Lecture 3 - Frazer
Thursday, Jan. 17/2013
Frazer’sApproach to Myth
The Golden Bough is very important for the entire school of ritual theory. Frazer interprets a
whole lot of myth and many stories are interpreted as distorted reflections of rituals. Particular to
the Golden Bough involving death and rebirth.
Orestes fleeing to Italy to the grove ofArtemis
Hippolytus dying and then brought back to life and flees to Italy where he is established as King
of the Grove in the cult of Diana.
Hippolytus specifically involves violent death and rebirth
Frazer would say that these myth explore the primitive rebirth (ritual slaying of old king, then
symbolically reborn in the new king)
The idea that myth reflects or reenacts ritual is central to Frazer’s thinking in Golden Bough.
He does not present myth as subordinate, but after him it is thought that myth is developed after
ritual in order to explain.
For Frazer ritual and myth can start out side by side: the cyclical birth of fertility in the natural
world and then death and regeneration. The ritual and myth related to can be connected to the
fundamental process. The myth reflects your obsession with and ritual ensures its success.
BUT for Frazer, ritual is fundamentally conservative. Myth is not.
This is because ritual can involve a set of steps which can be repeated identically generation after
generation. But stories within an oral tradition cannot be told identically - they change with every
Another underlying characteristic of Frazer: ritual is expensive, talk is cheap.
Frazer would tie ritual into fundamental life and death situations, whereas myth, Frazer would
say it allows freedom in speculation. Myth can be much more wide-ranging.
Myth is less reliable according to Frazer.He would rather compare rituals, even from widely
Myth as we see it in Frazer is distinctly secondary, but the whole point of the Golden Bough is
not to explain myth, so Csapo saying it fails in explaining myth is smily incorrect; he is
explaining ritual. Where Frazer is concerned to talk about myth per se is in his translation of the
Library ofApollodorus. It is a lot more subtle than Csapo gives him credit for.
How does he break myth down?
Three categories of traditional stories promoted by Bascom:
These three categories are adopted by Frazer
Myth for Frazer is involved with explaining natural phenomena
Legend is recounting the history of real people/places in an oral tradition
Folktale is imaginative entertainment.
Where do our modes of interpretation come from?
We start with reason, from which flows myth (an attempt to give a rational explanation of myth).
Then we have the basic faculty of memory, which is where legend comes from.
Finally we have imagination which gives us a folktale Lecture 3 - Frazer
Thursday, Jan. 17/2013
But all of these operate at the same level as being a primitive human attempt to explain the world
Each of them has the corresponding modern practice
Reason - Science
Memory - history
Imagination - romance
For Frazer these modern practices happen after myth, legend and folktale and draw a line
between the primitive and modern
Prof thinks this is a shortcoming
For Frazer Myth is the wrong way, Science is the right. Thought people viewed Myth as
inadequate and so adopted science.
But as the Greeks developed what was modern is rooted in mythic heritage - so the line cannot
be so definite.
one way of looking at legends as looking at heroes as faded gods.
Achilles was once a god but has become a mortal in stories
Euhemerism: Euhemeris in antiquity proposed that the gods were originally just great men who
became divinities. They were heroes who became gods
Frazer sees the transition of Great man -> Hero -> God.
The idea of this transition is very appealing because it ties in with his own thinking of religion:
Magic - Religion - Science
Agreat leader of magic becomes invested with semi-divine characteristics which culminates in
the idea of the incarnate god, which takes a life of its own, the god having an independent
This is dear to Frazer’s view of the relationship between Magic and Religion
Heracles is an example of someone who bridges the mortal/divine realm
He integrated into the system of mortals but at the same time a god
The idea that he ascends to god-hood during his final agonizing moments when he is burned
alive on a pyre. This burns away his mortal side and he becomes a god.
Frazer warns agains Euhemerism.
For him, myth springs from curiosity, guided by reason. So then Euhemerism is backwards.
Then he has a passage on over-analyzing: stories can suffer from dissection. Booktales are pure
fictions not to be didactic but to be amusing.
Our curiosity needs to be fulfilled by stories.
