The King of the Wood

July 15 2013

… or, A priest and a murderer

“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 palazzo whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Dian [sic] 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.”

… the opening of the most influential book on comparative religion ever published. The Alban hills are south of Rome. The Pope has his summer palace at Castel Gandolfo by Lake Albano, north of Lake Nemi.

“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. […] In this […] grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day and probably far into the night a strange figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if 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 held office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.

“[…] No one will probably deny that such a custom savours of a barbarous age and, surviving into imperial times, stands out in striking isolation from the polished Italian society of the day, like a primeval rock rising from a smooth-shaven lawn. It is the very rudeness and barbarity of the custom which allow us a hope of explaining it. […] For recent researches into the early history of man have revealed the essential similarity with which, under many superficial differences, the human mind has elaborated its first crude philosophy of life. Accordingly if we can show that a barbarous custom, like that of the priesthood of Nemi, has existed elsewhere; if we can detect the motives which led to its institution; if we can prove that these motives have operated widely, perhaps universally, in human society, producing in varied circumstances a variety of institutions specifically different but generically alike; if we can show, lastly, that these very motives, with some of their derivative institutions, were actually at work in classical antiquity; then we may fairly infer that at a remoter age the same motives gave birth to the priesthood of Nemi. […]

“I begin by setting forth the few facts and legends which have come down to us on the subject. According to one story the worship of Diana at Nemi was instituted by Orestes, who, after killing Thoas, King of the Tauric Chersonese (the Crimea), fled with his sister to Italy, bringing with him the image of the Tauric Diana. The bloody ritual which legend ascribed to that goddess is familiar to classical readers; it is said that every stranger who landed on the [Crimean] shore was sacrificed on her altar. But transported to Italy, the rite assumed a milder form. Within the sanctuary at Nemi grew a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt entitled him to fight the priest in single combat, and if he slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis). Tradition averred that the fateful branch was that Golden Bough which, at the Sibyl’s bidding, Aeneas plucked before he essayed the perilous journey to the world of the dead. The flight of the slave represented, it was said, the flight of Orestes; his combat with the priest was a reminiscence of the human sacrifices once offered to the Tauric Diana. This rule of succession by the sword was observed down to imperial times; for amongst his other freaks Caligula, thinking that the priest of Nemi had held office too long, hired a more stalwart ruffian to slay him.


“Such then are the facts and theories bequeathed to us by antiquity on the subject of the priesthood of Nemi. From materials so slight and scanty it is impossible to extract a solution of the problem. It remains to try whether the survey of a wider field may not yield us the clue we seek. The questions to be answered are two: first, why had the priest to slay his predecessor? and second, why, before he slew him, had he to pluck the Golden Bough? The rest of this book will be an attempt to answer these questions.”


The book is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. I have referred to the first, two-volume, edition of 1890. The second, in 1900, was in three volumes. The third, published between 1906 and 1915, was in twelve. I have omitted the footnotes here, which give his sources (Ovid, Cato quoted by Priscian, Virgil, Servius, Strabo, Pausanias, Solinus, Suetonius).

Frazer wrote in a supplementary volume in 1936: “When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Bough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood.”

The Golden Bough became a worldwide comparative study.


A runaway slave is the insecure master or temporary priest-king of a wood sacred to Diana. He can be ousted by another in a trial by combat, provided that the other has first broken the Golden Bough.

The sacrifice of the priest-king is an echo of the human sacrifices once regularly offered to Diana in the Crimea (post). The cult of Diana was thought to have been brought to Nemi by Orestes (Servius’s commentary on the Aeneid, but not, as far as I can tell, the Aeneid itself, and there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the story). The flight of the slave represents the flight of Orestes into exile. Whether or not Diana had a Crimean connection, she became conflated in Italy with the Greek Artemis. The Golden Bough is a reminiscence of the bough once plucked by Aeneas before he began his journey to the underworld (Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI).

Pausanias mentions another deity, Hippolytus (Virbius), the son of Theseus. So do Virgil and Ovid. “The Aricians tell a tale … that when Hippolytus was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asclepius raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he went to the Aricians in Italy [was carried there by Diana herself]. There he became king and devoted a precinct to Artemis, where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters.” Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book II, 27, 4.

What is Frazer’s justification for implying, as he does, that this is a “secondary” foundation myth?

By the time Caligula interfered in the succession of priest-kings, the murder-succession had devolved into a gladiatorial combat in front of an audience.

A statue of Diana stood in the sacred grove of Aricia in front of the temple of Diana Nemorensis. Vitruvius, in the first century BC, describes the temple as archaic and “Etruscan” in form. The image was standing at least as late as 43 BC, when it appears in coinage. The votive offerings, none earlier than the fourth century BC, found in the grove portray her as a huntress, and as blessing men and women with offspring and granting expectant mothers an easy delivery.

Ovid gives a poetic account of the priesthood of Nemi in his Fasti, Book III. Strabo says: “and in fact a barbaric, and Scythian, element predominates in the sacred usages, for the people set up as priest merely a runaway slave who has slain with his own hand the man previously consecrated to that office; accordingly the priest is always armed with a sword, looking around for the attacks, and ready to defend himself.” Geographica, Book V, 3, 12.

What, then, are the answers to Frazer’s questions? “Why had the priest to slay his predecessor? and second, why, before he slew him, had he to pluck the Golden Bough?”

I can suggest them by quoting from two later passages in the first volume of that first edition. Not having read everything, I may not be choosing the best ones.

