This document was written by William Ridgeway and originally published in The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915. pp. 11-19.

For more than half a century three theories have exercised a potent influence on many sides of Classical and Anthropological studies--the Sun myth of Kuhn and Max Müller, the Tree worship of Mannhardt, and the Totemism of J.F. McLennan. As the authors of the latest theories of the origin of Tragedy have laid them all under contribution, it will be necessary at this stage to make some remarks upon them.

The first of these theories were the product of the German Comparative philologists, who in the first glow of that new study believed that they had in it a most powerful instrument for historical investigation. But its founders started with a fundamental misapprehension of human nature by assuming that the primitive Aryans had a language consisting of abstract verbal roots, such as AK, "to be sharp," from which all sorts of nouns, such as equus, "the swift one," and the like, were derived. They thus assumed that the primitive Aryans could do perfectly what few most cultured people of to-day can only do imperfectly--think in abstracts. Yet they might have remembered that so far from verbal roots being antecedent to nouns even in Sanskrit and Greek there are whole classes of denominative verbs, i.e. verbs derived from nouns, and that living languages are daily recruiting their verbal system by new formations from previously existing nouns, thus demonstrating that the names for objects come first, and that verbs and verbal roots are derived from them. There must be a Captain Boycott before there can be a verb "to boycott."

This fundamental error of the philologists was due to the fact that they looked at things from the a priori standpoint begotten of Metaphysics, and though they were always talking loudly of Science and Scientific method, in practice they resolutely turned their backs upon it and took that easy primrose path of guesswork still trodden by their votaries. It is not surprising, therefore, that when this school began to investigate primitive religion they contemptuously flung aside the traditions and beliefs of the Hindus, Greeks, Latins, and all other people respecting the origin of most of their own gods--that they were human beings deified after death--and they boldly denied that these gods and humans had ever been human personalities, and maintained that they were mere personifications of the phenomena of Nature and their changing processes. Thus not only were Apollo and Heracles, but also Agamemnon, king of men, Menelaus, Achilles, Odysseus, and all the other stately worthies of the heroic age of Greece, regarded as mere phases of the Sun myth, just as their successors in the school of a priori speculation now regard the same heroes as mere manifestations of abstract Vegetation spirits. Yet any one conversant with Greek literature and the history of Greek thought might have realized that it is only at a late stage of development that even the Greeks were capable of generalization. Aristotle has well emphasized this when he records as a great step the enunciation by Xenophanes of the Unity of the Universe. Again, it is certain that whilst in the latter part of the fifth century before Christ, a few philosophers at Athens, such as Socrates and his school, were discussing the One in the Many--the Universal and the particular, the great mass of the Athenians had exactly that attitude towards Nature and its phases as that set before us by Aristophanes in his Clouds in the person of Strepsiades, the elderly Athenian gentleman, with his simple theological beliefs and his crude and very concrete ideas respecting the causes of rain and other physical phenomena. The late Dr. R.F. Littledale dealt a crushing blow to the Sun myth theory when he proved that Professor Max Müller on his own principles was only a Solar myth, whilst the late Sir Alfred Lyall delivered a still stronger attack on the same theory and its assumption that tribal gods and heroes, such as those of Homer, were mere reflections of the Sun myth by proving that the gods of certain Rajput clans at this present hour were really warriors who founded the clans not many centuries ago, and were the ancestors of the present chieftains. Many examples of the same kind, not only from India, but from Burma, China, and Japan, will be presented in the course of our inquiry. The theory, however, was not killed, but only scotched, for there is an inexpugnable love of what is false and fantastic deep down in the hearts of the great majority. It would therefore have been strange if this moribund theory had not sought a fresh lease of life by obtruding itself into fields hitherto immune, and accordingly in the last few years it has again reared its head in alliance with Mannhardt's Tree spirit, that other darling of the Folk-lorists, and also the manifold speculations that have sprung out of Totemism.

I may at once state that whilst Sir James Frazer holds that Vegetation spirits and the phenomena embraced under the term "Totemism" are primary and absolutely independent of the belief in the existence of the soul of man after death of the body, the present writer has strongly maintained elsewhere [1] that Vegetation spirits and Totemic beliefs are merely secondary phenomena, all depending on the primary belief of mankind in the continued existence of the soul after the death of its carnal covering. It is with extreme reluctance and with genuine sorrow that I have found myself compelled to differ on this fundamental question from one of my oldest and best friends. It is sufficient at this stage to point out that the main object of this investigation is to test by means of the Inductive method the truth or falsity of our respective theories, for if my view should turn out to be right, it will follow at once that my theory of the origin of Tragedy is also true.

