The Golden Bough Readalong: Part the Second

Here we have chapters VII - XII, which were mainly about trees and vegetation.  This section of reading was pretty easy.  I like this arrangement; as long as I do a section per day, I'm very likely to make decent progress.  That said, the next few chapters are on the hefty side and 2 per week may be the way to go.  I am finding it helpful to have this outline to keep track of Frazer's argument, and it's fine if you don't want to wade through it all.

Frazer has described the basic structure of magical beliefs, the development of magic into religion, and the progression of magicians into public figures and kings.  Well, if kings, why not gods?  On with our outline -- and of course, each section comes with many examples:

VII.  Incarnate Human Gods:  Magician-kings may very well turn into gods, but the definition of 'god' will most likely not be 'omnipotent being' but more like 'having some supernatural power.'  Ordinary people might well be considered as incarnations of gods too.  This might be a permanent or a temporary condition; if a practitioner is 'possessed' or inspired, that would be a temporary version of it (as for example with the Delphic oracle).  The Dalai Lama is one of the examples.

VIII. Departmental Kings of Nature:  Therefore kings who are also priests or gods occur in many societies.  But these 'kings' may not always exert political power; sometimes they may be kings of nature, or a more specialized 'departmental' king, say of water or of fire.  Examples of these are found around the globe, but forest kings seem less common; possibly they are more a specialized Euro thing?

IX.  The Worship of Trees
1. Tree-spirits: Tree-worship has been very important in ancient European beliefs.  Sacred groves functioned as temples and special or really large trees were often venerated.  Many peoples have believed that trees had spirits and could be annoyed if ill-treated.  Naturally, if you believe that trees are animate beings, you'll believe that they come in male and female, and so it's quite likely that marriage rites will come into it.  After a while, the belief may shift from the tree being a live spirit to the tree being the home of a spirit, which can leave.
2. Beneficent Powers of Tree-spirits: Once a tree is the home of a spirit, that spirit will soon be conceived of as being a god of trees, or of the forest, and will soon be thought of as looking like a person.  Tree-gods are often considered to have power over things like rain, sun, herds, and birth.  The Maypole or May-tree is one familiar example.

X.  Relics of Tree Worship in Modern Europe:  Lots about English/European customs around Maypoles, May-trees, and May-bushes.  These customs usually take place around Whitsuntide/the end of May (I'm writing this on the 31st of May, appropriately enough), or may get shoved to Midsummer Day on June 23rd, St. John's Eve.  A few places have it on St. George's Day, April 23rd, and have a "Green George" instead of a King and Queen of the May.  In all these cases you have folk-magic meant to awaken "the spirit of vegetation," and encourage lots of rain, sun, babies, crops, and increased herds and milk.  Symbols such as brides, eggs, and flowers abound, and (ahem) a good deal of license may still persist.

XI. The Influence of the Sexes on Vegetation:  Naturally, if you want the crops to grow, you'll have a lot of ritual marriages and congress.  Modern Europe may not be very obvious about it, but lots of other places are and have straightforward practices, which may involve, for example, extra-fertile couples dancing on the fields, or perhaps an inversion where abstinence is the rule of crop-planting time.

XII. The Sacred Marriage
1. Diana as a Goddess of Fertility: Back to Nemi: would the King of the Wood have been 'married' to Diana, in a version of these fertility rituals?  Diana was a goddess of the woods, and developed into "a personification of the teeming like of nature, both animal and vegetable."  She was especially a goddess of childbirth.  So...she must have been all about the fertility, thus the Ephesian Diana.*  So obviously she would need a husband, and Servius said that was Virbius, who was represented at Nemi by the King of the Wood.
2. The Marriage of the Gods: Examples of people married to gods or goddesses, both ancient and modern.  In Egypt a woman slept in the temple of Ammon as his wife, for example, or you may have girls dedicated as priestesses who are married only to the god.  The old tale of the princess given to a dragon, who is rescued by a dragon-slayer, may reflect ancient ideas about girls sacrificed to be the wives of water-spirits.

Frazer is showing some elements of what we would consider anthropological practice here.  He is very careful to point out that another society's definition of a god will probably not be the same as the reader's definition of a god, and that if we impose our own definitions of an idea on to another, we will not understand what is happening.  He also cautions readers not to simply think of other ideas as silly and unreasonable; if you trace your own ideas back into history, they're probably part of the same family.

