Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1600
In addition to his story being a fixture of the Greek tradition, the legend of the Greek god Adonis, also known as Tammuz, has roots stretching back to Babylonia and Syria. As both Tammuz in Babylonia and Adonis in Greece, he was a god of vegetation and was seen as the embodiment of masculine beauty. He was loved by Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, who hid him in a gold chest, which she gave to Persephone, the queen of the underworld, for safekeeping. When Persephone peeked in the chest and saw Adonis, she was captivated with his beauty and refused to give him back to Aphrodite. Zeus settled the dispute by giving him to each goddess for part of the year. The change of seasons was explained in connection to the place where Adonis was during each part of the year, since Aphrodite, lamenting when he was gone, refused to help plants or animals grow, marking winter in climates where it did not snow.
Aeneas is a central figure of Roman mythology. He is the title character of Virgil’s masterpiece The Aeneid, which recounts his seven years of travels after the Greeks’ siege of Troy. His journey ended when he landed in Italy and founded Rome. According to legend, Aeneas, before going to the underworld, was told that he must take with him a golden bough from an evergreen oak tree that grew in the grove of Diana, to give as a gift to the Queen of the Underworld.
Like Adonis, Attis was a god of vegetation, worshipped in Phrygia. He was a shepherd, famed for his good looks and beloved by Cybele, the goddess of fertility. His death is explained in different ways in different versions of his story, and he is said to have been turned into a pine tree, linking him to the tree mythology that drives the story of The Golden Bough. In a similar way to the story of Demeter and Persephone, Attis’ death caused Cybele to grieve so much that the earth was thrown into a famine, and it is for this reason that annual rituals were performed in the fall to mourn the loss of Attis and in the spring to celebrate his return from the underworld.
In Scandinavian mythology, Balder the Beautiful could be harmed by nothing on heaven or earth except a bough of mistletoe. Frazer supposes that Balder was a personification of the mistletoe that grows on the oak tree, which was worshipped as sacred by the Scandinavians. This mistletoe is considered to be a possible source for the idea of the golden tree bough referred to in the book’s title, thereby connecting the ancient Roman ritual practiced in Italy with the religious practices that developed in the countries of northern Europe.
Demeter is the Greek goddess of the harvest. The story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, one of the oldest Greek myths, has parallels in many ancient cultures. According to the myth, when Persephone was carried off by the lord of the underworld, Demeter refused to help the harvest, causing famine across the Earth. Zeus, the king of the gods, returned Persephone to her but ruled that she could only spend two-thirds of the year with Demeter and had to return to Hades for four months of the year. For the four months annually that she is gone, Demeter is said to mourn, accounting for the lack of vegetation in the wintertime. Frazer’s analysis of the story centers on the poem Hymn to Demeter, by Homer. Elements of her story are found throughout the world, traced through the ‘‘corn-mother’’ goddess worshipped by Cretans during the Stone Age and similar stories about characters identified as corn spirits.
One of the most important figures in classical mythology, Diana is the Roman goddess of the hunt and of childbirth, associated with the Greek goddess Artemis. Her association with childbirth and fertility, as well as with hunting, led to the belief that she was also the goddess of wood, and in particular of oak, which is specified in the rituals that Frazer examines in The Golden Bough. The temple of Diana of the Wood, near the village of Nemi in Italy, is guarded by a priest who has earned his position by killing the previous priest, a ritual on which Frazer builds the book.
Dionysus is the god associated with the grape and, by extension, with wine and drunkenness. A religion was formed around the worship of him, celebrating the irrational over the rational, countering the focus on reason that characterized Greek culture. He is related to the book’s focal story about the golden bough because, in addition to being god of grapes, he is considered god of all trees. Moreover, the practice of sacrificing goats in ceremonies to honor Dionysus resembles the ritual sacrifice of the King of the Forest in the golden bough tradition.
Egeria is a water-nymph who is important in the sacred grove at Nemi because, like Diana, she can give ease to women in childbirth. Sometimes Egeria is considered to be another form of Diana.
Sister and wife of Osiris in Egyptian mythology, Isis was given dozens of different personalities throughout the years. Frazer speculates that one of her original functions in mythology was that she was thought to be the goddess of corn and barley, having discovered them and given them to mankind. Over time, her image changed from that of the plain corn-mother (a function shared by the Roman goddess Diana) to a glamorous beauty, and as this transformation occurred she grew to be the most popular of all Egyptian deities.
King of the Wood
The King of the Wood is the traditional priest of the Arician grove. Frazer recounts how this position has been handed down, generation after generation, since antiquity. The book’s title, The Golden Bough, refers to the tradition that states that the King of the Woods must be killed by an escaped slave, hit with a golden bough from a tree that grows there. The person who kills him then becomes the new King of the Wood. He is thought to represent a worldly husband to the goddess Diana. Throughout the course of the book, Frazer speculates about various theories explaining how the king’s ritual murder came to be custom. The history of the position, as well as similar rituals in other cultures, is explored. Using this particularly significant ritual, Frazer examines the implications of hundreds of beliefs and their evolution over the centuries.
Numa was a wise king who was a husband or lover of Egeria. Since the legend of Egeria is closely associated with that of Diana, Frazer speculates that Numa has a place in the cult at Nemi that serves as a basis of the book. Numa is often thought to be another form of the King of the Wood.
Osiris is an ancient Egyptian god whose death and resurrection were celebrated each year. Osiris was the most popular of Egyptian deities, and he was worshipped for centuries. As an Egyptian king, he is credited with having taught the Egyptians how to cultivate fruit from trees, while Isis, who was both his sister and his wife, taught the people how to plant and harvest grains. Osiris traveled the world, teaching people of foreign lands how to grow crops. When he returned to Egypt, though, he was ambushed by a cadre of forty-seven conspirators, led by one of his own brothers; they tricked him into a box and, sealing the lid, sent it floating off down the Nile. Isis found his body downstream and buried it, but Osiris lived on as the lord of the underworld.
A very famous figure in Greek mythology, Orestes is thought, according to one legend, to have started the cult of Diana of the Woods. After killing the King of the Tauric Chersonese, Orestes is said to have fled to Nemi, the place where the golden bough ritual is followed, thereby introducing Diana to that part of Italy.
Greek myth explains how Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, was playing in a field one day and was carried off by the Lord of the Underworld, Pluto. When Demeter’s grief threatened to destroy the world with famine, Zeus arranged for Persephone to return to the surface world for two-thirds of the year, but for the last third she always had to be Pluto’s bride again in Hades. She also figures into the story of Adonis, with whom she fell in love and whom she tried to keep in the underworld with her, although Zeus allowed him to return to the earth’s surface for several months each year to be with Aphrodite, who loved him first.
Bearing the Roman name for the Greek hero Hippolytus, Virbius was Diana’s lover and showed no interest in other women. When the goddess Aphrodite tried to take Virbius for herself he spurned her advances, and in her humiliation she persuaded his father to kill him, but Diana brought him back to life and hid him at Nemi. Among the rituals that make up the focus of The Golden Bough, Frazer includes the ban on horses at Nemi, which is thought to have started in recognition of the fact that Virbius was said to have been killed by being dragged behind horses. He is considered to be the founder of the sacred grove and the first king of Nemi.
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