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For some time I have been preparing a general work
on primitive superstition and religion. Among the
problems which had attracted my attention was the
hitherto unexplained rule of the Arician priesthood ;
and last spring it happened that in the course of my
reading I came across some facts which, combined
with others I had noted before, suggested an explana-
tion of the rule in question. As the explanation, if
correct, promised to throw light on some obscure
features of primitive religion, I resolved to develop it
fully, and, detaching it from my general work, to issue
it as a separate study. This book is the result.

Now that the theory, which necessarily presented
itself to me at first in outline, has been worked out in
detail, I cannot but feel that in some places I may
have pushed it too far. If this should prove to have
been the case, I will readily acknowledge and retract
my error as soon as it is brought home to me. Mean-
time my essay may serve its purpose as a first attempt
to solve a difficult problem, and to bring a variety of
scattered facts into some sort of order and system.

A justification is perhaps needed of the length at
which I have dwelt upon the popular festivals observed


by European peasants in spring, at midsummer, and at
harvest. It can hardly be too often repeated, since it
is not yet generally recognised, that in spite of their
fragmentary character the popular superstitions and
customs of the peasantry are by far the fullest and
most trustworthy evidence we possess as to the primi-
tive religion of the Aryans. Indeed the primitive
Aryan, in all that regards his mental fibre and texture,
is not extinct. He is amongst us to this day. The
great intellectual and moral forces which have revolu-
tionised the educated world have scarcely affected
the peasant. In his inmost beliefs he is what his
forefathers were in the days when forest trees still
grew and squirrels played on the ground where Rome
and London now stand.

Hence every inquiry into the primitive religion of
the Aryans should either start from the superstitious
beliefs and observances of the peasantry, or should at
least be constantly checked and controlled by reference
to them. Compared with the evidence afforded by
living tradition, the testimony of ancient books on the
subject of early religion is worth very little. For
literature accelerates the advance of thought at a
rate which leaves the slow progress of opinion by
word of mouth at an immeasurable distance behind.
Two or three generations of literature may do more
to change thought than two or three thousand years
of traditional life. But the mass of the people who
do not read books remain unaffected by the mental
revolution wrought by literature ; and so it has come
about that in Europe at the present day the supersti-
tious beliefs and practices which have been handed


down by word of mouth are generally of a far more
archaic type than the religion depicted in the most
ancient'literature of the Aryan race.

It is on these grounds that, in discussing the
meaning and origin of an ancient Italian priesthood, I
have devoted so much attention to the popular customs
and superstitions of modern Europe. In this part of
my subject I have made great use of the works of the
late W. Mannhardt, without which, indeed, my book
could scarcely have been written. Fully recognising
the truth of the principles which I have imperfectly
stated, Mannhardt set himself systematically to collect,
compare, and explain the living superstitions of the
peasantry. Of this wide field the special department
which he marked out for himself was the religion of
the woodman and the farmer, in other words, the
superstitious beliefs and rites connected with trees and
cultivated plants. By oral inquiry, and by printed
questions scattered broadcast over Europe, as well as
by ransacking the literature of folk-lore, he collected
a mass of evidence, part of which he published in a
series of admirable works. But his health, always
feeble, broke down before he could complete the com-
prehensive and really vast scheme which he had
planned, and at his too early death much of his pre-
cious materials remained unpublished. His manu-
scripts are now deposited in the University Library at
Berlin, and in the interest of the study to which he
devoted his life it is greatly to be desired that they
should be examined, and that such portions of them as
he has not utilised in his books should be given to
the world.


Of his published works the most important are,
first, two tracts, Roggenzuolf itnd RoggenJnmd, Danzig
1865 (second edition, Danzig, 1866), and Die Kornd'd-
vionen, Berlin, 186S. These little works were put
forward by him tentatively, in the hope of exciting
interest in his inquiries and thereby securing the help
of others in pursuing them. But, except from a few
learned societies, they met with very little attention.
Undeterred by the cold reception accorded to his
efforts he worked steadily on, and in 1875 published
his chief work, Der Baunikiiltus der Gcrmancn tind
iJirer NacJibarstamnie. This was followed in 1877
by Antike Wald- iLud Feldkulte. His MytJwlogischc
Forsc/mngeu, a posthumous work, appeared in 1884.^

