Commentary on "The Golden Bough"|
The Golden Bough is a book by
Sir James Frazier on myth & religion,
the golden thread running through
all cultures from ancient times to now.
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion,
written by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941). It first was published in two volumes in 1890;
the third edition, published 1906-1915, comprised twelve volumes. The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared
elements of religious belief, ranging from ancient belief systems to relatively modern religions such as Christianity.
Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of,
a sacred king. The book's title was taken from an incident in The Aeneid, illustrated by the British artist
Joseph Mallord William Turner: Aeneas and the Sibyl present the golden bough to the gatekeeper of Hades in order
to gain admission. Despite whatever controversy the work may have generated, The Golden Bough had a tremendous
effect in the literary sphere, inspiring Robert Graves, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams,
James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and Joseph Campbell.
The Golden Bough is a painting by
Turner inspired by Virgil's Aeneid
of Aeneas consulting the Sibyl
as he descends to the other side.
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) painted
The Golden Bough in 1834
(Tate Gallery, London).
The Trojan hero, Aeneas, has come to Cumae to consult the Sibyl, a prophetess. She tells him he can only
enter the Underworld to meet the ghost of his father if he offers Proserpine a golden bough cut from a sacred tree.
Turner shows the Sibyl holding a sickle and the freshly cut bough, in front of Lake Avernus, the legendary gateway
to the Underworld. The dancing figures are the Fates. Like the snake in the foreground, they hint at death
and the mysteries of the Underworld, amidst the beauty of the landscape. Another reason for the snake may
be connected to Eurydice who died after bitten by a snake. Orpheus had to go to the Underworld to sing for
her release in the classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The Golden Bough is the tree where
Aeneas gathered the mistletoe for
his passageway to the Underworld
in Aeneid VI to meet his father.
"Throughout every night and every day black Pluto's door stands wide open. But to retrace
the steps and escape back to upper airs, that is the task and that is the toil... Hiding in
a tree's thick shade there is a bough, and it is golden, with both leaves and pliant stem of gold.
It is dedicated as sacred to Juno of the Lower World. All the forest gives it protection, and it
is enclosed by shadows within a valley of little light. Yet permission for descending to earth's
hidden world is never granted to any who has not first gathered this golden-haired produce from
its tree, for beautiful Proserpine has directed that this must be brought to her as her special
offering. Each time the bough is torn from its place another never fails to appear, golden like
the first, and its stem grows leaves also of gold. So therefore you must lift up your eyes and
seek to discern this bough, find it as it is required of you, and pick it boldly. Then, if it
is indeed you whom the Fates are calling, it will come willingly and easily; if not, by no
strength will you master it, not even hack it away with a hard blade of steel."
The Aeneid, VI.123-154 (p. 151).
(Image: Paperback of Virgil's The Aeneid translated by W.F. Jackson Knight, Penguin Books, (1964).
Cover illustration from an illuminated manuscript of The Aeneid in the Vatican Library.)
The Golden Bough is the tree with
roots above, branches below
with one bird eating the sweet fruit,
while the other watches in silence.
The Tree of Brahman with
roots above, branches below
Katha Upanishad, II,iii.1
This is that eternal Asvattha Tree with its roots above,
branches below. That is the bright one. That is Brahman,
and That alone is immortal. On it all the worlds rest,
and none pass beyond it. This verily is That.
Katha Upanishad, II,iii.1
(Bhagavad Gita, XV.3-4)
Two birds, united always, cling closely to the same tree.
One of them eats the sweet fruit while the other looks on without eating.
Mundaka Upanishad, III,i.1
(revised from translation by Swami Nikhilananda, The Upanishads: Katha, Isa, Kena, & Mundaka,
Volume I, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1949, p. 179 & p. 297)
Two Birds in Flowered Tree
by Anna Weber (1814-1888)
Mundaka Upanishad, III,i.1
Notes: I've combined the two trees from Katha Upanishad and Mundaka Upanishad to be "The Golden Bough"
in this poem since both trees appear to have a cosmic dimension. Swami Nikhilananda commentary: The Asvattha Tree is
the well-known fig tree of India, which sends down its branches so that they strike root and from new stems, one
tree growing into a sort of forest. Bright one: Self luminous because It is Pure Consciousness. Root above:
The root is Brahman, which is the ultimate cause of everything. Advaita Vedanta claims the Absolute
is beyond the category of causality. Branches below: Heaven, earth, hell, and all other spheres of relative
existence are described as the downward-spreading branches of the Tree of the Universe. Two birds:
Jiva (body) and Supreme Self (Pure Consciousness). Same: Atman. Tree: body. One of them: individual soul
or jiva. The other: The Lord who is the Witness.
