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Chapter 12. The Sacred Marriage
1. Diana as a Goddess of Fertility
WE have seen that according to a widespread belief, which is not without a foundation in
fact, plants reproduce their kinds through the sexual union of male and female elements,
and that on the principle of homoeopathic or imitative magic this reproduction is
supposed to be stimulated by the real or mock marriage of men and women, who
masquerade for the time being as spirits of vegetation. Such magical dramas have played
a great part in the popular festivals of Europe, and based as they are on a very crude
conception of natural law, it is clear that they must have been handed down from a
remote antiquity. We shall hardly, therefore, err in assuming that they date from a time
when the forefathers of the civilised nations of Europe were still barbarians, herding their
cattle and cultivating patches of corn in the clearings of the vast forests, which then
covered the greater part of the continent, from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean. But
if these old spells and enchantments for the growth of leaves and blossoms, of grass and
flowers and fruit, have lingered down to our own time in the shape of pastoral plays and
popular merry-makings, is it not reasonable to suppose that they survived in less
attenuated forms some two thousand years ago among the civilised peoples of antiquity?
Or, to put it otherwise, is it not likely that in certain festivals of the ancients we may be
able to detect the equivalents of our May Day, Whitsuntide, and Midsummer
celebrations, with this difference, that in those days the ceremonies had not yet dwindled
into mere shows and pageants, but were still religious or magical rites, in which the
actors consciously supported the high parts of gods and goddesses? Now in the first
chapter of this book we found reason to believe that the priest who bore the title of King
of the Wood at Nemi had for his mate the goddess of the grove, Diana herself. May not
he and she, as King and Queen of the Wood, have been serious counterparts of the merry
mummers who play the King and Queen of May, the Whitsuntide Bridegroom and Bride
in modern Europe? and may not their union have been yearly celebrated in a theogamy or
divine marriage? Such dramatic weddings of gods and goddesses, as we shall see
presently, were carried out as solemn religious rites in many parts of the ancient world;
hence there is no intrinsic improbability in the supposition that the sacred grove at Nemi
may have been the scene of an annual ceremony of this sort. Direct evidence that it was
so there is none, but analogy pleads in favour of the view, as I shall now endeavour to
Diana was essentially a goddess of the woodlands, as Ceres was a goddess of the corn
and Bacchus a god of the vine. Her sanctuaries were commonly in groves, indeed every
grove was sacred to her, and she is often associated with the forest god Silvanus in
dedications. But whatever her origin may have been, Diana was not always a mere
goddess of trees. Like her Greek sister Artemis, she appears to have developed into a
personification of the teeming life of nature, both animal and vegetable. As mistress of
the greenwood she would naturally be thought to own the beasts, whether wild or tame,
that ranged through it, lurking for their prey in its gloomy depths, munching the fresh
leaves and shoots among the boughs, or cropping the herbage in the open glades and