The once and future king

Much like the reception that greeted Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” in 1979, the publication of “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion“, by Sir James Frazer, in 1890, caused horror and dismay amongst a large portion of the British public.

Sir James Frazer, a Scottish social anthropologist, with a particular interest in ancient myths and rituals , had in “The Golden Bough” sought to define the shared elements of religious belief. In particular through their common origins in ancient fertility cults that revolved around the periodic sacrifice of a sacred king.

In doing so Frazer, was one of the first to offer a modernist critique of Christianity. In that he openly discussed the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, dispassionately as a cultural phenomenon, by comparing it with other dying and reviving gods who who were executed at the harvest, and were reincarnated in the spring, like the Egyptian deity Osiris.

Frazer did what Monty Python were to do a century later. Which was to appear to question a fundamental part of the dominant culture.

The social metanarrative that incorporates Christianity as incontrovertible articles of faith.

In many ways, the reaction to both “The Golden Bough” and the “The Life of Brian” are rather surprising. After all Christian religious belief in Britain has been steadily declining ever since the start of the industrial revolution.

As Karen Armstrong says in her exceptional critical study, “A Short History of Mythology”, a myth “is an event that – in some sense – happened once, but which also happens all the time”.

With the rise of Western science, Protestant reformers began to take the myth out of Christian ritual: after Martin Luther, the Eucharist became “only” a symbol of Christ’s body and Christ’s sacrificial death became “simply a memorial of a bygone event.”

By the time Nietzsche had got around to proclaiming that God was dead, he was speaking the truth, in a sense. “Without myth, cult, ritual and ethical living, a sense of the sacred dies,” says Armstrong.

In contrast, Frazer’s work stresses the common elements of religious and mythological beliefs that can be traced back to the rites of ancient fertility cults. These rites took the form of sympathetic magic, i.e that forces of nature would be influenced by the example acted out in the ritual.

The specific area that interested Frazer was that which involved the worship and sacrifice of a sacred king. This king was the incarnation of a solar deity who each year underwent a mystic marriage to the Earth Goddess, and who was executed at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring.

The study begins with the strange story of the “Rex Nemorensis” (often translated as “The King of the Wood”) who was the high priest of the Goddess Diana at her shrine on the Northern shores of Lake Nemi in Italy. Here in the centre of the sacred wood, the priest constantly stood guard to a sacred tree, and if anyone broke off a branch (the Golden Bough itself ) they had the right to challenge the priest to mortal combat. And if they prevailed, they would in turn became the next king, for as long as they could defeat any challengers.

This priesthood of Nemi was immortalised in Macaulay’s poem, “The Lays of Ancient Rome”:

“Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain…”

This tradition continued well into the historical period and was eventually outlawed by the Emperor Caligula. But Frazer saw this as the vestiges of religions where a sacred king must periodically be slain by his rival as part of a fertility rite

We recognise this theme in sources as varied as the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris and the English “John Barleycorn”:

There was three men come out o’ the west their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die,
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throwed clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn was dead.

Ironically, the popular hymn, “We Plough the Fields and Scatter“, is often sung at Harvest Festival to the same tune as “John Barleycorn must die”.


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