30th April 1921.

In 1890, J.M.W.Turner painted the Golden Bough at Nemi, where as described in the Aeneid, Aeneas and Sybil present the Golden Bough to the gatekeeper of Hades to gain admittance.

It was Today in 1921 that [Sir] James Frazer was to reply in a letter from 1, Brick Court, Temple, London, to those, who in response to his work on anthropology, had announced that an annual Frazer Lectureship in social anthropology be established, in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool and Glasgow.(1)

Frazer’s monumental work on anthropology, The Golden Bough, opens with the ‘Priest of the Sacred Grove of Nemi’, stalking the woods with sword in hand ready to defend himself against any fugitive slave.

The slave’s intention to succeed the priest, could only be achieved if he killed his adversary, as well as managing to break a branch, containing the venerated mistletoe (Virgil’s ‘Golden Bough’), from the sacred oak. (2)


Painting of the Golden Bough by J.W.M. Turner

Painting of the Golden Bough by J.W.M. Turner

The Priest of Nemi is one example of ancient cults, many demonstrating systematic pagan myths concerned with fertility, life, death and rebirth.

So as with the Golden Bough, they relate to worship at a temple, death, and sacrifice of a sacred being, and hope of mortality, represented by the mistletoe, by gaining admittance to the underworld and reincarnation.

We see this in a wider field, from the Norse myths of Baldur, to those of the ancient Egyptian Osiris, celebrating the return of vegetation, but to die at harvest-time.

It is a theme running through the Greco-Roman Mysteries of Eleusius, Dionysus and Orpheus and the Roman tradition of the Unconquerable Sun, who is reincarnated in the spring, a god only to be appeased by sacrifice.

Later in this Pantheon, we see the belief of the divine nature of Emperors, as with Augustus, many of which were to be sacrificed in the name of the greater good.

We later see these ideas syncretized by the nascent Christians who saw Jesus not only as the true descendant of the Davidic line, but as God personified, then sacrificed.

On a wider scale, pagan tradition spoke of the ‘Year King’, the human victim who was chosen and then sacrificed, as winter turned to spring, and buried in the hope his body would return with the rising grain. Everyone could share in the rebirth by eating bread from the grain.

It was a tradition later celebrated in medieval Britain and elsewhere, where  folk tale and songs of John Barleycorn, the personification of the barley cereal, who dies so others can live by being eaten as bread; Frazer’s ‘Sympathetic Magic’, faint echoes of which we see today in harvest festivals.

(1) Frazer had trained as a barrister, but never practised.

(2) The revered tree of the pre-Christian Druids.

Ref: wikipedia.org/wik/James_George_Frazer.

Ref: netowne.com/strange/fairies.

Ref: sacred-texts.com ChXI customs connected with calendar.

Ref: wikipedia.org/Pic.Ref.

Ref: nemitonottingham.wordpress.com/diana-nemorensis-origin.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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