The Golden Bough

WHEN Æneas visited ‘ the place that hath no road for living men,’ he carried in his hand a golden bough. Whether the poet found this branch growing in the forest of his own luxuriant imagination, or plucked it in the gardens of mythology or of archæology, nobody definitely knows. It may have been only the leafy stem with which a suppliant approached a king. Virgil says that it looked like mistletoe; and in that form it appears on the covers of the ten handsome volumes of Dr. Frazer’s The Golden Bough.1

Four hundred years after the Æneid, Servius, a commentator, illustrated the passage by referring to a tradition, current in his time, which found the bough in a wood near Aricia, by the Lake of Nemi. The tree was guarded by a priest of Diana who had gained his place by killing his predecessor, and who daily awaited the coming of one at whose hands he himself must encounter the same fate. It is the situation which is sketched by Macaulay,—

These trees in whose dark shadow
The ghostly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain.

The connection between the text in Virgil and the comment of Servius is so remote as to justify the suggestion of Andrew Lang (in his Magic and Religion) that Servius, ‘after the manner of annotators in all ages,’ finding that he knew nothing about Virgil’s branch, discoursed at length concerning another branch about which he happened to have a quantity of curious information. Servius said that the candidate for the office of priest, or King of the Wood, must be a fugitive slave, and that he must qualify himself to fight with the guardian of the tree by first breaking off the magic bough.

It does not greatly matter. The relation of the comment to the text, and of the combined text and comment to Dr. Frazer’s ten volumes, is like the distance between the Lake of Nemi and the church towers of Rome. In the first edition of his book, Dr. Frazer said that in still weather the sound of the bells of Rome could be heard in the silence of the Arician forest. In the third edition, now completed, he acknowledges that this is impossible, but he frankly leaves the statement uncorrected. ‘In Old Mortality,' he says, ‘we read how a hunted Covenanter, fleeing before Claverhouse’s dragoons, hears the sullen boom of the kettledrums of the cavalry borne to him on the night wind. When Scott was taken to task for this statement, because the kettledrums are not beaten by the cavalry at night, he replied in effect that he liked to hear the drums sounding there, and that he would let them sound on so long as his book might last. In the same spirit I would make bold to say that by the Lake of Nemi I love to hear, if it be only in imagination, the distant chiming of the bells of Rome, and I would fain believe that their airy music may ring in the ears of my readers after it has ceased to vibrate in my own.’

The reader remembers this convenient music as he turns the pleasant pages of these books. When he cannot hear what the writer hears in the chants of magicians and the refrains of savage liturgies, he is permitted to think that perhaps the sound is audible to the ear of imagination rather than to the ear of science. Indeed, as the reader proceeds in his exploration of the strange regions into which the author brings him, he does not care whether the customs of the country mean precisely what Dr. Frazer says they mean, or not. He is quite content to read these friendly pages, charmingly printed, for the sake of the stories which they tell, and with no agreement with the senior wrangler who objected to Paradise Lost, saying, ‘ What does it prove?’

This does not signify that the writer has no propositions which he undertakes to prove. He is perpetually proving. What it means is that the processes and the conclusions are often only the pleasant guesses of an ingenious mind. They amuse him, and are intended to entertain us. Dr. Frazer is entirely frank about it. ‘The whole fabric of ancient mythology,’ he says, ‘is so foreign to our modern ways of thought, and the evidence concerning it is for the most part so fragmentary, obscure, and conflicting that in our attempts to piece together and interpret it we can hardly hope to reach conclusions that will completely satisfy either ourselves or others. In this as in other branches of study it is the fate of theories to be washed away like children’s castles of sand by the rising tide of knowledge, and I am not so presumptuous as to expect or desire for mine an exemption from the common lot. I hold them all very lightly, and have used them chiefly as convenient pegs on which to hang my collections of facts.’