The Golden Bough is the Tree of Life
in the Garden of Eden guarded by
the Angel with a flaming sword
so man will not eat its immortal fruit.
"And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil:
and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat,
and live for ever... So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden
of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of
the tree of life." When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they gained
discernment of good and evil. They became ashamed and clothed themselves instead
of running around naked like the other animals. But what is the Tree of Life,
whose fruit will grant them immortality? I surmise that the Tree of Knowledge represents
the duality of human consciousness and the Tree of Life, the unity of cosmic consciousness.
This Biblical passage has always intrigued me. Why is God so afraid that man will eat from
the Tree of Life and become immortal? If God created us in his own image, why is he keeping
the best for himself and not sharing it. I told myself not to shrink with fear like Adam but
be more daring like Jacob and keep on wrestling with the Angel until he is blessed
Here's one of my favorite paintings Delacroix's
Jacob Wrestling the Angel (1861)
from Saint-Sulpice Cathedral in Paris. [Images: (1) Michelangelo's "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden"
(Sistine Ceiling, Vatican Museum) shows the Serpent giving Adam and Eve
fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. At the right, an Angel with the flaming sword has his
blade on Adam's neck as he and Eve shrinks in fear departing from the Garden of Eden.
(2) Gustav Klimt's Tree of Life (1909)]
The Golden Bough is the Cross of Christ
symbolizing the horizontal flow of time
and the vertical ascent to eternity
their intersection beyond space & time.
René Guénon in his Symbolism of the Cross (1958) writes of the metaphysical
meaning of the Cross: the horizontal direction represents 'amplitude' or integral extension of
the individuality... of which the corporeal state is properly only one. The vertical direction
represents the hierarchy of the multiple states [of being], each of which, when similarly considered
in its integrality, is one of those groups of possibilites corresponding to one of the 'worlds' or
degrees, which are included in the total synthesis of 'Universal Man'. (pp. 10-11).
Salvador Dali's Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) portrays Christ's crucifixion on a
Dali's wife Gala is the figure at bottom left contemplating on the crucified Jesus.
The scene is depicted in front of the bay of Port Lligat, a small village on the
Mediterranean Sea, near Catalonia, Spain. If one moves the cube one unit length into the fourth
dimension, it generates a 4-dimensional unit hypercube (a unit tesseract). Hence, the hypercube
represents the fourth dimension beyond our 3-D world. Dali's portrayal of the crucified Christ
levitating shows transcendance beyond the earth. This Dali painting is in Jeff Brittin's Ayn Rand book with the
"Salvador Dali, Corpus Hypercubus, oil on canvas, 29" by 23", 1954. Rand's favorite painting
she spent hours contemplating it at the Metropolitan Musuem of art. She even felt a kinship
between her personal view of John Galt's defiance over his torture in Atlas Shrugged and Dali's
depiction of the suffering of Jesus."
[Images: Salvador Dali (1904-1989),
Corpus Hypercubus (1954),
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]
The Golden Bough is the Bodhi Tree
where Buddha became enlightened
and we will too under any tree
if we sit still in mindfulness.
Bodhi Tree was a large and very old Sacred Fig tree
(Ficus religiosa) located in Bodh Gaya (about 62 miles from Patna in the Indian state of Bihar),
under which Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC),
the spiritual teacher and founder of Buddhism later known as Gautama Buddha, attained enlightenment,
or Bodhi (wisdom). In religious iconography, the Bodhi tree is recognizable by its heart-shaped leaves,
which are usually prominently displayed. It takes 100 to 3,000 years for a bodhi tree to fully grow.
According to Buddhist texts the Buddha, after his Enlightenment, spent a whole week in front of the tree,
standing with unblinking eyes, gazing at it with gratitude. The term "Bodhi tree" is also widely applied
to currently existing trees, particularly the Sacred Fig growing at the
Mahabodhi Temple, which is allegedly a direct descendant
of the original specimen. This tree is a frequent destination for pilgrims, being the most important of the
four main Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Spiritual pilgrims who wander from sacred shrines to temples for
enlightenment will not find it if their minds are agitated. On the other hand, those who adhere to
Psalms 46:10 "Be still and know
that I am God" will find illumination under any tree if they are
(Image: Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, Prana Yoga Studio, Oneonta, New York)
The Golden Bough is the Kabbalah
esoteric Judaiac Tree of Life
with eleven Sephirot emanations
from dense matter to sublime spirit.