Grove of Nemi
Frazer’s description of Nemi explains why Virgil would put it in hisAeneid.
Agolden bough reading of theAeneid:
This is written in the 20s BC after a century of civil war and the fall of the Roman Republic
Old troy is gone just like the old rome is gone. But from the ashes something new and great will
Renewal and destruction is key to the grove of Nemi
This set of rituals would be a very good symbolic vehicle for him to express his views
The Grove is a going concern Lecture 3 - Frazer
Thursday, Jan. 17/2013
We know that the slave who hold title of Rex Nemorensis, we know that he aroused popular
interest: he’s a bit of a rockstar
Caligula was jealous of a Rex who managed to hold of all challengers. He is fed up with him so
he hires an assassin to go into the grove to knock him off. Caligula would not have done that if
there wasn’t popular interest. So this is a set of rituals that are still meaningful for the Roman
people in terms of their need to guarantee fertility. Vergil could expect his readers to pick up on
details associated with the Grove
Ancient commentary: public opinion holds the view that this bough in vergil represents the
branch at Nemi
The episode of the “golden bough” occurs in the book 6, at the epic’s midpoint. This is a
darkpoint forAeneas: fall of troy, death of father, temptation of Dido, loss of ships
Aglorious future awaits him in Italy but it is only through bitter struggle
In preparation he undergoes the symbolic death and rebirth of databases (common motif in
Ahero’s descent int (and return from) the underworld
He does this to obtain enlightenment from his father’s ghost
Modelled on a similar scene in Odyssey, Book 11
Bu there are significant differences:
Precondition for Odysseus visit: various sacrificial offerings to the dead
Preconditions forAeneas’visit: 1) to obtain the golden bough 2) Ritual burn a newly deceased
comrade (Misenus) on a funeral pyre
Misenus is cremated in a massive conflagration, for which all his grieving crewmates cooperate
in felling an ancient grove
This is a massive public mourning ritual
Compare this to the annual fire-festival at Nemi and compare Frazer’s hypothesized burning of
the newly slain Rex Numerousness
Compares to the pyre of Julius Caesar - “The Dying God”
Caesar’s spirit lives on. His adopted son Octavian takes the name of Caesar to rally caesar’s
veterans to his cause. In essence he became caesar.And Caesar’s spirit was believed to ascend in
Vergil explains the bough as being “sacred to the underworld’s Juno”. It is light in the darkness.
“When the first bough’s wrenched off, it’s replaced...by another growing identically golden”
Vergil compares it to Mistletoe and that the life-force of mistletoe continues (it does not die in
Charon is a figure of death, suitable to be the ferryman. The golden bough tames him.
OnceAeneas arrives in Italy there is a king Latinus who makes an alliance withAeneas, tries to
marry his daughter to him. Latinus people are starting war with Trojans. Latinus is seen as not
being able to control his people. He is old, weak, out of touch.Awar btweenAeneas and Latinus
is Virgil’s choice - the narrative is not always like this - he wants to suggest that the old regime
of Latium needs to be swept aside, replaced by the new vigor ofAeneas and his band of hardy
As Th. Eold, rotten, corrupt senatorial regim of the Roman Republic (led by Pompey) deserved
to be replaced by Caesar andAugustus Lecture 3 - Frazer
Thursday, Jan. 17/2013
As an old Rex Nemorensis deserves, needs to be slain by his vigorous young successors in order
to preserve the land’s fertility
Vergil presents Latinus as being tied to trees. His home is like a sacred grove. So he is the Rex
Another adversary in second half of poem:
Aeneas vs. Turnus
Aeneas’principal antagonist in the second half of the epic is not the decrepit Latinus but the
young warrior Turnus
He is not old himself but belongs to an old order
Aeneas conflict with Turnus is likewise configured in terms and images reminiscent of the rituals
And turnus is an anachronism, standing in the way of Roman progress
In order to bring death to Turnus (and thus bring life to Th. Eenw Roman order),Aenas must first
pull out his wooden spear, which has become stuck in a tree-stump sacred to a local native deity
Duh, the bough!
Faunus helps the spear get stuck for Turnus, bu his mum Venus strides in and takes it out