Sir James Frazer takes as his starting-point [2] the little lake of Nemi, near Africa in Alban hills, on the northern shore of which stood the grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis (who, however, was not the oldest personage here venerated). In this precinct there grew a tree in charge of a grim figure armed with a sword and ever on his guard against surprise. [3] He was both a priest and a murderer, and in his turn would meet a violent end.

The priest who slew the slayer
And shall himself be slain.

From that tree no branch might be broken save by a runaway slave, who, if he could, might do so, and thus be entitled to challenge the priest to mortal combat. If he slew him, he reigned in his stead with the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis). There was a legend that this barbaric custom was Scythian [4], since Orestes after slaying Thoas, the Tauric king, had brought hither the image of the Tauric Diana, to whom in her old home every hapless stranger was sacrificed. In one of his freaks Caligula hired a stalwart ruffian to kill the holder of this grim priesthood, and it is known that the succession continued at least into the time of the Antonines. The Dianeum itself has been excavated in modern times, and proved by the relics to be of great antiquity. Two other beings shared the holy spot. One was the hero Virbius, identified with the Greek Hippolytus, killed by his horses on the shore of the Saronic Gulf. To please his patroness Diana (so went the story), Aesculapius brought him back to life, but Zeus was so wroth with the bold leach that he condemned him to Hades, whilst Diana surreptitiously bore her favourite to this sequestered spot. The other was the nymph Egeria, whose name is that of a great local family, one of whom, Manius Egerius, first set up the cult of Diana in what may have been his own family sanctuary. From him sprang a long and distinguished line. Hence the proverb, "There are many Manii at Aricia." The connection of this family with the sacred grove may not be without some importance for our investigation.

The branch which the candidate for the ghastly priesthood had to pluck was said to be that golden bough which Aeneas under the monition of Sibyl had culled to be his passport to the abode of the dead, but it is important to note that there is no proof that the candidate was restricted to any one bough. Sir James Frazer [5] holds that this golden bough, which Virgil likens to the mistletoe that grows on the oak, was the mistletoe itself "seen through the haze of poetry or popular superstition," and thinks that he has shown grounds for believing that the priest of the Arician grove, the King of the Wood, personified the tree on which grew the Golden Bough. "Hence if that tree was the oak, the King of the Wood must have been the personification of the oak tree spirit. It is therefore easy to understand (writes he) that before he could be slain it was necessary to break the golden bough. As an oak spirit his life or death was in the mistletoe on the oak, and so long as the mistletoe remained intact, he, like Balder, could not die. To slay him, therefore, it was necessary to break the mistletoe and probably, as in the case of Balder, to throw it at him, and to complete the parallel it is only necessary to suppose that the King of the Wood was formerly burned, dead or alive, at the midsummer fire festival annually celebrated at the Arician grove. The perpetual fire which burned in this grove, like the perpetual fire under the oak at Romove, was probably fed with the sacred oak wood, and thus it would be in a fire of oak that the King of the Wood formerly met his end. At a later time, as I have suggested, his annual tenure of office was lengthened or shortened, as the case might be, by the rule which allowed him to live so long as he could prove his divine right by the strong hand. But he only escaped the fire to fall by the sword. The rite was probably an essential feature of the ancient worship of the oak." According to Sir J. Frazer, Virbius was a tree spirit and must have been the spirit of the oak on which grew the golden bough, for tradition said he was the first of the Kings of the Wood, whilst he holds Balder to have been an oak spirit. "It is at least highly significant (he continues) that amongst both the Greeks and Italians the oak should have been the tree of the supreme god, and that at his most ancient shrines both in Greece and Italy this supreme god should have been actually represented by an oak, and that so soon as the barbarous Aryans of Northern Europe appeared in the light of history they should be found amid all diversities of language, character, and country, nevertheless at one in worshipping the oak and extracting their sacred fire from its wood. The highest place (he holds) in the Aryan pantheon must certainly be assigned to the oak." He concludes that "Down to the Roman Empire and the beginning of our era the primitive worship of the Aryans was maintained in its original form in the sacred grove of Nemi as in the oak woods of Gaul, of Prussia, and of Scandinavia, and that the King of the Wood lived and died as an incarnation of the supreme Aryan god, whose life was in the mistletoe or Golden Bough."

