The Golden Bough Readalong, Part the Tenth

 I'm getting so close to the end!  Only about 3 weeks to go, assuming I manage to stay on track.  This section of reading focused on scapegoating, transference of sin or evil, and some more about the principle of contagion, I guess you could say.  Also, it's no wonder that this book annoyed religious folks.

LV.  The Transference of Evil.

  1. The Transference to Inanimate Objects: Now that we've established that societies would often kill a god, let's talk about the practice of laying "the accumulated misfortunes and sins of the whole people" upon the god, who bears them away.  First let's have examples of transferring sickness, pain, or sin to an object which is then thrown away, or perhaps left for someone else to encounter and take the pain upon themselves.
  2. The Transference to Animals: Animals might be used to take away pain or evil, too, just like a scapegoat.  Lots of examples!
  3. The Transference to Men: The job of absorbing another's pain or sin might even become an occupation for a person, or something to inflict on a person of low status.
  4. The Transference of Evil in Europe: A litany of similar folk practices in Europe.

LVI. The Public Expulsion of Evils.

  1. The Omnipresence of Demons: You might want to rid your village of the demons or bad spirits that normally harass the inhabitants and bring things like illness, misfortune, and death.
  2. The Occasional Expulsion of Evils: So if a misfortune hits your home, it might be wise to 'beat' the devils away immediately -- especially if there's an epidemic.  (I think we'd all be willing to try this for Covid by this point, yes?)  Making lots of noise or beating the invisible demons will drive them away.
  3. The Periodic Expulsion of Evils: Or maybe it's just a good idea to do it yearly, like spring cleaning.  This may eventually become a holiday/festival, as in all these examples.

LVII.  Public Scapegoats.

  1. The Expulsion of Embodied Evils: The sins, misfortunes, and sickness might also be represented by a thing or person, which is then beaten away -- you might have some people dress up as devils and get driven off.
  2. The Occasional Expulsion of Evils in a Material Vehicle: You might like to dump your problems into a boat, for example, and shove it off shore to drift away.  Or on an animal.  (How is this different than the scapegoat earlier?  Frazer, you are picky.)
  3. The Periodic Expulsion of Evils in a Material Vehicle: Again, you might do this yearly.  (Just like the last chapter.  Frazer.)  And finally, you might decide that it's a good idea to dump your problems on a man...a divine man who can handle it...a god.
  4. On Scapegoats in General: A summing-up.

LVIII.  Human Scapegoats in Classical Antiquity.

  1. The Human Scapegoat in Ancient Rome: The Roman festival on the ides of March featured an Old Mars who was expelled, and Mars, remember, was also the god of spring and vegetation.  So that looks like a yearly spring festival of getting rid of the old god of vegetation.
  2. The Human Scapegoat in Ancient Greece: The Greeks did it too, and often sacrificed the person.  There was also a lot of beating with branches, which was supposed to fertilize things.
  3. The Roman Saturnalia: Scapegoat festivals often had a period of license just before the sacrifice -- either for the scapegoat fellow, or for everybody.  Saturnalia looks like one of those, and involved a lot of "misrule" type activities, like letting slaves order people around.  And sometimes it ended in a sacrifice.

LIX.  Killing the God in Mexico.  An entire chapter just for Aztec practices.  Since they were recorded by Spanish priests, we have a much better idea of what they were like than we do of ancient Roman practices, of which we have only a few vestiges.  (Remember, the end goal of all this is to understand the ceremony at Nemi.)  And surely they are a little bit analogous.

LX.  Between Heaven and Earth.

  1. Not to Touch the Earth:  Now that we've got the killing-the-priest part figured out (do we??), let's tackle the other rule at Nemi: that the killer had "to pluck the Golden Bough" before he did the killing.  Since we have to start at the beginning, let's go back to two taboos that have often applied to divine kings/priests.  First, that the divine person may not touch the ground with his foot.  Either the ground then became sacred, and thus charged with too much power for the ordinary person to walk on, or the priest-king became profaned and had to be cleansed or even killed.
  2. Not to See the Sun:  It might even be that the priest-king is too sacred for the sun to shine upon, in which case he had to live inside all the time.  Or you might get a lesser version of this in which someone has to prepare by living in the dark and fasting.
  3. The Seclusion of Girls at Puberty:  OK, this part is really upsetting and I hope Frazer's information was just not true.  The more extreme cases don't sound very likely (which Frazer knows, and inserts a long and uncredited eyewitness account which I also hope is not true, but I did track down the source, which was written by a Methodist missionary in 1878 and quoted in an anthropological journal, with other similar cases, in 1889.*).  Anyway, the idea is that some societies would isolate girls at the time of puberty, perhaps indoors, or in a separate place, or even in a small enclosure off the ground, for some period of time.  The most extreme cases were for years.  
  4. Reasons for the Seclusion of Girls at Puberty: Frazer figures that all these practices sprang from folk-practices that dreaded the power or mystery of menstruation, particularly the first time.  He finishes by quoting Pliny on the many dangers posed by a woman at her time of the month and European superstitions around the topic.

