The Golden Bough HTML version

Chapter 1. The King Of The Wood
1. Diana and Virbius
WHO does not know Turner's picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the
golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured
even the fairest natural landscape, is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of
Nemi Diana's Mirror, as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm
water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two
characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace
whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even
the solitariness of the scene. Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still
haunt these woodlands wild.
In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On
the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern
village of Nemi is perched, stood the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or
Diana of the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove
of Aricia. But the town of Aricia (the modern La Riccia) was situated about three miles
off, at the foot of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent from the lake, which
lies in a small crater-like hollow on the mountain side. In this sacred grove there grew a
certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim
figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering
warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a
priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder
him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate
for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain
him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.
The post which he held by this precarious tenure carried with it the title of king; but
surely no crowned head ever lay uneasier, or was visited by more evil dreams, than his.
For year in, year out, in summer and winter, in fair weather and in foul, he had to keep
his lonely watch, and whenever he snatched a troubled slumber it was at the peril of his
life. The least relaxation of his vigilance, the smallest abatement of his strength of limb or
skill of fence, put him in jeopardy; grey hairs might seal his death-warrant. To gentle and
pious pilgrims at the shrine the sight of him might well seem to darken the fair landscape,
as when a cloud suddenly blots the sun on a bright day. The dreamy blue of Italian skies,
the dappled shade of summer woods, and the sparkle of waves in the sun, can have
accorded but ill with that stern and sinister figure. Rather we picture to ourselves the
scene as it may have been witnessed by a belated wayfarer on one of those wild autumn
nights when the dead leaves are falling thick, and the winds seem to sing the dirge of the
dying year. It is a sombre picture, set to melancholy musicthe background of forest
showing black and jagged against a lowering and stormy sky, the sighing of the wind in
the branches, the rustle of the withered leaves under foot, the lapping of the cold water on
the shore, and in the foreground, pacing to and fro, now in twilight and now in gloom, a