The reader will observe that these conclusions are largely built upon "supposes" and "suggestions," whilst at least one of his fundamental propositions--that in his most ancient shrines both in Greece and Italy the oak was the tree of the supreme god--is contradicted by the well-attested facts that at Olympia, the chief seat of Pan-Hellenic Zeus, the sacred tree of that god was not the oak, but the wild olive, and that in the sacrifices to Zeus and also to Pelops "the wood of the white poplar was used and no other." [6] Moreover, this belief, so prevalent among folk-lorists, that the oak was the only or chief sacred tree amongst European peoples is at variance with another well-known fact. In ancient Ireland, although St. Patrick is said to have had a sharp controversy with a Druid who lived uner an oak, yet of the five famous sacred trees mentioned in the Book of Leinster, which fell or were destroyed in the seventh century of our era [7], only one was an oak [8], the others being a yew, and three ashes. The reason why certain trees and other objects were held sacred may be found in beliefs still common in Ireland itself. Any day in St. Joseph's cemetery, Cork, people of both sexes may be seen passing to the solid stone tomb of Father Mathew, the apostle of temperance; some of them are rubbing off the dust from the tomb, and applying it to rheumatic parts of their body or taking it internally. In lonely country churchyards people may likewise be seen taking earth from the grave of some pious priest, sometimes even eating it on the spot. The reason is that the spirit of anima of Father Mathew and other holy persons permeates not only the clay, but the massive tombs under which lie their mortal remains. The Greeks held exactly the same belief, as is clear from the following story. Not far from Libethra, on Mount Olympus, was the tomb of Orpheus. One day a shepherd lay down upon the grave about noon and went to sleep. But as he slept he was moved to sing verses of Orpheus' in a strong sweet voice. So the herdsmen and ploughmen in the neighborhood left every man his work and hastened to listen to the song of the sleeping shepherd, and with their jostling to get near the shepherd, they overturned the pillar and the urn that was on it. Whether this story is true or not matters not for my purpose, but it demonstrates that the Greeks believed that the anima of the dead was in his grave and could enter into one who lay upon it. [9] But what holds true of graves of earth and stone, holds no less true for trees.

In parts of Ireland no one will use for firewood, even in places and seasons when fuel is very scarce, a tree which has grown in a churchyard. I know of a case where such a tree lay untouched for seventeen years. Again, in another part of Ireland there stood by the roadside at a dark and dangerous corner an ash tree on which were cut a rude cross and heart, and at the food of which lay a small heap of stones continually added to by fresh pebbles cast on it by wayfarers. The reason was that one dark night a miller named Ryan had upset his heavily laden cart and was himself crushed against the tree. Hence it had become, if not sacred, at least sacer. If it can be shown that in other parts of the world trees have been and are still held sacred because they grew or grow on or near the remains of a dead man, or because some one has been done to death upon or near them, we may arrive at a very different solution from that of Sir James Frazer and his school respecting the strange rite at Nemi. But ancient Greece and Rome again come to our aid. Every one knows the story in Virgil's Aeneid in which he relates how Aeneas and his followers landed on the coast of Thrace and proceeded to kindle a fire; how to their horror the bushes plucked from a mound oozed with blood; how the hero himself on going near found that it was the barrow of young Polydorus, Priam's youngest son, murdered by the Thracian king Polymnestor, and how the lad's ghost spoke to him from out a tree. Again, when Hyrnetho, the daughter of Temenus, king of Argos, and wife of Diphontes, died, her husband took up her dead body and brought it to the spot which was afterwards called Hyrnethium, and they made a shrine for her and bestowed honours upon her. In particular a rule was made that of the olives and all the trees that grew there no man might take home with him broken boughs or use them for any purpose whatever, but they leave the branches where they lie because they are sacred to Hyrnetho. [10]

Again, in the front of the king's palace at Benin [11] stood awful juju trees on and near which human sacrifices were continually made. These were not to strengthen the spirit of a supreme god who dwelt in the trees, but they were to appease the spirits of the king's ancestors who lay buried there, and who had to be propitiated with constant draughts of human blood.