Yeah, so this was not the easiest section.  And like I said above, it's no wonder the religious establishment of the time got annoyed at Frazer; he makes it pretty clear that he thinks Christianity is just another version of uncivilized superstition.  But I think I said before that it seems that by Frazer's lights, anybody who isn't actually an Oxford don doesn't count as enjoy these quotations.

[I usually try to avoid quoting some of the words here, but I think this is an important illustrative passage.]  The notion that we can transfer our guilt and sufferings to some other being who will bear them for us is familiar to the savage mind. It arises from a very obvious confusion between the physical and the mental, between the material and the immaterial. Because it is possible to shift a load of wood, stones, or what not, from our own back to the back of another, the savage fancies that it is equally possible to shift the burden of his pains and sorrows to another, who will suffer them in his stead. Upon this idea he acts, and the result is an endless number of very unamiable devices for palming off upon some one else the trouble which a man shrinks from bearing himself. In short, the principle of vicarious suffering is commonly understood and practised by races who stand on a low level of social and intellectual culture. In the following pages I shall illustrate the theory and the practice as they are found among savages in all their naked simplicity, undisguised by the refinements of metaphysics and the subtleties of theology.

 People in the Orkney Islands will sometimes wash a sick man, and then throw the water down at a gateway, in the belief that the sickness will leave the patient and be transferred to the first person who passes through the gate. A Bavarian cure for fever is to write upon a piece of paper, “Fever, stay away, I am not at home,” and to put the paper in somebody’s pocket. The latter then catches the fever, and the patient is rid of it. A Bohemian prescription for the same malady is this. Take an empty pot, go with it to a cross-road, throw it down, and run away. The first person who kicks against the pot will catch your fever, and you will be cured.

 The analogy of many customs in many lands points to the conclusion that, if this human divinity stoops to resign his ghostly power for a time into the hands of a substitute, it is, or rather was once, for no other reason than that the substitute might die in his stead. Thus through the mist of ages unillumined by the lamp of history, the tragic figure of the pope of Buddhism—God’s vicar on earth for Asia—looms dim and sad as the man-god who bore his people’s sorrows, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep.

If we ask why a dying god should be chosen to take upon himself and carry away the sins and sorrows of the people, it may be suggested that in the practice of using the divinity as a scapegoat we have a combination of two customs which were at one time distinct and independent. 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 dying god as a scapegoat. He was killed, not originally to take away sin, but to save the divine life from the degeneracy of old age; but, since he had to be killed at any rate, people may have thought that they might as well seize the opportunity to lay upon him the burden of their sufferings and sins, in order that he might bear it away with him to the unknown world beyond the grave.

These Mexican rites suffice to prove that human sacrifices of the sort I suppose to have prevailed at Aricia were, as a matter of fact, regularly offered by a people whose level of culture was probably not inferior, if indeed it was not distinctly superior, to that occupied by the Italian races at the early period to which the origin of the Arician priesthood must be referred. The positive and indubitable evidence of the prevalence of such sacrifices in one part of the world may reasonably be allowed to strengthen the probability of their prevalence in places for which the evidence is less full and trustworthy. Taken all together, the facts which we have passed in review seem to show that the custom of killing men whom their worshippers regard as divine has prevailed in many parts of the world.

Similarly, in various parts of Europe, it is still believed that if a woman in her courses enters a brewery the beer will turn sour; if she touches beer, wine, vinegar, or milk, it will go bad; if she makes jam, it will not keep; if she mounts a mare, it will miscarry; if she touches buds, they will wither; if she climbs a cherry tree, it will die. In Brunswick people think that if a menstruous woman assists at the killing of a pig, the pork will putrefy. In the Greek island of Calymnos a woman at such times may not go to the well to draw water, nor cross a running stream, nor enter the sea. Her presence in a boat is said to raise storms. 

Thus the object of secluding women at menstruation is to neutralise the dangerous influences which are supposed to emanate from them at such times. That the danger is believed to be especially great at the first menstruation appears from the unusual precautions taken to isolate girls at this crisis. Two of these precautions have been illustrated above, namely, the rules that the girls may not touch the ground nor see the sun. The general effect of these rules is to keep her suspended, so to say, between heaven and earth. 


* Danks, B. "Marriage Customs of the New Britain Groups."


  1. Thanks again for this! One of these days. I still haven't reshelved my lies there, reproachfully, next to my reading chair...


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