The Golden Bough
Chapter 24. The Killing of the Divine King
1. The Mortality of the Gods.
MAN has created gods in his own likeness and being himself mortal he has naturally
supposed his creatures to be in the same sad predicament. Thus the Greenlanders believed
that a wind could kill their most powerful god, and that he would certainly die if he
touched a dog. When they heard of the Christian God, they kept asking if he never died,
and being informed that he did not, they were much surprised, and said that he must be a
very great god indeed. In answer to the enquiries of Colonel Dodge, a North American
Indian stated that the world was made by the Great Spirit. Being asked which Great Spirit
he meant, the good one or the bad one, Oh, neither of them, replied he, the Great Spirit
that made the world is dead long ago. He could not possibly have lived as long as this. A
tribe in the Philippine Islands told the Spanish conquerors that the grave of the Creator
was upon the top of Mount Cabunian. Heitsi-eibib, a god or divine hero of the Hottentots,
died several times and came to life again. His graves are generally to be met with in
narrow defiles between mountains. When the Hottentots pass one of them, they throw a
stone on it for good luck, sometimes muttering, Give us plenty of cattle. The grave of
Zeus, the great god of Greece, was shown to visitors in Crete as late as about the
beginning of our era. The body of Dionysus was buried at Delphi beside the golden statue
of Apollo, and his tomb bore the inscription, Here lies Dionysus dead, the son of Semele.
According to one account, Apollo himself was buried at Delphi; for Pythagoras is said to
have carved an inscription on his tomb, setting forth how the god had been killed by the
python and buried under the tripod.
The great gods of Egypt themselves were not exempt from the common lot. They too
grew old and died. But when at a later time the discovery of the art of embalming gave a
new lease of life to the souls of the dead by preserving their bodies for an indefinite time
from corruption, the deities were permitted to share the benefit of an invention which
held out to gods as well as to men a reasonable hope of immortality. Every province then
had the tomb and mummy of its dead god. The mummy of Osiris was to be seen at
Mendes; Thinis boasted of the mummy of Anhouri; and Heliopolis rejoiced in the
possession of that of Toumou. The high gods of Babylon also, though they appeared to
their worshippers only in dreams and visions, were conceived to be human in their bodily
shape, human in their passions, and human in their fate; for like men they were born into
the world, and like men they loved and fought and died.
2. Kings killed when their Strength fails.
IF THE HIGH gods, who dwell remote from the fret and fever of this earthly life, are yet
believed to die at last, it is not to be expected that a god who lodges in a frail tabernacle
of flesh should escape the same fate, though we hear of African kings who have imagined
themselves immortal by virtue of their sorceries. Now primitive peoples, as we have seen,
sometimes believe that their safety and even that of the world is bound up with the life of
one of these god-men or human incarnations of the divinity. Naturally, therefore, they