Sometimes the facts hang awkwardly on the pegs. In that case the thing to do is either to sew a little strap to the fact to hang it by, or to punch a hole in it to admit the peg. Take, for example, the Passover in Egypt, and its connection with the sacrifice of the first-born. Unfortunately, it has n’t any connection, for the first-born who died that night were of the Egyptians. But wait; we will make a connection. It was not the first-born of the Egyptians upon whom the Angel of Death laid his summoning hand, but the firstborn of the Israelites, because the Hebrew law required that every first-born be redeemed. This must have arisen in an ancient custom of human sacrifice, enacted on a large scale at the Passover, and continued in a mitigated form when animals were substituted for children, and the leaders suggested to the people that ‘ if they only killed a lamb and smeared its blood on the door-posts, the bloodthirsty and nearsighted deify would never know the difference.’

Thus the fact is hung discreetly on the peg. And the author as he puts it in its proper place hears, ‘if it be only in imagination,’ the distant moaning of the children of the Hebrews.

The illusive music sounds again in the account of the taking of Jerusalem by David. ‘Some of the old Canaanite kings of Jerusalem appear to have played the part of Adonis in their lifetime, if we may judge by their names, Adoni-bezek and Adoni-zedek.’ Thus the story goes on the Adonis-peg. ‘If Jerusalem had been from of old the seat of a dynasty of spiritual potentates or grand Lamas, who held the keys of heaven and were revered far and wide as kings and gods in one [the bells of Rome are ringing so loud now that we can distinguish between St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s!], we can easily understand why the upstart David chose it for the capital of the new kingdom which he had won for himself at the point of the sword.' David might reasonably hope to inherit their ghostly repute as well as their broad acres, to wear their nimbus as well as their crown.

Why not? He put upon his own head the crown of Milcom, god of the Ammonites. And is not the very name of David the same as Dod or Dodo, ’the Beloved One,’ by which Adonis was known in Southern Canaan? It is almost as good a case as that whereby Archbishop Whately proved that Napoleon was a sun-myth, and that his victories were as fabulous as the adventures of Hercules.

The reader of The Golden Bough must keep in mind the fact that Dr. Frazer’s perceptions are uncommonly keen, and that in the heart of the woods of Aricia he can hear the ringing of the Angelus in Rome. He begins with a fanciful or tentative suggestion, which is presently employed as a premise, and the premise is made a step toward a logical conclusion. Thus he conducts us across wide rivers on stepping-stones of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’ First, you put your foot on a ‘perhaps’; then you spring lightly to a ‘be-that-as-itmay ’; thence to a ‘ hardly-thereforecan-it-be-unreasonable’; and before you know it, here you are safe on the other side of a succession of restingplaces, not one of which will really bear your weight.

The theme of The Golden Bough is the mythology of vegetation. The priest who slays the slayer in the Arician wood is enacting the annual mystery of the succession of the seasons. All the green things upon the earth die in the winter and come to life again in the spring. For this essential order primitive man feels himself responsible. He must do something about it. And the thing which he finds to do is like the thing which he desires the gods to do. The formula of the doctrine of savage magic is similia similibus: like is produced by like. If the men of two villages play a game of football, the winning village will have fair weather, having kicked away the clouds — because a football looks a little like a cloud. If the flames of our sacred fires at midsummer burn high, we shall have tall crops; we can fix the height of the crops by fixing the height of the fire.

It follows that the priest, who thus determines the order of nature, and holds in his hand the sun, the rain, and the wind, is easily identified with the god whom he serves. But such an identification has inconvenient consequences for the priest. The priest-god is so important to the community that he must be taken care of with the most punctilious caution. The laws of taboo are made in order to perceive and avoid the thousand ways in which this necessary divine man may be injured or offended. Especially, the god may not be permitted to grow old and die. The whole universe would perish with him. In the midst of his health and strength he must transmit the treasure of his life to his successor.

Thus we begin to understand the tragedy of the Arician wood; and with it the stories of Adonis, of Attis, of Osiris, of Dionysus, who died and came to life again, and who thus dying and reviving enacted the annual death and resurrection of the corn and the vine. Such annual enacting of the succession of the seasons belongs to man’s sense of responsibility for the order of nature. The magician lights his taper in the dark of the early morning, and presently the sun rises. The coincidence looks like cause and effect. He does not dare to intermit the lighting of his magic taper, lest he destroy the world. In a like spirit, he observes the festivals of the dying and reviving god, lamenting the fate of Tammuz, or Dionysus, or Osiris, according to the land in which he lives, and welcoming the god returning to life, lest by his neglect the brown ground should never be green again.