Let us now return to Nemi and the golden bough, which Aeneas plucked to protect him as he fared to the abode of souls, a legend which seems to point to some connection between the sacred oak and the dead. Moreover, the oak had the right of sanctuary, for the runaway slave who succeeded in grasping a branch of it could not be summarily dispatched, but might challenge the priest to mortal combat. Elsewhere the present writer has shown [12] that in Greece as well as in other countries sanctuaries and asylums arose, and still arise, round graves from fear of the anger of the mighty dead within. If the suppliant can reach the tomb or sacred spot wherein the soul of the dead hero or dead chief is supposed to dwell, he remains in safety until he be tried or otherwise disposed of. Now as such sanctuaries, e.g. that at Taenarum in Laconia, were largely resorted to by runaway slaves, and as each claimant for the Nemi kingship was such a fugitive, there seems a prima facie case for inquiring whether this oak was regarded as the residence, not of the supreme god of the Aryans, but of some disembodied human soul. Now as in this grove there was worshipped a personage who bore the name of Egeria, that of the great local family who had there set up the cult of Diana, may not this oak have been held sacred and have had human blood shed beneath it from time to time, because it grew on or near the graves of the Egerii, and was thus thought to be the abode of some departed spirit of that house?

In our investigations, which of course will be mainly concerned with Tragedy, we shall be obliged to test Sir James Frazer's hypothesis here given and also his doctrine of Totemism, because the latest theory of the origin of Tragedy is based on his doctrine that Vegetation spirits and Totem animals are primary phenomena and stand rigidly apart from any belief in the existence of souls after the death of the body. A further fundamental principle of his Vegetation spirit doctrine is the assumption that Dionysus, Demeter, Osiris, Adonis, and Attis and such-like personages had never been human individuals, but always Vine, Corn, and other Vegetation abstractions.

Finally Sir James Frazer makes dramatic performance arise in the dramatization of the seasons by primitive men. "The spectacle of the great changes," writes he, [13] "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 causes of changes so vast and wonderful. Their curiosity has not been purely disinterested, for even the savage cannot fail to see perfectly 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 they could help or hasten or retard the flight of the seasons by magic art. Accordingly they performed ceremonies and recited spells to make the rain fall, the sun to shine, animals to multiply, and the fruits of the earth to grow. In the course of time the slow advance of knowledge, which has dispelled many cherished illusions, convinced at least the more thoughtful portion of mankind that the alternation 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 turn in great measure on these themes. They set forth the fruitful union of the powers of fertility, the sad death of at least one of the divine partners, and his joyful resurrection. Thus a religious theory was blended with a magical practice."

On these assumptions, Miss Harrison, Mr. F.M. Cornford, and Professor G.G. Murray have based the latest theory of the origin of Tragedy.

It may at once be said that Sir James Frazer has not been able to make good his propositions, that magic is a stage prior to religion, that men began to dramatize natural phenomena, and to set forth the fruitful union of the powers of fertility, and the sad death of at lease one of the partners and his joyful resurrection before they had long been dramatizing human life, for in the course of this investigation it will be shown that religion is as early as magic and that the dramatizations of such as those just cited only make their appearance at a relatively late period, and long after dramas based on human life and its sorrows have been in vogue for generations.



1 In my Gifford Lectures delivered at Aberdeen, 1909-10 (as yet only published in summary), and Jour. Hell. Stud., vol. xxxi (1911), p. xlix.

2 The Golden Bough (ed. 2), pp. 1 sqq.

3 Strabo, 199. 41 (Didot).

4 Strabo, loc. cit.

5 Golden Bough (ed. 2), vol. iii, pp. 449-50.

6 Paus. v. 13. 3; 24. 3.

7 Facsimile, 199b, 200a, cited by Rev. T. Olden, D.D., The Church of Ireland, p. 5.

8 As the mistletoe is not indigenous in Ireland, the sanctity of Irish oaks was not due the the growth of this parasite upon them.

9 Paus. ix. 30. 9-10.

10 Paus. ii. 23. 3.

11 H.L. Roth, Great Britain, pp. 173-5; cf. pp. 181, 187.

12 Origin of Tragedy, pp. 138 sqq.; pp. 174 sqq.

13 Adonis, Attis, Osiris (ed. 3, 1914), vol. i, pp. 3 sqq.

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