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Friday, August 26, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 5 (Concluded)

In the Central Province of India (now Madhya Pradesh), there was a custom during a cholera epidemic for a priest to go from house to house collecting straw from the thatched roof of every house and burning them ceremoniously. Then a chicken was driven towards the direction of the fire carrying all the diseases away. A similar ceremony is described from another part of India in which a female black buffalo or goat was the “scapegoat”. The buffalo was driven out of the village never to return.

Then there is a section on the custom of bonfires in many European societies until as late as the 1700’s. These are eye-witness accounts. These were probably associated with human sacrifice initially, and then just beating or chasing away the victim chosen for this occasion, every year. (In my hometown, I have witnessed “sokkappanai”, which was probably meant to drive away evil spirits)

In his description of the bonfires, one can see practices like those described in the Vedas such as starting a new fire each year by churning or rubbing one wood with another and then maintaining it till next year in each house. He also refers to Agni as “born of wood and embryo of plants”.

There are several pages of examples from many societies on the isolation of girls at their first menstruation with emphasis on not having them see the sun (keep them in a closed room without windows or hut) and not have them “pollute” the earth.

In the section on souls, Sir Frazier thinks that ancient man probably thought that the soul can be stored away from the body temporarily. According to the Aristotelian idea of “contagion”, two items “once connected are always connected”. Therefore, the soul or spirit survives even after death of the body and can then be stored away in a secret place. Until the soul is found and destroyed the person cannot die even if he is killed!

(Samkhya philosophy says that even after the stula sarira or gross body dies, the sukshma sarira or the subtle body lives on and clings on to another body such as a leech does)

The soul can be deposited in a plant or an animal. Therefore, clans for whom an eagle is the repository of the soul, eagle is the totem and people from that clan will not kill an eagle – and consider it sacred. And this applies to different animals, birds and things in different tribes and cultures.

Interestingly, some tribes believed in several souls for each person.

Frazier recounts mythological stories from cultures in all continents, which recount the story of a giant or a king who cannot be killed until his soul kept secret in a deep ocean or huge forest guarded by demons, or inside a bird or an egg is destroyed. The hero goes through the ordeal, find the secret hiding place of the soul of the giant or the king, gets hold of the bird or the egg and destroys it. Many myths and legends are based on such beliefs.

There are several passages to explain the importance of the Oak tree to the ancient Celtics, who considered this tree to be very sacred. (In Indian culture, pipal tree holds this sacred position)

Because oak tree was considered sacred, the celts also thought that mistletoe which grows as a parasite on the oak tree was sacred. Indeed, many European cultures, even the non-celtics thought that the mistletoe has magical and mystical properties and was capable of driving away evil spirits. 

In the West, kissing under mistletoe is still practiced during Christmas season. The current practice is related to a Norse mythology;  but in ancient times  men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe.  More significant, refusing was considered to bring bad luck.

Sir Frazier concludes by saying that mistletoe is what is referred to as the Golden Bough in the ancient Book of Nemi. That is the reason why he chose The Golden Bough as the title for his book.

Scholars do not agree with many of the explanations given by Sir Frazier. But no one denies that this book is a remarkable collection of religious practices in various ancient and modern cultures and that this book generated several serious studies in cultural anthropology.

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