The Golden Bough Readalong: Part the Fourth

Greetings, programs!  Hope you're all doing well in this very hot, boring, yet also scary summer.  We have been watching a lot of Tron, thus the weird salutation.  I'm quite surprised that I managed to make it through my set Golden Bough chapters; I didn't think I would.  So, onward...let's talk about taboos, by which he means pretty much any religious or superstitious practice or belief -- for example the practice of not using a dead person's name anymore.   That is pretty much all I got to read about this time.

XIX.  Tabooed Acts: just huge lists of examples of the following:
  1. Taboos on Intercourse With Strangers
  2. Taboos on Eating and Drinking
  3. Taboos on Showing the Face
  4. Taboos on Quitting the House
  5. Taboos on Leaving Food Over
XX.  Tabooed Persons:
  1. Chiefs and Kings Tabooed: they're so powerful that using their things would hurt others.
  2. Mourners Tabooed
  3. Women Tabooed at Menstruation and Childbirth
  4. Warriors Tabooed
  5. Manslayers Tabooed
  6. Hunters and Fishers Tabooed
XXI.  Tabooed Things
  1. Iron Tabooed
  2. Sharp Weapons Tabooed
  3. Blood Tabooed
  4. The Head Tabooed
  5. Hair Tabooed
  6. Ceremonies at Hair-Cutting
  7. Disposal of Cut Hair and Nails
  8. Spittle Tabooed
  9. Foods Tabooed
  10. Knots and Rings Tabooed
XXII.  Tabooed Words
  1. Personal Names Tabooed
  2. Names of Relations Tabooed
  3. Names of the Dead Tabooed
  4. Names of Kings and Other Sacred Persons Tabooed
  5. Names of Gods Tabooed
XXIII.  Our Debt to the Savage: Frazer here stops and summarizes the argument so far, and issues a warning that even though he totally thinks of people as existing in a hierarchy from low to high, with the Oxford don at the top, this should not lead to arrogance or contempt for others.  I'll just quote the salient part here, because I do appreciate this, that he recognized that we can't just go around thinking we're more enlightened and clever than other folks.  His vocabulary is pretty offensive to the modern reader, so it's nice to know.
But to stigmatise these premises [beliefs] as ridiculous because we can easily detect their falseness, would be ungrateful as well as unphilosophical. We stand upon the foundation reared by the generations that have gone before, and we can but dimly realise the painful and prolonged efforts which it has cost humanity to struggle up to the point, no very exalted one after all, which we have reached. Our gratitude is due to the nameless and forgotten toilers, whose patient thought and active exertions have largely made us what we are. The amount of new knowledge which one age, certainly which one man, can add to the common store is small, and it argues stupidity or dishonesty, besides ingratitude, to ignore the heap while vaunting the few grains which it may have been our privilege to add to it. There is indeed little danger at present of undervaluing the contributions which modern times and even classical antiquity have made to the general advancement of our race. But when we pass these limits, the case is different. Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the only recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways. Yet of the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession of their race since the beginning of the world. But reflection and enquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we thought most our own, and that their errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we ourselves may one day stand in need of: cum excusatione itaque veteres audiendi sunt.

XXIV.  The Killing of the Divine King: finally, we're done with taboos.  This bit is pretty good.
  1. The Mortality of the Gods: Many peoples have not thought of their gods as immortals; they could get old and die.
  2. Kings Killed When Their Strength Fails: Since the health of the land and people depend on the health of the king, everybody has to take especial care of him, but what about when he gets old?   It might be a good idea to kill the king once he gets old and infirm, so that his kingly soul/power can pass to a younger, more vigorous ruler.
  3. Kings Killed at the End of a Fixed Term:  It might even be unwise to wait until grey hairs appear.  Some peoples just give the king 12, or 7, or 5 years and then kill him.  Maybe even once a year!  But aha, some kings figured out a way around this by getting proxies to die and staying alive themselves.  Or you could make somebody king for a day, and then kill him right off!   There are lots of clever ways to get around it.

So by now I'm pretty tired of the word taboo.  All those practices were pretty interesting, and it was easy to read because it was all stories about cultural beliefs, but on the other hand he's not providing footnotes.  I am excited about all this temporary kings stuff, so I'm looking forward to the next bit.  Here are some fun quotations:
The ancient Greeks believed that the soul of a man who had just been killed was wroth with his slayer and troubled him; wherefore it was needful even for the involuntary homicide to depart from his country for a year until the anger of the dead man had cooled down; nor might the slayer return until sacrifice had been offered and ceremonies of purification performed. If his victim chanced to be a foreigner, the homicide had to shun the native country of the dead man as well as his own. The legend of the matricide Orestes, how he roamed from place to place pursued by the Furies of his murdered mother, and none would sit at meat with him, or take him in, till he had been purified, reflects faithfully the real Greek dread of such as were still haunted by an angry ghost.

In the island of Uap, one of the Caroline group, every fisherman plying his craft lies under a most strict taboo during the whole of the fishing season, which lasts for six or eight weeks. Whenever he is on shore he must spend all his time in the men’s clubhouse, and under no pretext whatever may he visit his own house or so much as look upon the faces of his wife and womenkind. Were he but to steal a glance at them, they think that flying fish must inevitably bore out his eyes at night.   [I figured Uap must be Yap Island, and indeed it is.]

This practice of observing strict chastity as a condition of success in hunting and fishing is very common among rude races; and the instances of it which have been cited render it probable that the rule is always based on a superstition rather than on a consideration of the temporary weakness which a breach of the custom may entail on the hunter or fisherman. In general it appears to be supposed that the evil effect of incontinence is not so much that it weakens him, as that, for some reason or other, it offends the animals, who in consequence will not suffer themselves to be caught.   [Ahahaha, I like this one because it shows him holding a belief that is now exploded.]

At Babylon, within historical times, the tenure of the kingly office was in practice lifelong, yet in theory it would seem to have been merely annual. For every year at the festival of Zagmuk the king had to renew his power by seizing the hands of the image of Marduk in his great temple of Esagil at Babylon. Even when Babylon passed under the power of Assyria, the monarchs of that country were expected to legalise their claim to the throne every year by coming to Babylon and performing the ancient ceremony at the New Year festival, and some of them found the obligation so burdensome that rather than discharge it they renounced the title of king altogether and contented themselves with the humbler one of Governor. Further, it would appear that in remote times, though not within the historical period, the kings of Babylon or their barbarous predecessors forfeited not merely their crown but their life at the end of a year’s tenure of office.   [He doesn't explain why it would be difficult to perform this ceremony.  Anybody know?]


Post a Comment

I'd love to know what you think, so please comment!

Popular posts from this blog

Dewey Readathon post

The Four Ages of Poetry

Howl's Moving Castle