistletoe and killing the current priest, a candidate claimed the god's soul, powers, and title for himself, and assumed the duty of protecting the grove as its new priest.

In this way the Golden Bough serves as another symbol for the divine, but in particular, the dying and reviving god. After all, the King of the Wood must die for a new King of the Wood to take his place. Frazer points to one myth in particular to establish this connection: the myth of the Norse god Balder, son of Odin. Balder was unable to be killed, vulnerable only to a single plant: mistletoe. Loki, jealous of Balder's beauty, wisdom, and popularity, plucked the mistletoe and used it to bring about Balder's death. Balder was eventually resurrected and brought his bright cheerfulness to the world once more. Frazer maintains that this myth "belongs to that class of myths which have been dramatized as ritual, or, to put it otherwise, which have been performed as magical ceremonies for the sake of producing those natural effects which they describe in figurative language." The main "natural effect" desired by such a performance was the renewal and growth of vegetation each year.

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