An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 35

[Pg 80]


"Here we remark the nimbleness of Mr Frazer's method. In vol. i, 4, he had said: 'Tradition averred that the fatal branch' (in the grove near Aricia) 'was that golden bough which, at the Sibyl's bidding, Æneas plucked before he assayed the perilous journey to the world of the dead.' But I have tried to show that, according to Servius, this identification of two absolutely distinct boughs, neither similar nor similarly situated, was the conjecture of 'public opinion' in an age divided from Virgil's date by four hundred years.

"In the space between vol. i, 4, and i, 231, the averment of tradition, as Mr Frazer calls it, the inference of the curious, as I suppose, to the effect that Virgil's golden branch and the Arician branch were identical, has become matter of fact for Mr Frazer. 'Since the King of the Wood could only be assailed by him who had plucked the Golden Bough,' he says; with what follows.

"But who has told us anything about the breaking, by a fugitive slave, near Aricia, of a golden bough? Nobody, as far as I am aware, has mentioned the circumstance. After an interval of four hundred years, the golden bough of Virgil is only brought by Servius into connection with the wood at Aricia, because Servius, and the public opinion of his age, knew about a branch there, and did not know anything about Virgil's branch of gold.

"That branch is a safe passport to Hades. It is sacred, not to a tree-spirit named Diana, but to Infernal Juno, or Proserpine. It cannot be broken by a fugitive slave, or anybody else; no, nor can it be cut with edge of iron. None but he whom the Fates call can break it. It yields at a touch of the predestined man, and another golden branch grows instantly in its place.

"Primo avolso non deficit alter
... Ipse volens facilisque sequetur,
Si te fata vocant.

"Virgil's bough thus answers to the magical sword set in a stone in the Arthurian legends, in a tree-trunk in the Volsunga[Pg 81] Saga, as Mr H.S.C. Everard reminds me. All the knights may tug vainly at the sword, but you can draw it lightly, si te fata vacant, if you are the predestined king, if you are Arthur or Sigmund. When Æneas bears this bough, Charon recognises the old familiar passport. Other living men, in the strength of this talisman, have already entered the land of the dead.

"Ille admirans venerabile donum
Fatalis virgæ, longo post tempore visum.

"I have collected all these extraordinary attributes of Virgil's bough (in origin, a suppliant's bough, perhaps), because, as far as I notice, Mr Frazer lays no stress on the many peculiarities which differentiate Virgil's bough from any casual branch of the tree at Aricia, and connect it with the mystic sword. The 'general reader' (who seldom knows Latin) needs, I think, to be told precisely what Virgil's bough was. Nothing can be more unlike a branch, any accessible branch, of the Arician tree, than is Virgil's golden bough. It does not grow at Aricia. It is golden. It is not connected with a tree-spirit, but is dear to Proserpine. (I easily see, of course, that Proserpine may be identified with a tree-spirit.) Virgil's branch is not to be plucked by fugitive slaves. It is not a challenge, but a talismanic passport to Hades, recognised by Charon, who has not seen a specimen for ever so long. It is instantly succeeded, if plucked, by another branch of gold, which the Arician twig is not. So I really do not understand how Mr Frazer can identify Virgil's golden bough with an ordinary branch of a tree at Aricia, which anybody could break, though only runaway slaves, strongly built, had an interest in so doing."[27]


The Golden Bough is an exhaustive repository of mythic and anthropological fact. It has been criticized[28] as leaning too much to the side of the 'stratification' theory—that is, the belief in the existence of certain fixed religious conditions at different epochs of man's experience and the labelling of these by such names as 'animism,' 'totemism,' and the like. At least,

[Pg 82]

Thus says the Quarterly, So savage and Tartarly.

The present writer cannot subscribe to such criticism. It should be plain that in the earliest times the animistic and pre-animistic types of religious experience must have held single and undisputed sway among the whole of mankind. 'Totemism' and 'fetishism' are merely animism in another form, and in effect there are only two great types of primitive religious belief, the animistic and the polytheistic, the latter differing from the former merely because animism, or personalization of all phenomena, animal or vegetable, developed into anthropomorphism, which saw man's nature in the gods. It is admitted that the lesser stages of animism overlap each other in numerous instances, but one outstanding type gives shape to most systems of belief capable of classification, lesser types serving only to throw the one great one into relief. Thus Greek religion was unquestionably an anthropomorphic polytheism; the Mexican a polytheism with survivals of totemism and fetishism; and so on. But although the great central type permits us to give a broad classification to any religion, it is the lesser attributes which help us to pigeon-hole it properly. Thus we might class the majority of American religions as polytheisms newly emerged or emerging from animistic influences; but such a general definition would be imperfect because the combination of the bird-and-serpent myth has provided America with many outstanding divine forms in some measure different from gods evolved elsewhere. Monotheism is a religious condition so rare that it may be altogether discounted in classifying primitive religion. These conclusions hedge between the Frazerian view that religious experience is capable of more or less concrete classification, and the bewildering, chaotic opinion that classification should be entirely discountenanced in religious science. While we may hesitate to speak with Sir James Frazer of such hard and fast periods as an "age of magic" or an "age of religion," we can subscribe to "anthropomorphism superimposed upon a previous theriomorphism or theriolatry," a description at which Sir James Frazer's reviewer cavils. He would doubtless tell us that many religious types coexisted in that age. Quite so; but[Pg 83] were they as distinctive, as widespread, and as illustrative of prevailing conditions in such-and-such a region at such-and-such a period as the above?


Sir James Frazer is further accused of employing the universal comparative method at the expense of the 'adjacent' method, the method which studies the religion of a certain people in its own sphere. It is often pretended nowadays that more merit accrues to the pursuit of this form of anthropological science than to the comparative method. We do not deny that a very considerable degree of training, experience, and erudition is required to achieve success in it, but the assumption that it in any way approaches in magnitude the task which the comparative student proposes to himself is absurd. The greatest mythological studies are comparative in character. True, many works on particular mythologies are of outstanding excellence and charm; but students of comparative religion still await a work dealing with an isolated mythology of the calibre of The Golden Bough, mistaken as are many of its premises, Payne's