Much as I owe to Mannhardt, I owe still more to
my friend Professor W. Robertson Smith. My interest
in the early history of society was first excited by the
works of Dr. E. B. Tylor, which opened up a mental
vista undreamed of by me before. But it is a long
step from a lively interest in a subject to a systematic
study of it ; and that I took this step is due to the
influence of my friend W. Robertson Smith. The
debt which I owe to the vast stores of his knowledge,
the abundance and fertility of his ideas, and his
unwearied kindness, can scarcely be overestimated.
Those who know his writings may form some, though
a very inadequate, conception of the extent to which I
have been influenced by him. The views of sacrifice
set forth in his article " Sacrifice " in the Encyclopaedia

1 For the sake of brevity I have Jioggefiivolf {i\\e references are to the
sometimes, in the notes, referred to pages of the first edition), Korndd-
Mannhardt's works respectively as monen, B. A'., A. IV. F., and AI. F.


B^'itannica, and further developed in his recent work,
The Religion of the Semites, mark a new departure in
the historical study of religion, and ample traces of
them will be found in this book. Indeed the central
idea of my essay — the conception of the slain god — is
derived directly, I believe, from my friend. But it is
due to him to add that he is in no way responsible for
the general explanation which I have offered of the
custom of slaying the god. He has read the greater
part of the proofs in circumstances which enhanced the
kindness, and has made many valuable suggestions
which I have usually adopted ; but except where he is
cited by name, or where the views expressed coincide
with those of h'is published works, he is not to be
regarded as necessarily assenting to any of the theories
propounded in this book.

The works of Professor G. A. Wilken of Leyden
have been of great service in directing me to the best
original authorities on the Dutch East Indies, a very
important field to the ethnologist. To the courtesy
of the Rev. Walter Gregor, M.A., of Pitsligo, I am
indebted for some interesting communications which
will be found acknowledged in their proper places.
Mr. Francis Darwin has kindly allowed me to consult
him on some botanical questions. The manuscript
authorities to which I occasionally refer are answers
to a list of ethnological questions which I am circu-
lating. Most of them will, I hope, be published in
i]\& Jotirnal of the Anthropological InstitzUe.

The drawing of the Golden Bough which adorns
the cover is from the pencil of my friend Professor J.
H. Middleton. The constant interest and sympathy


which he has shown in the progress of the book
have been a great help and encouragement to me in
writing it.

The Index has been compiled by Mr. A. Rogers,
of the University Library, Cambridge.


Trinity College, Cambridge,
Wi March 1890.





1. The Arician Grove .

2. Primitive man and the supernatural

3. Incarnate gods

4. Tree-worship . . . .

5. Tree-worship in antiquity






1. Royal and priestly taboos ....

2. The nature of the soul ....

3. Royal and priestly taboos {contimied)





, pp. 213-409

I. Killing the divine king . . . . . .213

2. KiUing the tree-spirit


3. Carrying out Death .


4. Adonis


5. Attis .


6. Osiris .


7. Dionysus


8. Demeter and Proserpine


9, Lityerses




" The still glassy lake that sleeps
Beneath Aricia's trees —
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain."


§ I. — The Arician Grove

Who does not know Turner's picture of the Golden
Bough ? The scene, suffused with the golden glow
of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner
steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural
landscape, is a dream-like vision of the little wood-
land lake of Nemi, " Diana's Mirror," as it was called
by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm
water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills,
can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian
villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally
Italian palazzo whose terraced gardens descend steeply
to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even the
solitariness of the scene. Dian herself might still
linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these wood-
lands wild.



In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene
of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern
shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on
which the modern village of Nemi is perched, stood
the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis,
or Diana of the Wood.^ The lake and the grove
were sometimes known as the lake and grove of
Aricia.- But the town of Aricia (the modern La
Riccia) was situated about three miles off, at the foot
of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent
from the lake, which lies in a small crater-like hollow
on the mountain side. In this sacred grove there
grew a certain tree round which at any time of the
day and probably far into the night a strange figure
might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a
drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him
as if every instant he expected to be set upon by an
enemy. ^ He was a priest and a murderer ; and the
man for whom he looked was sooner or later to
murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead.
Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for
the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying
the priest, and having slain him he held office till he
was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.

