The Golden Bough HTML version

Chapter 29. The Myth of Adonis
THE SPECTACLE of the great changes which annually pass over the face of the earth
has powerfully impressed the minds of men in all ages, and stirred them to meditate on
the causes of transformations so vast and wonderful. Their curiosity has not been purely
disinterested; for even the savage cannot fail to perceive how intimately his own life is
bound up with the life of nature, and how the same processes which freeze the stream and
strip the earth of vegetation menace him with extinction. At a certain stage of
development men seem to have imagined that the means of averting the threatened
calamity were in their own hands, and that they could hasten or retard the flight of the
seasons by magic art. Accordingly they performed ceremonies and recited spells to make
the rain to fall, the sun to shine, animals to multiply, and the fruits of the earth to grow. In
course of time the slow advance of knowledge, which has dispelled so many cherished
illusions, convinced at least the more thoughtful portion of mankind that the alternations
of summer and winter, of spring and autumn, were not merely the result of their own
magical rites, but that some deeper cause, some mightier power, was at work behind the
shifting scenes of nature. They now pictured to themselves the growth and decay of
vegetation, the birth and death of living creatures, as effects of the waxing or waning
strength of divine beings, of gods and goddesses, who were born and died, who married
and begot children, on the pattern of human life.
Thus the old magical theory of the seasons was displaced, or rather supplemented, by a
religious theory. For although men now attributed the annual cycle of change primarily to
corresponding changes in their deities, they still thought that by performing certain
magical rites they could aid the god who was the principle of life, in his struggle with the
opposing principle of death. They imagined that they could recruit his failing energies
and even raise him from the dead. The ceremonies which they observed for this purpose
were in substance a dramatic representation of the natural processes which they wished to
facilitate; for it is a familiar tenet of magic that you can produce any desired effect by
merely imitating it. And as they now explained the fluctuations of growth and decay, of
reproduction and dissolution, by the marriage, the death, and the rebirth or revival of the
gods, their religious or rather magical dramas turned in great measure on these themes.
They set forth the fruitful union of the powers of fertility, the sad death of one at least of
the divine partners, and his joyful resurrection. Thus a religious theory was blended with
a magical practice. The combination is familiar in history. Indeed, few religions have
ever succeeded in wholly extricating themselves from the old trammels of magic. The
inconsistency of acting on two opposite principles, however it may vex the soul of the
philosopher, rarely troubles the common man; indeed he is seldom even aware of it. His
affair is to act, not to analyse the motives of his action. If mankind had always been
logical and wise, history would not be a long chronicle of folly and crime.
Of the changes which the seasons bring with them, the most striking within the temperate
zone are those which affect vegetation. The influence of the seasons on animals, though
great, is not nearly so manifest. Hence it is natural that in the magical dramas designed to
dispel winter and bring back spring the emphasis should be laid on vegetation, and that