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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 33

According to Frazer, too, the priest of Nemi was of a class regarded as divine. He says (vol. i, p. 231): "Thus the cult of the Arician grove was essentially that of a tree-spirit or sylvan deity. But our examination of European folk-custom demonstrated that a tree-spirit is frequently represented by a living person, who is regarded as an embodiment of the tree-spirit and possessed of its fertilising powers; and our previous survey of primitive belief proved that this conception of a god incarnate in a living man is common among rude races, Further, we have seen that the living person who is believed to embody in himself the tree-spirit is often called a king, in which respect, again, he strictly represents the tree-spirit. For the sacred cedar of the Gilgit tribes is called, as we have seen, 'the Dreadful King'; and the chief forest god of the Finns, by name Tapio, represented as an old man with a brown beard, a high hat of fir-cones, and a coat of tree-moss, was styled the Wood King, Lord of the Woodland, Golden King of the Wood. May not then the King of the Wood in the Arician[Pg 77] grove have been, like the King of May, the Leaf King, the Grass King, and the like, an incarnation of the tree-spirit or spirit of vegetation? His title, his sacred office, and his residence in the grove all point to this conclusion, which is confirmed by his relation to the Golden Bough. For since the King of the Wood could only be assailed by him who had plucked the Golden Bough, his life was safe from assault so long as the bough, or the tree on which it grew, remained uninjured. In a sense, therefore, his life was bound up with that of the tree; and thus to some extent he stood to the tree in the same relation in which the incorporate or immanent tree-spirit stands to it."

LANG'S CRITICISM OF FRAZER'S THESIS

But Lang controverts these premises. He does not regard the priest of the Arician grove as a likely representative of a god of vegetation. "First," he says (I quote at length because of the importance of the passage), "let us ask what we know about this ghastly priest. Let us begin with the evidence of Virgil, in the Sixth Book of the Æneid (line 136 and so onwards). Virgil says nothing about the ghastly priest, or, in this place, about Diana, or the grove near Aricia. Virgil, indeed, tells us much about a bough of a tree, a golden branch, but as to the singular priest, nothing. But some four hundred years after Virgil's date (say A.D. 370), a commentator on Virgil, Servius, tried to illustrate the passage cited from the Æneid. He obviously knows nothing about Virgil's mystic golden bough, but he tells us that, in his own time, 'public opinion' (publica opinio) placed the habitat of Virgil's bough in the grove haunted by the ghastly priest, near Aricia. It is, in fact, not known whether Virgil invented his bough, with its extraordinary attributes, or took it from his rich store of antiquarian learning. It may have been a folklore belief, like Le Rameau d'Or of Madame d'Aulnoy's fairy-tale. Virgil's bough, as we shall see, has one folklore attribute in common with a mystic sword in the Arthurian cycle of romances, and in the Volsunga Saga. I think that Mr Frazer has failed to comment on this point. If I might hazard a guess as to Virgil's[Pg 78] branch, it is that, of old, suppliants approached gods or kings with boughs in their hands. He who would approach Proserpine carried, in Virgil, a bough of pure gold, which only the favoured and predestined suppliant could obtain, as shall be shown.

"In the four centuries between Virgil and Servius the meaning and source of Virgil's branch of gold were forgotten. But people, and Servius himself, knew of another bough, near Aricia, and located (conjecturally?) Virgil's branch of gold in that district. Servius, then, in his commentary on the Æneid, after the manner of annotators in all ages, talks much about the boughs of a certain tree in a certain grove, concerning which Virgil makes no remark. Virgil, as we shall see, was writing about a golden branch of very peculiar character. Knowing, like the public opinion of his age, something about quite other branches, and nothing about Virgil's branch, Servius tells us that, in the grove of Diana at Aricia, there grew a tree from which it was unlawful (non licebat) to break a bough. If any fugitive slave, however, could break a branch from this tree, he might fight the priest, taking his office if successful. In the opinion of Servius the temple was founded by Orestes, to the barbaric Diana of the Chersonese, whence he had fled after a homicide. That Diana received human sacrifices of all strangers who landed on her coasts. The rite of human sacrifice was, in Italy, commuted, Servius thinks, for the duel between the priest and the fugitive slave, Orestes having himself been a fugitive. The process is, first a Greek wanderer on a barbarous coast is in danger of being offered, as all outlanders were offered, to the local goddess. This rite was a form of xenelasia, an anti-immigrant statute. Compare China, the Transvaal, the agitation against pauper immigrants. Having escaped being sacrificed, and having killed the king in an unfriendly land, Orestes flies to Italy and appeases the cruel Diana by erecting her fane at Aricia. But, instead of sacrificing immigrants, he, or his successors, establishes a duel between the priest and any other fugitive slave. Servius then, not observing this, goes off into an allegorising interpretation of Virgil's branch, as worthless as all such interpretations always are.

[Pg 79]

"The story about Orestes appears to myself to be a late 'ætiological myth,' a story invented to explain the slaying of the slayer—which it does not do; in short, it is an hypothesis. The priesthood is open not to men flying the blood feud like Orestes, but only to runaway slaves. The custom introduced by Orestes was the sacrifice of outlanders, not of priests. The story has a doublette in Pausanias. According to Pausanias, Hippolytus was raised from the dead, and, in hatred of his father, and being a fugitive, he went and reigned at the Arician grove of the goddess.


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