This strange rule has no parallel in classical
antiquity, and cannot be explained from it. To find
an explanation we must go farther afield. No one will
probably deny that such a custom savours of a barbar-

1 The site was excavated in 18S5 ^ Qyid, Fasti, vi. 756; Cato quoted

by Sir John Savile Lumley, English by Priscian, see Peter's Zi'/j^r/k-.v^^wa;/.

ambassador at Rome. For a general Fragineiita, p. 52 (lat. ed.); Statius,

description of the site and excavations, Sylv. iii. i, 56.

see the Athenaeum, loth October 1S85. ^ ^'■(pVPV^ 0^" f""''"' °-fh TrepiaKoirQi' ras

For details of the finds see Bulletino i-KiQka^is, eroifjios a./ji.vvecrdai, is Strabo's

deir Institnto di Corrispondenza Archeo- description (v. 3, 12), who may have

logica, 1885, pp. 149 sqq., 225 sqq. seen him "pacing there alone."


ous age and, surviving into imperial times, stands out
in striking isolation from the polished Italian society of
the day, like a primeval rock rising from a smooth-
shaven lawn. It is the very rudeness and barbarity of
the custom which allow us a hope of explaining it.
For recent researches into the early history of man
have revealed the essential similarity with which, under
many superficial differences, the human mind has
elaborated its first crude philosophy of life. Accord-
ingly if we can show that a barbarous custom, like that
of the priesthood of Nemi, has existed elsewhere ; if we
can detect the motives which led to its institution ; if
we can prove that these motives have operated widely,
perhaps universally, in human society, producing in
varied circumstances a variety of institutions specifically
different but generically alike ; if we can show, lastly,
that these very motives, with some of their derivative
institutions, were actually at work in classical antiquity ;
then we may fairly infer that at a remoter age the same
motives gave birth to the priesthood of Nemi. Such
an inference, in default of direct evidence as to how the
priesthood did actually arise, can never amount to
demonstration. But it will be more or less probable
according to the degree of completeness with which it
fulfils the conditions indicated above. The object of
this book is, by meeting these conditions, to offer a
fairly probable explanation of the priesthood of Nemi.
I begin by setting forth the few facts and legends
which have come down to us on the subject. According
to one story the worship of Diana at Nemi was insti-
tuted by Orestes, who, after killing Thoas, King of the
Tauric Chersonese (the Crimea), fled with his sister to
Italy, bringing with him the image of the Tauric Diana.
The bloody ritual which legend ascribed to that goddess


is familiar to classical readers ; it is said that every
stranger who landed on the shore was sacrificed on her
altar. But transported to Italy, the rite assumed a
milder form. Within the sanctuary at Nemi grew a
certain tree of which no branch might be broken.
Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he
could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt en-
titled him to fight the priest in single combat, and if he
slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of King
of the Wood {Rex Nemoj^ensis). Tradition averred
that the fateful branch was that Golden Bough which, at
the Sibyl's bidding, Aeneas plucked before he essayed
the perilous journey to the world of the dead. The
flight of the slave represented, it was said, the flight
of Orestes ; his combat with the priest was a reminis-
cence of the human sacrifices once offered to the Tauric
Diana. This rule of succession by the sword was
observed down to imperial times ; for amongst his
other freaks Caligula, thinking that the priest of Nemi
had held office too long, hired a more stalwart ruffian
to slay him.^

Of the worship of Diana at Nemi two leading
features can still be made out. First, from the votive-
oflerings found in modern times on the site, it appears
that she was especially worshipped by women desirous
of children or of an easy delivery.- Second, fire seems

1 Virgil, ^t?;;. vi. 136 j<7$'. ; Servius, " Ecce suburbanae tcmplum nemorale

ad I. ; Strabo, v. 3, 12; Pausanias, ii. Dianae,

27 ; Solinus, ii. 11; Suetonius, Call- Partaque per gladios regna nocente

gula, 35. For the title "King of the manu."