This mystery play by which the return of spring was not only illustrated, but enforced, involved one serious difficulty. It demanded the sacrifice of the priest-god. When the priest-god, as the most important man of the tribe, was also the king, this sacrifice interfered with the progress of the political administration. The habit of annually killing the best man in the tribe seemed out of accord with reasonable economy. So a substitute was provided. The substitute, as a compensation for the tragic brevity of his reign, was permitted during certain days to behave himself as he pleased, being a Lord of Misrule. Then he was killed, and the priest-king-god, reinvigorated by this new blood, reigned on. Then, as times changed, and men grew wiser, and doubts increased, the tragedy of the dying god became the comedy of the Christmas revels, and Adonis and Osiris appeared as the King of the Bean, or the Abbot of Unreason, with a twelve-day tenure of office, between Christmas and Epiphany. The transformation is perplexing, and the reader finds himself in the position of the Jews at the Feast of Purim, who were required, Dr. Frazer says, to drink so deep in honor of the day that at last they were unable to discern the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman! ’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai!’ Things which at first sight look very different, finally appear, as the pages are turned, to have a kind of dizzy identity.

Connected with the sacrifice of a god, or of a priest-king, or of a human substitute, or of an animal substitute, is the ritual of the scapegoat. The idea is that the sins of the people may be transferred to one who shall suffer in their stead, or at least shall carry the transgressions away. Gradually this office devolved, by a pious economy, upon the dying god. ‘On the one hand we have seen that it has been customary to kill the human or animal god in order to save his divine life from being weakened by the inroads of age. On the other hand we have seen that it has been customary to have a general expulsion of evils and sins once a year. Now, if it occurred to people to combine these two customs, the result would be the employment of the dyeing god as a scapegoat.’ Thus we climb the easy hill of conjecture, and view from the top an extensive prospect in which the fences between the Hebrew, the Christian, and the pagan fields have disappeared.

Thus the author of The Golden Bough leads us through eight interesting volumes in which the golden bough is hardly mentioned. We caught sight of it for a moment at the beginning, growing on the sacred tree by the Lake of Nemi. Now at last we see it again in the tragedy of Balder the Good. Balder, in the Norse mythology, is slain by a weapon made of mistletoe. But Balder, being slain, was burned, and the fact suggests the sacred bonfires which from time immemorial have flamed on the hills of Europe, on Midsummer Eve or Hallowe’en. Away we go to watch these fires. We return in the tenth volume to be instructed in the doctrine of the external soul. The soul, which normally resides within the body, may come out and dwell for safety in some protected object. The mistletoe contained the soul of the priest-king-god of the Arician tree. This is why the first act of the slayer must be to break the golden bough. But Dr. Frazer is now ‘less than ever disposed to lay weight on the analogy between the Italian priest and the Norse god.’ He allows it to stand because it furnishes him with ‘a pretext for discussing not only the general question of the external soul in popular superstition, but also the fire-festivals of Europe.’

Thus The Golden Bough deals with almost everything except the golden bough.

As for the idea that Christianity itself belongs to the mythology of vegetation, and that Christ must take his place with Tammuz and Adonis and Osiris and Dionysus in the common pantheon of dying and reviving gods, it depends upon the most remote and superficial similiarities. It is true that the Christian religion came into a world in which life, death, and resurrection were universal facts of nature, and were used to interpret the destiny of man. It is true also that Christianity as it made its way baptized a thousand pleasant superstitions. But to find in the rites of Dionysus and in the mysteries of Isis the faith of the disciples that their Master though dead was still alive, is to hear in the midst of the fight in which the priest of the golden bough is killed the chiming of the bells of Christian churches.

  1. The Golden Bough. By J. G. FRAZER. London and New York. The Macmillan Co.
  2. I. The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (2 vols.), 1911.
  3. II. Taboo and the Perils of the Soul, 1911.
  4. III. The Dying God, 1911.
  5. IV. Adonis, Attis, Osiris, 1907.
  6. V. The Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild (2 vols.), 1912.
  7. VI. The Scapegoat, 1913.
  8. VII. Balder the Good (2 vols.), 1913.