Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Golden Bough, Part Two: The Birth of Gods

Part One
In part one, we saw how the theory of imitative magic led to the ritual sacrifice of men in the role of gods of the land. As society grows in complexity, its theology develops with it. Old traditions begin to seem quaint and naïve. The reputation of the gods grows, as does the complexity of their mysteries, and finally their literal connection to things in the real world – to crops, kings and sacred animals – is broken altogether. In the stories of dying gods like Osiris, Attis, Adonis and Dionysus, we can see the shadows of Tim Finnegan and his successor, H. C. Earwicker.

But the humble, immanent origins of the gods is fossilised in the myths that surround them. Just like John Barleycorn in the old folksong, these human-shaped gods continue to re-enact the life cycle of corn. But new rationales must be invented to explain it. For example, Adonis is born from a tree because he originally was a tree. Demeter presents someone with a bowl of corn because originally, the corn presented in the worship of Demeter was literally the goddess herself. The confusing fuzziness of detail and intent in the Wake is not a Joycean invention, but an inherent feature of ancient myth.

Complicating matters further, a culture’s beliefs aren’t monolithic. So while the educated classes worship the new gods, an intuitive belief in animism persists among peasant farmers. They imagine new spirits of the corn, who eventually earn new names and eventually become new deities. Gods multiply and are forced to cohabit, becoming husbands and wives, parents and children. The character of the sacrifice ritual as the “eternal and pathetic contrast between youth and age” is dramatised in myths of family conflict (for example, the battle between Osiris’ son Set and his brother Horus).

The nature of sacrifice changes too. As the god drifts into the ether, the god-kings on Earth find suicide an increasingly onerous duty. They change the rules. Disturbingly, it was common for the king’s own sons to be killed in his place. Frazer tells of one Swedish king who killed nine of his sons until finally, a frail old man, he was prevented from sacrificing the last one, and died. Eventually the duty falls upon slaves and convicts, often after a short period acting in the king’s place. Later still, the actual death is left out of the proceeding entirely, and the man is banished, beaten, or ducked in the river.

The Tibetan Jalno is an especially interesting case. At each New Year, the ruler temporarily ceded his throne to the monk who bid the highest sum, who took the title of Jalno and ruled with absolute authority. At the end of his brief reign, a second substitute was chosen: a worthless beggar dressed in pantomime costume who went around the marketplace demanding alms, until finally, after a rigged game of chance with the Jalno, he was chased off into the mountains. If he died, people thought it a good omen.

The sacrifice of an animal undergoes a different change. The god eventually reaches a level of prestige that makes it seem absurd for a pig or a goat to literally represent them. So it becomes a mere offering, often rationalised by casting the animal as the god’s natural adversary (for damaging the plant sacred to him or, like the boar in the story of Adonis, for killing him). Thus, in a phrase that could be a summary for much of the Wake, the god is “sacrificed to himself on the grounds that he is his own enemy.”

In the final part, we’ll see how these ceremonies are altered by the community’s shift in concern from their stomachs to their souls.
Part Three

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