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Chapter 2. Priestly Kings
The questions which we have set ourselves to answer are mainly two: first, why had
Diana's priest at Nemi, the King of the Wood, to slay his predecessor? second, why
before doing so had he to pluck the branch of a certain tree which the public opinion of
the ancients identified with Virgil's Golden Bough?
The first point on which we fasten is the priest's title. Why was he called the King of the
Wood? Why was his office spoken of as a kingdom?
The union of a royal title with priestly duties was common in ancient Italy and Greece. At
Rome and in other cities of Latium there was a priest called the Sacrificial King or King
of the Sacred Rites, and his wife bore the title of Queen of the Sacred Rites. In republican
Athens the second annual magistrate of the state was called the King, and his wife the
Queen; the functions of both were religious. Many other Greek democracies had titular
kings, whose duties, so far as they are known, seem to have been priestly, and to have
centered round the Common Hearth of the state. Some Greek states had several of these
titular kings, who held office simultaneously. At Rome the tradition was that the
Sacrificial King had been appointed after the abolition of the monarchy in order to offer
the sacrifices which before had been offered by the kings. A similar view as to the origin
of the priestly kings appears to have prevailed in Greece. In itself the opinion is not
improbable, and it is borne out by the example of Sparta, almost the only purely Greek
state which retained the kingly form of government in historical times. For in Sparta all
state sacrifices were offered by the kings as descendants of the god. One of the two
Spartan kings held the priesthood of Zeus Lacedaemon, the other the priesthood of
Heavenly Zeus.
This combination of priestly functions with royal authority is familiar to every one. Asia
Minor, for example, was the seat of various great religious capitals peopled by thousands
of sacred slaves, and ruled by pontiffs who wielded at once temporal and spiritual
authority, like the popes of mediaeval Rome. Such priest-ridden cities were Zela and
Pessinus. Teutonic kings, again, in the old heathen days seem to have stood in the
position, and to have exercised the powers, of high priests. The Emperors of China
offered public sacrifices, the details of which were regulated by the ritual books. The
King of Madagascar was high-priest of the realm. At the great festival of the new year,
when a bullock was sacrificed for the good of the kingdom, the king stood over the
sacrifice to offer prayer and thanksgiving, while his attendants slaughtered the animal. In
the monarchical states which still maintain their independence among the Gallas of
Eastern Africa, the king sacrifices on the mountain tops and regulates the immolation of
human victims; and the dim light of tradition reveals a similar union of temporal and
spiritual power, of royal and priestly duties, in the kings of that delightful region of
Central America whose ancient capital, now buried under the rank growth of the tropical
forest, is marked by the stately and mysterious ruins of Palenque.