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The Golden Bough

This article was written on April 29, 2008 posted under Golden Bough

The Golden Bough is a reference to a mystical tree branch in Greco-Roman myth. In an ancient tale the hero Aeneas, on a quest, consults a prophetess who is one of the Sibyl at Cumae. The Sibyl instructs Aeneas to break a branch from a certain tree that is sacred to Juno Infernal (Proserpina). Aeneas is then take to the entrance to the Underworld, into which he descends. Aeneas approaches the Stygian lake but Charon refuses to ferry him across because he is not dead. A Sibyl accompanying Aeneas produces the Golden Bough, and he is then allowed entrance into the Underworld. This tale is similar to that of the Celtic hero Bran who is guided by a fairy woman, bearing the Silver Branch, through which he gains admittance into the Fairy Realm. The Golden Bough, like the Silver Branch, is a passport into another realm.

James Frazer wrote a book titled The Golden Bough, which dealt with the cult of Diana and Dianus at Lake Nemi, the sanctuary of the goddess Diana. In Frazer’s version, the tale of Aeneas had many similarities to the lore of Lake Nemi and to the mysterious figure known as Rex Nemorensis, the King of the Woods. In particular, Frazer was struck by the fact that a branch had to be broken from the sacred tree at Nemi in order to enter the grove and challenge the guardian. To Frazer, this was not unlike Aeneas confronting Charon.

In mystical tree symbolism, the fork in a branch represents the division of good and evil, light and dark. In the initiatory rises of Proserpina the branch was held up to her as an offering. The offering symbolized that the bearer understood her polarity, and that to enter darkness was to return to light. Only with such an understanding would Proserpina embrace one who entered her realm. This is also symbolized by the spiral dance, which embraces the same theme.

Demons, fairies, and saints—together? These are not three categories we think of together. In past eras, however, perceptions of the supernatural world were much more fluid. Magicians of the Renaissance would not be averse to calling upon whatever beings were available that could teach them secrets, acquire treasure, or gain the love of... read this article
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