The Golden Bough begins like a good mystery. It offers a riddle, some tantalizing clues, and a striking description of long-forgotten scenes and events. Frazer explains that along the Appian Way, the ancient road that runs from Rome to the villages of central Italy, there is a small town named Aricia; near it, in a wooded grove by the lake called Nemi, stands the ruin of a temple dedicated by the Romans to Diana, goddess of the hunt, as well as of both fertility and childbirth. In the happy days of the empire, this lakeside shrine with its woodland was both a country resort and a place of pilgrimage. Citizens of Rome traveled often to the site, especially in the midsummer, to celebrate a yearly festival of fire. It was too all appearances a restful, civilized, and lovely place. But the woods at the lakeshore also held a secret.
The Roman poets told of a second god, Virbius, who was also worshipped at the temple. He was sometimes identified with the young Greek hero Hippolytus, who, according to other myths, had been murdered by one of the gods in a fit of anger, only to be restored to life by Diana, who then chose to hide him here at her temple. Virbius was represented by a very mysterious figure, a man who was understood actually to live in the woods and was said to be both a priest and a king. He took it as his duty to keep constant watch not only over Diana’s temple but also over a sacred tree that grew in the forest—an oak with a distinctive yellow branch, or “golden bough.” The man bore the title Rex Nemorenis, Lake Nemi’s “King of the Wood.” Though obviously a human being, this king was thought also to be a god; he was at once both the divine lover of the goddess Diana and the animating spirit of the sacred oak tree around which he stood guard.
Strange as this King of the Wood himself may seem, the way in which he acquired his position was still stranger. It came by way of a murder.
Legend held that this priest-king had taken over the wood by putting to death the previous one, and that he too would keep his power only as long as he remains vigilant and strong, ready in a moment to defend his very life against other would-be kings who might try to seize his place and power. To keep his life and rule, the king had constantly to walk the temple woods, sword in hand, waiting for the approach of any would be a assailant. should his guard fail or his strength weekend, and intruder might at any moment breakthrough, duel the king to his death, and tear away the golden bough, which then entitled the victor to both the sexual favors of the goddess Diana and the priestly rule of the Woodland. On the victor also, however, feel the same weiring burden of self-defense-- the need to guard the oak without rest and to search the forest for the threatening form of any new rival who might approach, ready to kill, and eager himself to become the next King of the Wood.
...[Frazer's] purpose was rather to set the stage for his study by unfolding a single, sharp contrast—one that discloses the outline of an earlier, more brutal state of humanity lying just below the surface of the cultures we like to think of as civilized.
How, he asks, could there be a place as beautiful as the grove at Nemi, a temple and grounds so loved by visitors for its peace and healing renewal, yet at the same time so steeped in a heritage of savage brutality? How is it that a center given over to the comforts of religion could be the stage for a ritual murder? That is a riddle we should very much like to see explained.
In searching for solutions, however, Frazer tells us that we will get nowhere if we keep only to the evidence available from the days of classical Greek and Roman civilization. The pastimes of cultivated Romans who visited Diana’s temple offer no clues to explain the shadowy, foreboding personage of the King of the Wood. To account for such a figure, we must look elsewhere—into the deeper prehistoric past, when savage ancestors of the Romans walked the very same woods and shores centuries before Diana’s temple was ever built. If it should be that among these much earlier peoples we can find an obscure custom or belief that continued down to Roman times, if we should discover one of Tylor’s “survivals,” then we might very well have a way to identify the King of the Wood and solve his deadly mystery.
apologies, usually i try to keep the posts as pithy as possible; this is as concise i could.
double apologies, but you will have to seek out the answer to the intriguing legend of the king of the wood and the golden bough all on your own.
hint: the north remembers.