The Golden Bough Readalong: Part the Sixth

I've been reading along just fine, but finding time (and motivation) to blog isn't so easy.  But here we are, just about halfway through!  Much of this chunk was specifically about Adonis/Attis/Tammuz worship.

XXXI. Adonis in Cyprus.  Cyprus looked pretty good to the Phoenicians, and Paphos was the center of Adnois worship.  Dubious-sounding pre-marriage practices involving "sacred harlots."  Story of Cinyras.  Music in worship, with references to Saul and David.

XXXII. The Ritual of Adonis.  Adonis festivals involved a lot of mourning for the death of the god, who was often carried out to burial in water, and they would sing about his future revival.  Offerings of fruit, flowers, cakes -- the date of the ceremony is not known but probably summer.  Red flowers were said to have been dyed by his blood.  Once a society became agricultural, the focus shifted from general fertility to specifically grains/cereals. 

XXXIII.  The Gardens of Adonis.  Women would plant little temporary gardens in baskets of earth sown with grain and flowers.  The plants would shoot up rapidly in the sun, but withered from lack of root, and after 8 days were thrown out along with the effigies.  All these little ceremonies of sympathetic magic meant to encourage growth.  Examples of similar ceremonies from all over the world.

XXXIV. The Myth and Ritual of Attis.  Attis, in Phrygia, was a very similar figure to Adonis.  Said to have been born from a virgin mother who put an "almond or pomegranate in her bosom," and beloved by Cybele.  Except the priests of Attis castrated themselves, and sometimes the worshipers did too, as part of the mourning ceremonies -- which were pretty exciting stuff.  In fact eunuch-priests were pretty common when it came to Near Eastern fertility goddesses; evidently the idea was to give their fertility to the goddess.

XXXV.  Attis as a God of Vegetation.  Attis wound up the eastern version of the maypole -- he was personified as a pine tree and they would cut one down and decorate it with flowers for the festival, sometimes with an effigy attached.    Both pines and ivy were sacred to Attis, so maybe there was something about evergreens.   He was also personified as ripe grain.

XXXVI. Human Representatives of Attis.  Cybele's high priest was called Attis.  They'd do blood-drawing rituals because Attis killed himself under a pine-tree.  Examples of similar/related tales.

This was actually a pretty short chunk, and interesting.  I have my doubts about some of Frazer's conclusions...I mean, check this out about Attis' mother:
Such tales of virgin mothers are relics of an age of childish ignorance when men had not yet recognized the intercourse of the sexes as the true cause of offspring. 
That doesn't work at all.  The entire rest of the chapter shows so.  It wouldn't be a special, divine birth if just any-old-body could get pregnant from their snacks.  And why would anybody castrate themselves if they were ignorant of how babies are made?  He says himself they had to give their fertility to the goddess.

Here are some other quotations: one except the unfortunate astronomer Bailly has maintained that the Adonis worship came from the Arctic regions.

It has been suggested by Father Lagrange that the mourning for Adonis was essentially a harvest rite designed to propitiate the corn-god, who was then either perishing under the sickles of the reapers, or being trodden to death under the hoofs of the oxen on the threshing-floor. While the men slew him, the women wept crocodile tears at home to appease his natural indignation by a show of grief for his death. The theory fits in well with the dates of the festivals, which fell in spring or summer; for spring and summer, not autumn, are the seasons of the barley and wheat harvests in the lands which worshipped Adonis. Further, the hypothesis is confirmed by the practice of the Egyptian reapers, who lamented, calling upon Isis, when they cut the first corn; and it is recommended by the analogous customs of many hunting tribes, who testify great respect for the animals which they kill and eat.

There is some reason to think that in early times Adonis was sometimes personated by a living man who died a violent death in the character of the god. Further, there is evidence which goes to show that among the agricultural peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, the corn-spirit, by whatever name he was known, was often represented, year by year, by human victims slain on the harvest-field. If that was so, it seems likely that the propitiation of the corn-spirit would tend to fuse to some extent with the worship of the dead. For the spirits of these victims might be thought to return to life in the ears which they had fattened with their blood, and to die a second death at the reaping of the corn. Now the ghosts of those who have perished by violence are surly and apt to wreak their vengeance on their slayers whenever an opportunity offers. Hence the attempt to appease the souls of the slaughtered victims would naturally blend, at least in the popular conception, with the attempt to pacify the slain corn-spirit. And as the dead came back in the sprouting corn, so they might be thought to return in the spring flowers, waked from their long sleep by the soft vernal airs. They had been laid to their rest under the sod. What more natural than to imagine that the violets and the hyacinths, the roses and the anemones, sprang from their dust, were empurpled or incarnadined by their blood, and contained some portion of their spirit?

Certainly the custom of drenching with water a leaf-clad person, who undoubtedly personifies vegetation, is still resorted to in Europe for the express purpose of producing rain. Similarly the custom of throwing water on the last corn cut at harvest, or on the person who brings it home (a custom observed in Germany and France, and till lately in England and Scotland), is in some places practised with the avowed intent to procure rain for the next year’s crops. Thus in Wallachia and amongst the Roumanians in Transylvania, when a girl is bringing home a crown made of the last ears of corn cut at harvest, all who meet her hasten to throw water on her, and two farm-servants are placed at the door for the purpose; for they believe that if this were not done, the crops next year would perish from drought. At the spring ploughing in Prussia, when the ploughmen and sowers returned in the evening from their work in the fields, the farmer’s wife and the servants used to splash water over them.


  1. Wait, was Frazer not Christian? I always assume everyone from the olden days was, but I realize now I don't actually know. If he was Christian, I am surprised he said that about stories of virgin births!

  2. Oh, that's right; I meant to make a comment on that. I have no idea what Frazer's thoughts were on Christianity; sometimes he sounds skeptical, and sometimes he sounds like your orthodox 1900 dude. But some of the things he says about Christianity in these chapters make it really easy to see why so many folks were scandalized! I was rather surprised to see somebody saying them 100 years ago.


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