The Golden Bough, Part the Eleventh

 Victory!  I have done it!  I have read all 800+ pages of The Golden Bough.  Some of it was very interesting, some of it put me to sleep, and some was kinda horrifying.  I don't really buy Frazer's premise, but his premise is so inundated with a mountain of theorizing, speculation, anecdote, digression, and so on that it's quite hard to tell what it actually is.

I don't quite want to finish this off with the extensive notes that I had for the other installments; I did nine chapters' worth this time.  But I do want to cover a few things.  Let's see what happens.

LXI.  The Myth of Balder.  We're now going to take a trip up north and get into a completely new area -- the story of Balder the beautiful, killed by a dart of mistletoe.  And then he was given a nice funeral pyre.

LXII..  The Fire-Festivals of Europe.  Since Balder was burned after death, let's talk about every kind of festival involving a bonfire ever, which is a lot.  After all, people like bonfires!  This is too long to describe in detail, but bonfires were customary at several times of the year.  Frazer mentions Lent, Easter, Beltane (May 1), Midsummer (June 23/24), Halloween/Samhain, Midwinter, and any time the village needed purifying.  People might leap over them, drive animals to leap or go between fires, or all sorts of things having to do with crop growth, marriage and children, health, and driving away evil influences.

LXIII. The Interpretations of the Fire-Festivals.  I'm not even going to try.

LXIV. The Burning of Human Beings in the Fires.  There are no examples of actual people or animals being burned, except one really awful one of a cat, and the ancient description of Celts burning people alive in a wicker effigy, but Frazer presumes that the effigies or mock-figures often burned at these fires might once have really been people or animals.   Or vegetation-spirits, or tree-spirits.  But it was probably Druids.

LXV. Balder and the Mistletoe.  OK, now let's talk about mistletoe.  People have venerated it, Druids worshipped it.  It was special because a) it's an evergreen and b) it lives between heaven and earth.  Sent by the gods, perhaps.  Mistletoe was used as a fertility drug, remedy for poison, and cure-all (which seems like a bad idea since it's toxic).  If Balder could only be killed when the mistletoe was taken from the oak tree, perhaps Balder WAS the oak tree, and the mistletoe the seat of life for the oak?

LXVI.  The External Soul in Folk-Tales.  Therefore we must now talk about how often a life (or a death, same thing really) is externalized and hidden in folk stories.  Think Koschei the Deathless here -- if you hide your life/death, then you cannot be killed until somebody finds it and crushes it.   The life/death is often hidden in an egg, which is then layered in several things and stored far away.  So Balder the oak tree's life was in the mistletoe, which killed him when it pierced him.

LXVII. The External Soul in Folk-Custom.  So there are lots of times when people would prepare for battle or childbirth by hiding the soul in an object and keeping it safe.  You might also hide your soul in a plant or animal -- and thus that might become your totem or special family thing.

LXVIII.  The Golden Bough.  So what is the famous Golden Bough?  Well, it must be mistletoe "seen through the haze of poetry or of popular superstition" -- except mistletoe isn't gold.  But apparently if you preserve a branch of mistletoe for months, it does indeed take on a bright yellow-gold color.

SO: At Nemi, the priest of Diana (the true wife of the sky-god, in the person of the moon) was the King of the Wood, and was in person Jupiter, who came down from heaven in the mistletoe that grew in the oaks of the grove.  The priest guarded the bough that held his own and the god's life, and his successor had to cut off the bough and then kill the priest in order to take his place.  

There.  That's Frazer's story, and he's been very happy to wander through every byway of folk-lore in order to bring it to you.  I think it's a pretty long shot myself.

I did enjoy reading about bonfire festivals, since it described a lot of customs in Scandinavia.  When I lived in Denmark, we did indeed have a bonfire on Midsummer Eve (Sankthansaften, St. John's Eve), and in fact there was an effigy of a witch, which actually fits in with Frazer's descriptions of people having fires that symbolically purified the area of witchcraft and evil influences.  Apparently the witch-effigies have been a feature of the bonfires since the 1920s.

Well, hooray for finishing The Golden Bough!  I have many other books of dodgy anthropology that I'd like to read, but I hope they aren't quite as long.  This was my 20th book of summer, and I'm also using it the 'classic non-fiction' choice for two reading challenges.  So I'm glad I finished it in 2020.


  1. Congratulations! I'm so proud of you and discouraged at me because I had such a hard time with it. I'll return to your posts to be inspired when I finally return to it.

    Mistletoe is also used as a cancer treatment. In one study I read, with chemo alone there was a 43% survival rate but with chemo and mistletoe there was a 68% survival rate. I heard that in Germany for certain cancers, it's a normal part of the treatment. So there you go! Another use for mistletoe!

  2. Whoa, seriously?? That's amazing.

  3. Also I say, huzzah, huzzah, huzzah! I've now at least read your précis of the The Golden Bough, which is far more than I managed on my own. And I don't think the abridgement I have is even as much as 800 pages.

  4. Thanks! I don't think I could have done it at all if we hadn't started as a readalong, and then it became my mission.

  5. Bravo! You set your mind to this challenge & you saw it through!!! Even as your reading buddies fell to the wayside, you powered on, inspiring and determined 🏆

  6. Ooo, a trophy! Thanks Brona! :)

  7. Congratulations !! And I just added it to my TBR, lol !

  8. Way to go! When I was working toward my Master of Liberal Arts, The Golden Bough was a favorite reference for me. It never occurred to me to read it from cover to cover. I'm very impressed.


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