On the other hand, Frazer also seems pretty gullible.  Here is a story he tells in chapter 13 as an example people posing as gods:
About the year 1830 there appeared, in one of the States of the American Union bordering on Kentucky, an impostor who declared that he was the Son of God, the Saviour of mankind, and that he had reappeared on earth to recall the impious, the unbelieving, and sinners to their duty. He protested that if they did not mend their ways within a certain time, he would give the signal, and in a moment the world would crumble to ruins. These extravagant pretensions were received with favour even by persons of wealth and position in society. At last a German humbly besought the new Messiah to announce the dreadful catastrophe to his fellow-countrymen in the German language, as they did not understand English, and it seemed a pity that they should be damned merely on that account. The would-be Saviour in reply confessed with great candour that he did not know German. “What!” retorted the German, “you the Son of God, and don’t speak all languages, and don’t even know German? Come, come, you are a knave, a hypocrite, and a madman. Bedlam is the place for you.” The spectators laughed, and went away ashamed of their credulity.
Now, this is obviously some kind of urban legend.  "One of the states bordering on Kentucky"?  No names, no places, nothing that would allow the curious reader to follow up this story and find out what the original reports said.  Frazer ought to be ashamed of his credulity.  If he's this bad at understanding Americans of 1830, I am not optimistic about his abilities to understand societies further removed from him in time and culture.

Just before I read the sections about tree-worship and Maypoles, I also read a book about Robin Hood (post coming later this week!) which turned out to also have a lot to say about Maypoles and fertility rites.  Both quote the Puritan Phillip Stubbes' book of 1583 in which he describes May partying and says "these oxen draw home this May-pole (this stynking ydol, rather) which is covered all over with flowers and hearbs..."  You gotta love him, right?

Here are some quotations:

In a society where every man is supposed to be endowed more or less with powers which we should call supernatural, it is plain that the distinction between gods and men is somewhat blurred, or rather has scarcely emerged. The conception of gods as superhuman beings endowed with powers to which man possesses nothing comparable in degree and hardly even in kind, has been slowly evolved in the course of history. By primitive peoples the supernatural agents are not regarded as greatly, if at all, superior to man; for they may be frightened and coerced by him into doing his will. At this stage of thought the world is viewed as a great democracy; all beings in it, whether natural or supernatural, are supposed to stand on a footing of tolerable equality. But with the growth of his knowledge man learns to realise more clearly the vastness of nature and his own littleness and feebleness in presence of it. The recognition of his helplessness does not, however, carry with it a corresponding belief in the impotence of those supernatural beings with which his imagination peoples the universe. On the contrary, it enhances his conception of their power.

The Chinese government, with a paternal solicitude for the welfare of its subjects, forbids the gods on the register to be reborn anywhere but in Tibet.    [yeah, I want a citation for this one.]

Social progress, as we know, consists mainly in a successive differentiation of functions, or, in simpler language, a division of labour. ... Now magicians or medicine-men appear to constitute the oldest artificial or professional class in the evolution of society.

...we may now fairly ask, May not the King of the Wood have had an origin like that which a probable tradition assigns to the Sacrificial King of Rome and the titular King of Athens? In other words, may not his predecessors in office have been a line of kings whom a republican revolution stripped of their political power, leaving them only their religious functions and the shadow of a crown? There are at least two reasons for answering this question in the negative...

When a tree comes to be viewed, no longer as the body of the tree-spirit, but simply as its abode which it can quit at pleasure, an important advance has been made in religious thought. Animism is passing into polytheism. In other words, instead of regarding each tree as a living and conscious being, man now sees in it merely a lifeless, inert mass, tenanted for a longer or shorter time by a supernatural being who, as he can pass freely from tree to tree, thereby enjoys a certain right of possession or lordship over the trees, and, ceasing to be a tree-soul, becomes a forest god.    [I thought this was interesting, because he figures that thinking of trees as 'lifeless' is progress, and now a lot of people figure the opposite -- and we're even finding out that trees have networks.]

*Wikipedia says that modern scholarship doubts that the statue was supposed to have many breasts, and says they were probably supposed to be ritual gourds.  I wouldn't know -- so I guess I have more to learn!


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