Wood," see Suetonius, I.e. ; and com- 2 Biilletino delC Insiituto, 1885, p.

pare Statius, Sydv. 111. i, 55 sq.— ^^^ ^^_ . jnhenaeiivi, loth October

" Jamque dies aderat, profugis cum xegi- 1885; Preller, Romische Mythologie,'^

hns apiuvi ;_ ^17. Of these votive offerings

Fumat Aricinum T, tviae nemus; " ^^^^^^ represent women with children in

Ovid, Fasti, iii. 271, "Regna tenent their arms ; one represents a deUvery,

fo7-tesqtie viann, pedibicsque fugaces ; " ^^^^
id. Ars atn. i. 259 sq, —


to have played a foremost part in her ritual. For
during her annual festival, celebrated at the hottest time
of the year, her grove was lit up by a multitude of
torches, whose ruddy glare was reflected by the waters
of the lake ; and throughout the length and breadth of
Italy the day was kept with holy rites at every domestic
hearth.^ Moreover, women whose prayers had been
heard by the goddess brought lighted torches to the
grove in fulfilment of their vows.- Lastly, the title of
Vesta borne by the Arician Diana ^ points almost
certainly to the maintenance of a perpetual holy fire in
her sanctuary.

At her annual festival all young people went through
a purificatory ceremony in her honour ; dogs were
crowned ; and the feast consisted of a young kid, wine,
and cakes, served up piping hot on platters of leaves.^

But Diana did not reign alone in her grove at
Nemi. Two lesser divinities shared her forest sanctu-
ary. One was Egeria, the nymph of the clear water
which, bubbling from the basaltic rocks, used to fall in
graceful cascades into the lake at the place called Le
Mole.^ According to one story the grove was first
consecrated to Diana by a Manius Egerius, who was
the ancestor of a long and distinguished line. Hence
the proverb " There are many Manii at Ariciae."
Others explained the proverb very differently. They
said it meant that there were a great many ugly and

^ Statius, Sylv. iii. I, ^2 sqq. From ^ Ovid, Fasti, iii. 269; Propertius,

Martial, xii. 67, it has been inferred iii. 24 (30), 9 sq. ed. Paley.

that the Arician festival fell on the 13th ^ inscript. Lat. ed. Orelli, No. 1455.

of August. The inference, however, * Statius, I.e. ; Gratius Faliscus, v.

does not seem conclusive. Statius's 483 sqq.

expression is :— ^ Athenaeiini, loth October 1885.

" Tempuserat, caeli cum ardeniissimus The water was diverted a few years


ago to supply Albano. For Egeria
Acer anhelantes incendit Sirius agros. ' ' sqq.

Incumbit terris, ictusque Hyperione compare Strabo, v. 3, 12; Ovid,
multo Fasti, iii. 273 sqq. ; id. Met. xv. 487


deformed people, and they referred to the word Mania
which meant a bogey or bugbear to frighten children.^

The other of these minor deities was Virbius.
Legend had it that Virbius was the youthful Greek
hero Hippolytus, who had been killed by his horses
on the sea-shore of the Saronic Gulf. Him, to please
Diana, the leech Aesculapius brought to life again by
his simples. But Jupiter, indignant that a mortal man
should return from the gates of death, thrust down
the meddling leech himself to Hades ; and Diana, for
the love she bore Hippolytus, carried him away to
Italy and hid him from the angry god in the dells
of Nemi, where he reigned a forest king under
the name of Virbius. Horses were excluded from
the grove and sanctuary, because horses had killed
Hippolytus." Some thought that Virbius was the
sun. It was unlawful to touch his image.^ His
worship was cared for by a special priest, the Flamen

Such then are the facts and theories bequeathed to
us by antiquity on the subject of the priesthood of
Nemi. From materials so slight and scanty it is
impossible to extract a solution of the problem. It
remains to try whether the survey of a wider field may
not yield us the clue we seek. The questions to be
answered are two : first, why had the priest to slay his
predecessor ? and second, why, before he slew him, had
he to pluck the Golden Bough '^. The rest of this
book will be an attempt to answer these questions.

1 Festus, p. 145, ed. Miiller ; Schol. id. Met. xv. 497 sgq.; Pausanias,
on Persius, vi. 56 ap. Jahn on Macro- ii. 27.

bius, i. 7, 35. 3 Servius on Virgil, Am. vii. 776.