“Since the King of the Wood could only be assailed by him who had plucked the Golden Bough, his life was safe from assault so long as the bough or the tree on which it grew remained uninjured. [My italics.] In a sense, therefore, his life was bound up with that of the tree; and thus to some extent he stood to the tree in the same relation in which the incorporate or immanent tree-spirit stands to it. The representation of the tree-spirit both by the King of the Wood and by the Golden Bough (for it will hardly be disputed that the Golden Bough was looked upon as a very special manifestation of the divine life of the grove) need not surprise us, since we have found that the tree-spirit is not unfrequently thus represented in double, first by a tree or a bough, and second by a living person.

“On the whole then, if we consider his double character as king and priest, his relation to the Golden Bough, and the strictly woodland character of the divinity of the grove, we may provisionally assume that the King of the Wood, like the May King and his congeners of Northern Europe, was deemed a living incarnation of the tree-spirit. As such he would be credited with those miraculous powers of sending rain and sunshine, making the crops to grow, women to bring forth, and flocks and herds to multiply, which are popularly ascribed to the tree-spirit itself.”


“If the course of nature is dependent on the man-god’s life, what catastrophes may not be expected from the gradual enfeeblement of his powers and their final extinction in death? There is only one way of averting these dangers. The man-god must be killed as soon as he shows symptoms that his powers are beginning to fail, and his soul must be transferred to a vigorous successor before it has been seriously impaired by the threatened decay. The advantages of thus putting the man-god to death instead of allowing him to die of old age and disease are, to the savage, obvious enough. For if the man-god dies what we call a natural death, it means, according to the savage, that his soul has either voluntarily departed from his body and refuses to return, or more commonly that it has been extracted or at least detained in its wanderings by a demon or sorcerer. In any of these cases the soul of the man-god is lost to his worshippers; and with it their prosperity is gone and their very existence endangered. Even if they could arrange to catch the soul of the dying god as it left his lips or his nostrils and so transfer it to a successor, this would not effect their purpose; for, thus dying of disease, his soul would necessarily leave his body in the last stage of weakness and exhaustion, and as such it would continue to drag out a feeble existence in the body to which it might be transferred. Whereas by killing him his worshippers could, in the first place, make sure of catching his soul as it escaped and transferring it to a suitable successor; and, in the second place, by killing him before his natural force was abated, they would secure that the world should not fall into decay with the decay of the man-god. Every purpose, therefore, was answered, and all dangers averted by thus killing the man-god and transferring his soul, while yet at its prime, to a vigorous successor.”

Frazer is arguing that the tale of the priesthood of Nemi was an instance of a worldwide myth of a sacred king who must periodically die as part of a regular fertility rite.


The opening of The Golden Bough is misleading. I noticed this and sought corroboration. I could only find it in a piece by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. I haven’t looked at commentaries that are only in print.

Frazer is explicit: “The scene [in Turner’s painting] […] is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi.”

No, it is not. He wanted his book to start at Nemi and with Turner. How much less elegant would the passage have been if he had had to admit to his readers that the Turner Golden Bough was in Campania.

The painting is based on the Aeneid. The Trojan hero, Aeneas, has come to Cumae, not Nemi, to consult the sibyl, a prophetess, who will take him to the underworld so that he can meet his father. The gateway to the underworld is at Lake Avernus, not Lake Nemi.

Cuma is near Naples, Nemi is near Rome. (How strange, when one thinks historically and culturally, or remembers deliciously-long train journeys in the ’70s, to realise that the distance between the two cities is, as the crow flies, little more than a hundred miles.)

The sibyl tells Aeneas that he can only enter the underworld if he offers Proserpine a golden bough cut from a sacred tree. Turner shows the sibyl holding a sickle and the freshly-cut branch in front of the lake. The dancing figures are the Fates. They and the snake in the foreground hint, amid the beauty of the landscape, at death and the mysteries of the underworld.

Only near the end of the second volume, in a footnote, does he write:

“Virgil (Aen. vi. 201 sqq.) places the Golden Bough in the neighbourhood of Lake Avernus. But this was probably a poetical liberty, adopted for the convenience of Aeneas’s descent to the infernal world. Italian tradition, as we learn from Servius, placed the Golden Bough in the grove at Nemi.”

Do we know whether Turner’s Golden Bough was based on sketches made at Nemi? He certainly visited both places. The Tate has sketches and watercolour studies of both Nemi and Avernus.

An earlier, less accomplished oil, from c 1798, also at Tate Britain, is called Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus.

When I write a Toynbee-Frazer post, I will point to some other (to my amateur eye) questionable statements in the book. Yet, though his views on kingship may have been qualified or superseded, Frazer is still regarded as a serious scholar, and was one.


A more benign ritual at Nemi was the festival of Nemoralia, or Festival of Torches, celebrated in August in honour of Diana and described by Ovid, Plutarch and Propertius. The Christian Feast of the Assumption is related to it. A procession of torches and candles would move around the lake. Worshippers and dogs wore wreaths of flowers. Offerings were made to Diana: messages written on ribbons tied to the altar or to trees, baked clay or bread models of body parts in need of healing, clay images of mother and child, tiny sculptures of stags, apples. Offerings of garlic to Hecate (who is associated with Iphigeneia).

Lake Nemi is also famous for Caligula’s floating palace and floating temple to Diana. The giant ships were raised from the lake-bed under Mussolini and a museum built for them in the town of Nemi. The museum was destroyed, perhaps by Americans, perhaps by Germans, in 1944. It re-opened in 1953 to house scale models (Museo delle navi romane).

Something numinous and mysterious comes across, perhaps not always intentionally, in nineteenth-century paintings and prints of the volcanic crater of Nemi, and even in modern photographs.

Frazer prefaces his first chapter with some lines from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome:

“The still glassy lake that sleeps
Beneath Aricia’s trees –
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain.”

The Golden Bough exhibited 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, The Golden Bough, 1834; click to enlarge

2 Responses to “The King of the Wood”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Virgil (I think this is clear here) says nothing about the Rex Nemorensis.

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