The Golden Bough Readalong: Part the Third

Time for the third installment of The Golden Bough!  This time, we leave maypoles, sacred marriages, and the world of Robin Hood behind to talk about forms of kingship and taboos.  I must say, doing this outline afterwards is a huge help to me in figuring out the structure and argument of the book, so I hope it's helpful to somebody else too.

XIII.  The Kings of Rome and Alba:
  1. Numa and Egeria: Let's assume now that "the sacred marriage of the powers both of vegetation and of water" to promote fertility has been a pretty common thing.  Maybe such a thing happened at Nemi between the King of the Wood and Diana.  The water-nymph Egeria was also about fertility and childbirth; maybe she was a form of Diana too.  This would mean that the story of Numa and Egeria is one of the sacred marriage.  We don't know much about the ancient kings of Rome, but maybe they did this.
  2. The King as Jupiter:  So if the kings of Rome went through marriage rituals with Diana, they would be impersonating Jupiter, because people who dressed as Roman kings imitated Jupiter: reddened faces, laurel and oak crowns, eagle symbols, etc.  Oak crowns, eagles, and red were sacred to Jupiter.  They also seem to have imitated thunder and lightning, which would mean they were acting as rain-makers.  And as we know, Jupiter's consort was Juno, not Diana, so what about that?

XIV.  The Succession to the Kingdom in Ancient Latium: So, let's now assume that the ancient kings of Rome and other Latin communities impersonated Jupiter.  How was the succession handled?  Maybe the royal lineage went through the maternal line, and the men left home to marry princesses.  If so, then the paternity of children was not too important, and a baby conceived at the Midsummer revels wouldn't be a problem.  All this would explain why some kings of Rome had foreign names; they arrived and married princesses.  Greek myths often have this scenario.  Sometimes the contenders for the throne have a race or other contest -- and there are old customs of racing for a bride.  So the right to marry a princess may often have been won in an athletic contest.  The contest may even have been a question of life and death, as kings often seem to have been killed as divine sacrifices. 

XV.  The Worship of the Oak: Aryans (or as we would say now, Indo-Europeans) seem to have worshiped the oak tree pretty often, and associated it with their highest god, Zeus/Jupiter, of the sky, rain, and thunder.  Druids were big on oaks, the Germanics had the oak as Thor's tree, and Slavs also had a god of oaks and rain.  The original Golden Bough was of oak.

XVI.  Dianus and Diana: So, back to the theory that the King of the Wood at Nemi represented a "long line of sacred kings" who would then marry Diana in order to promote fertility.  Tradition says this king represented Virbius, Diana's consort, but who's that?  Well, sacred fires were of oak wood, and probably Nemi was an oak grove, which would mean that Virbius is Jupiter, maybe a local version.  Figure that the names are just versions of each other, and you get Jupiter/Juno, Janus/Jana(Diana), and Numa/Egeria all as versions of the same couple, including the Greek Zeus/Dione.  A little bit of discourse on Janus.  Aha!  Now we have quite a theory!

XVII.  The Burden of Royalty:
  1. Royal and Priestly Taboos: What's it like to be a sacred king or priest?  The rules tend to be quite strict, if you're in the business of representing a deity.  There are all sorts of things you can't do, in case you bring disaster.  So here's a massive list of various taboos on sacred kings, like not being able to cut your hair because it's too holy, or having to eat out of new dishes every day.  These rules might be horribly restrictive.
  2. Divorce of the Spiritual From the Temporal Power:  Therefore, pretty soon, nobody wanted the job.  Being a representative of the divine was so difficult that it might preclude actual governing, so government officials might take that over and leave the sacred stuff to somebody else.  The job might even fall vacant, if it was an awful enough job; people would refuse to do it.  So, you might end up with two kings -- a temporal and a sacred, or the sacred job might be shoved off to the side.
XVIII: The Perils of the Soul
  1.  The Soul as a Mannikin:  So let's talk souls.  How did people envision their spirits, and how could they come to harm?  Some examples of how peoples around the world imagine their souls -- usually as a person, but unseeable, inside the body.
  2. Absence and Recall of the Soul:  Your soul might easily get lost -- it might escape.  Examples of ways to keep the soul inside the body (special hooks or ties, other things).  Your soul might leave when you are asleep, sick, or injured.  Examples of ways to attract the soul back home.
  3.  The Soul as a Shadow and a Reflection:  Some peoples believe that their shadows, or their reflections, are integral parts of themselves and can be injured or captured.  Lots of examples of that.
So, Frazer has now built up a speculative theory -- which really kind of resembles a house of cards -- in which people enact a divine marriage between father and mother deities in order to encourage general fertility, and this happens around midsummer.  And he's got all this surrounding stuff about sacred kings and beliefs about them.  And we're only about a quarter of the way through the book!