* Inscript. Lot. ed. Orelli, Nos.

2 Virgil, Ae>i. vii. 761 sqq.; Ser- 2212,4022. The inscription No. 1457
vius, ad I. ; Ovid, Fasti, iii. 265 sq. ; (Orelli) is said to be spurious.


§ 2, — Primitive vian and the siipernatiLral

The first point on which we fasten is the priest's
title. Why was he called the King of the Wood ?
why was his office spoken of as a Kingdom ? ^

The union of a royal title with priestly duties was
common in ancient Italy and Greece. At Rome and
in other Italian cities there was a priest called the
Sacrificial King or King of the Sacred Rites i^Rex
Sacrificulus or Rex Sacroncm), and his wife bore the
title of Queen of the Sacred Rites.- In republican
Athens the second magistrate of the state was called
the King, and his wife the Queen ; the functions of
both were religious." Many other Greek democracies
had titular kings, whose duties, so far as they are
known, seem to have been priestly.^ At Rome the
tradition was that the Sacrificial King had been
appointed after the expulsion of the kings in order to
offer the sacrifices which had been previously offered
by the kings.^ In Greece a similar view appears to
have prevailed as to the origin of the priestly kings.*^
In itself the view is not improbable, and it is borne out
by the example of Sparta, the only purely Greek state
which retained the kingly form of government in
historical times. For in Sparta all state sacrifices were
offered by the kings as descendants of the god,^ This
combination of priestly functions with royal authority
is familiar to every one. Asia Minor, for example,
was the seat of various great religious capitals peopled

1 See above, p. 4, note 1. ^ Livy, ii. 2, i ; Dionysius Halic.

2 Marquardt, Romische Staatsver- iv. 74, 4.

walhmg, iii.2 321 sqq. '' Demosthenes, contra Neaer. § 74,

3 G. Gilbert, Hamilmch dcr griechi- p. 1 370. Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 63.
schen Staatsalterthi'uner, i. 241 sq. "' Xenophon, Reptib. Lac. c. 15, cp.

^ Gilbert, op. cit. ii. 323 j</. id. 13 ; Aristotle, Pol. iii. 14, 3.


by thousands of "sacred slaves," and ruled by pontiffs
who wielded at once temporal and spiritual authority,
like the popes of mediaeval Rome, Such priest-ridden
cities were Zela and Pessinus.^ Teutonic kings, again,
in the old heathen days seem to have stood in the
position, and exercised the powers of high priests.-
The Emperors of China offer public sacrifices, the
details of which are regulated by the ritual books." It
is needless, however, to multiply examples of what is
the rule rather than the exception in the early history
of the kingship.

But when we have said that the ancient kings were
commonly priests also, we are far from having ex-
hausted the religious aspect of their office. In those
days the divinity that hedges a king was no empty
form of speech but the expression of a sober belief.
Kings were revered, in many cases not merely as
priests, that is, as intercessors between man and god,
but as themselves gods, able to bestow upon their
subjects and worshippers those blessings which are
commonly supposed to be beyond the reach of man,
and are sought, if at all, only by prayer and sacrifice
offered to superhuman and invisible beings. Thus
kings are often expected to give rain and sunshine in
due season, to make the crops grow, and so on.
Strange as this expectation appears to us, it is quite
of a piece with early modes of thought. A savage
hardly conceives the distinction commonly drawn by
more advanced peoples between the natural and the
supernatural. To him the world is mostly worked
by supernatural agents, that is, by personal beings

1 Strabo, xii. 3, 37. 5, 3 ; cp. xi. 4, ^ Grimm, Deutsche Rechtsalterthihn-

7. xii. 2, 3. 2, 6. 3, 31 sq. 3, 34. 8, er, p. 243.

9. 8, 14. But see Encyc. Brit., art. ^ See theZ/-A7 (Legge's translation),

" Priest," xix. 729. fassim.


acting on impulses and motives like his own, liable
like him to be moved by appeals to their pity, their
fears, and their hopes. In a world so conceived he
sees no limit to his power of influencing the course of
nature to his own advantage. Prayers, promises, or
threats may secure him fine weather and an abundant

Online LibraryJames George FrazerThe golden bough; a study in comparative religion (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 33)