Kabbalah is a discipline concerned
with the mystical aspect of Judaism. These esoteric teachings try to explain the relationship
between an eternal/mysterious Creator and the mortal/finite universe (His creation). Kabbalah
also presents methods to aid understanding of these concepts to attain spiritual realization.
The Sephirothic Tree of Kabbalah is also called the Tree of Life consists of 11 archetypal
qualities called "Sephirot" or emanations. At the bottom is Malkhuth representing the body
and earth. At the top is Kether, meaning crown and our connection to the divine source
of all life. Guenon writes in Symbolism of the Cross (p. 19): "Kether corresponds to that of the pure and impalpable Ether.
It is the cause of all causes and the origin of all origins." The "right-hand column" and the
"left-hand column" provide a representation of duality. Between the two stands the "middle column"
in which the two opposing tendencies are balanced, and the unity of the Tree of Life thus restored.
The Sephirothic Tree may synthesize in itself the nature of the Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life,
combining them into a single whole, since the ternary can be split into the duality and the unity of
which it is the sum. Instead of one single tree, one sometimes finds three trees joined by their roots,
the one in the middle being the Tree of Life, and the other two corresponding to the duality of the
Tree of Knowledge. The fruits of the Tree of Life are the
in the garden of Hesperides and
the golden fleece of the Argonauts.
Both golden treasures are on a tree guarded by
a dragon, that requires the hero to regain the immortal fruit.
(Image: Kabbalah Tree of Life with 11 Sephirot,
More on the 11 Sephirot of Kabbalah)
Spinal Cord & Nerve Roots
Cedars-Sinai Spine Center
The Golden Bough is our spine
an inner tree of seven wheels
ascending to the Crown Chakra
with thousand-petalled lotus of light.
Our spinal cord with its nerve roots extend out
like branches of a tree. In yoga, kundalini
energy centers (chakras) rises from base of the spine
to the Crown Chakra
on the head called thousand-petalled lotus.
The halo is shown as a golden or yellow
circular glow around the head.
It is often depicted on Buddha, Christ,
angels, saints, and sacred figures.
Yogi & 7 chakras of the spine
The Golden Bough is our Sun's weaving
threads of gold spun around the earth
sunrise to sunset for countless years
this garment of light for warmth & life.
According to Guénon, the Latin word for gold (aurum) is the same as the Hebrew
for light (aor). Jung quotes the delightful explanation offered by alchemist Michael Maier
in De Circula Physico Quadrato to the effect that the Sun, by virtue of millions of journeys
round the earth (or conversely) has spun threads of gold all round it. Gold is the image of solar light
and hence of divine intelligence. If the heart is the image of the sun in man, in the earth it is gold.
Consequently, gold is symbolic of all that is superior, the glorified or 'fourth state' [in alchemy]
after the first three stages of black, white, and red. Gold is also the essential element in the symbolism
of the hidden or elusive treasure which is an illustration of the fruits of the spirit and of supreme illumination.
(J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, Philosophical Library, New York, 1962, p. 114).
(Image: Michael Maier (1568-1622),
Atalanta Fugiens (1617),
Emblema XLV: The Sun & Its Shadow.
Illustration from Gardening: Maitreya 3, Shambala, Berkeley, 1972, p. 97).
C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis (1963):
Sol in alchemy is much less a definite chemical
substance than a "virtus", a mysterious power believed to have a generative and transformative
effect. Just as the physical sun lightens and warms the universe, so, in the human body, there
is in the heart a sunlike arcanum from which life and warmth stream forth. "Therefore Sol,"
says Dorn, "is rightly named the first after God, and father and begetter of all, because
in him the seminal and formal virtue of all things whatsoever lies hid." The alchemists
still believed with Proclus that the sun generates the gold. (Cf. Proclus, Commentaries
on the Timaeus of Plato, 18b).
(Image: "The earth receives the powers of the stars, and in it the sun
generates the gold" from Figure 8-1 in Edward F. Edinger, Mysterium Lectures: A Journey through
C.G. Jung's Mysterium Coniunctionis, Inner City Books, Toronto, 1995, p. 107)
Peter Y. Chou
Mountain View, 3-14-2010