I'm starting to see where Robert Graves got some of his ideas from.  All that bit about the maternal line being important, and paternity of no concern, figures largely in The White Goddess.

Time for the quotations:
The convergence of the two distinct lines of enquiry suggests that the legendary union of the Roman king with Egeria may have been a reflection or duplicate of the union of the King of the Wood with Egeria or her double Diana. This does not imply that the Roman kings ever served as Kings of the Wood in the Arician grove, but only that they may originally have been invested with a sacred character of the same general kind, and may have held office on similar terms. To be more explicit, it is possible that they reigned, not by right of birth, but in virtue of their supposed divinity as representatives or embodiments of a god, and that as such they mated with a goddess, and had to prove their fitness from time to time to discharge their divine functions by engaging in a severe bodily struggle, which may often have proved fatal to them, leaving the crown to their victorious adversary. 
As the oak crown was sacred to Jupiter and Juno on the Capitol, so we may suppose it was on the Alban Mount, from which the Capitoline worship was derived. Thus the oak-god would have his oak-goddess in the sacred oak grove. So at Dodona the oak-god Zeus was coupled with Dione, whose very name is only a dialectically different form of Juno; and so on the top of Mount Cithaeron, as we have seen, he appears to have been periodically wedded to an oaken image of Hera. It is probable, though it cannot be positively proved, that the sacred marriage of Jupiter and Juno was annually celebrated by all the peoples of the Latin stock in the month which they named after the goddess, the midsummer month of June.

Whether that was so or not, the legend of Numa and Egeria appears to embody a reminiscence of a time when the priestly king himself played the part of the divine bridegroom; and as we have seen reason to suppose that the Roman kings personated the oak-god, while Egeria is expressly said to have been an oak-nymph, the story of their union in the sacred grove raises a presumption that at Rome in the regal period a ceremony was periodically performed exactly analogous to that which was annually celebrated at Athens down to the time of Aristotle. The marriage of the King of Rome to the oak-goddess, like the wedding of the vine-god to the Queen of Athens, must have been intended to quicken the growth of vegetation by homoeopathic magic. Of the two forms of the rite we can hardly doubt that the Roman was the older, and that long before the northern invaders met with the vine on the shores of the Mediterranean their forefathers had married the tree-god to the tree-goddess in the vast oak forests of Central and Northern Europe. In the England of our day the forests have mostly disappeared, yet still on many a village green and in many a country lane a faded image of the sacred marriage lingers in the rustic pageantry of May Day.

Thus if my theory is correct, the yearly flight of the Roman king was a relic of a time when the kingship was an annual office awarded, along with the hand of a princess, to the victorious athlete or gladiator, who thereafter figured along with his bride as a god and goddess at a sacred marriage designed to ensure the fertility of the earth by homoeopathic magic. If I am right in supposing that in very early times the old Latin kings personated a god and were regularly put to death in that character, we can better understand the mysterious or violent ends to which so many of them are said to have come.

These legends of the violent ends of the Roman kings suggest that the contest by which they gained the throne may sometimes have been a mortal combat rather than a race. If that were so, the analogy which we have traced between Rome and Nemi would be still closer. At both places the sacred kings, the living representatives of the godhead, would thus be liable to suffer deposition and death at the hand of any resolute man who could prove his divine right to the holy office by the strong arm and the sharp sword.

