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The Golden Bough

Chapter 28. The Killing of the Tree-Spirit
1. The Whitsuntide Mummers.
IT remains to ask what light the custom of killing the divine king or priest sheds upon the
special subject to our enquiry. In an earlier part of this work we saw reason to suppose
that the King of the Wood at Nemi was regarded as an incarnation of a tree-spirit or of
the spirit of vegetation, and that as such he would be endowed, in the belief of his
worshippers, with a magical power of making the trees to bear fruit, the crops to grow,
and so on. His life must therefore have been held very precious by his worshippers, and
was probably hedged in by a system of elaborate precautions or taboos like those by
which, in so many places, the life of the man-god has been guarded against the malignant
influence of demons and sorcerers. But we have seen that the very value attached to the
life of the man-god necessitates his violent death as the only means of preserving it from
the inevitable decay of age. The same reasoning would apply to the King of the Wood;
he, too, had to be killed in order that the divine spirit, incarnate in him, might be
transferred in its integrity to his successor. The rule that he held office till a stronger
should slay him might be supposed to secure both the preservation of his divine life in
full vigour and its transference to a suitable successor as soon as that vigour began to be
impaired. For so long as he could maintain his position by the strong hand, it might be
inferred that his natural force was not abated; whereas his defeat and death at the hands of
another proved that his strength was beginning to fail and that it was time his divine life
should be lodged in a less dilapidated tabernacle. This explanation of the rule that the
King of the Wood had to be slain by his successor at least renders that rule perfectly
intelligible. It is strongly supported by the theory and practice of the Shilluk, who put
their divine king to death at the first signs of failing health, lest his decrepitude should
entail a corresponding failure of vital energy on the corn, the cattle, and men. Moreover,
it is countenanced by the analogy of the Chitomé, upon whose life the existence of the
world was supposed to hang, and who was therefore slain by his successor as soon as he
showed signs of breaking up. Again, the terms on which in later times the King of Calicut
held office are identical with those attached to the office of King of the Wood, except that
whereas the former might be assailed by a candidate at any time, the King of Calicut
might only be attacked once every twelve years. But as the leave granted to the King of
Calicut to reign so long as he could defend himself against all comers was a mitigation of
the old rule which set a fixed term to his life, so we may conjecture that the similar
permission granted to the King of the Wood was a mitigation of an older custom of
putting him to death at the end of a definite period. In both cases the new rule gave to the
god-man at least a chance for his life, which under the old rule was denied him; and
people probably reconciled themselves to the change by reflecting that so long as the
god-man could maintain himself by the sword against all assaults, there was no reason to
apprehend that the fatal decay had set in.
The conjecture that the King of the Wood was formerly put to death at the expiry of a
fixed term, without being allowed a chance for his life, will be confirmed if evidence can
be adduced of a custom of periodically killing his counterparts, the human representatives
 
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