Now the oak was the sacred tree of Jupiter, the supreme god of the Latins. Hence it follows that the King of the Wood, whose life was bound up in a fashion with an oak, personated no less a deity than Jupiter himself. At least the evidence, slight as it is, seems to point to this conclusion.

To this theory it may naturally be objected that the divine consort of Jupiter was not Diana but Juno, and that if Diana had a mate at all he might be expected to bear the name not of Jupiter, but of Dianus or Janus, the latter of these forms being merely a corruption of the former. All this is true, but the objection may be parried by observing that the two pairs of deities, Jupiter and Juno on the one side, and Dianus and Diana, or Janus and Jana, on the other side, are merely duplicates of each other, their names and their functions being in substance and origin identical. With regard to their names, all four of them come from the same Aryan root DI, meaning “bright,” which occurs in the names of the corresponding Greek deities, Zeus and his old female consort Dione. In regard to their functions, Juno and Diana were both goddesses of fecundity and childbirth, and both were sooner or later identified with the moon...

Nowhere, perhaps, does the equivalence of the shadow to the life or soul come out more clearly than in some customs practised to this day in South-eastern Europe. In modern Greece, when the foundation of a new building is being laid, it is the custom to kill a cock, a ram, or a lamb, and to let its blood flow on the foundation-stone, under which the animal is afterwards buried. The object of the sacrifice is to give strength and stability to the building. But sometimes, instead of killing an animal, the builder entices a man to the foundation-stone, secretly measures his body, or a part of it, or his shadow, and buries the measure under the foundation-stone; or he lays the foundation-stone upon the man’s shadow. It is believed that the man will die within the year. The Roumanians of Transylvania think that he whose shadow is thus immured will die within forty days; so persons passing by a building which is in course of erection may hear a warning cry, “Beware lest they take thy shadow!” Not long ago there were still shadow-traders whose business it was to provide architects with the shadows necessary for securing their walls. In these cases the measure of the shadow is looked on as equivalent to the shadow itself, and to bury it is to bury the life or soul of the man, who, deprived of it, must die. Thus the custom is a substitute for the old practice of immuring a living person in the walls, or crushing him under the foundation-stone of a new building, in order to give strength and durability to the structure, or more definitely in order that the angry ghost may haunt the place and guard it against the intrusion of enemies.

We can now understand why it was a maxim both in ancient India and ancient Greece not to look at one’s reflection in water, and why the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the person’s reflection or soul under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water.


  1. You are leaving both Reese and I behind. I'm trying to slog through this but with The Mysteries of Udolpho and my new course, I'm not getting far. At least the "thought" of reading with us seems to be spurring you on. Great posts so far. Maybe I'll be able to catch up!

  2. these have been fascinating posts... i read about half of "White Goddess" once but my daughter-in-law walked off with it... it's bemusing to imagine what modern theological thinking would be like if there were no books and/or education... i have a copy of this book that i've browsed in but never actually read cover to cover... it's easy to see how a researcher could get wound up in all the myths and legends...

  3. I love reading your recaps! Though I admit it has not yet inspired me to read The Golden Bough myself -- it seems like a bit of a slog but ARGH such an important text. ONE OF THESE DAYS.

  4. Yikes! Yes, I'm behind, too, but I have been enjoying your overview posts & haven't given up on reading it this summer. But I decided I had to read a bunch of Latin & Greek history to keep up with Plutarch and that seems to be as much seriousness as I can take...

    Love the dodgy anthropology tag! What else can we put under this label? Jane Harrison coming up next?

  5. We probably all bit off more than we could chew! I've tried this book twice before and never gotten far, but the schedule is helping a lot.

    My kid and I both want a 'dodgy anthropology' shelf, which would include Alfred Watkins, among others. On my wish list are "The Gate of Horn" by Gertrude Rachel Levy, and "The Witch-Cult in Western Europe" by Margaret Murray, with is of the same date as The Golden Bough. I don't know Jane Harrison, but would be happy to learn!


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