king of the wood: return to the grove at nemi

In James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, one is caught up in the drama of a dark and sleeping earth warmed into renewed life by the reviving sun, which also seems in the end to symbolize, for author and reader of a dark world inhabited by the confused thoughts of ignorant and frightened men who finally see the illumination of their darkness and gloom through the acquisition of knowledge and science.It all began as  a limited study of a certain ancient ritual at the Grove of Nemi in ancient Italy where the priest, the “King of the Wood”, had to slay his predecessor in order to take up his role. Gradually, the study expanded to involve the association of ideas from aspects of “primitive” magic and religion throughout the world.

The ancient cult of Dionysus partook in orgiastic festivals whose aim was mystical communion with Dionysus and whom religious frenzy was induced by wine, women and song…..This marriage between the cult of passion and the cult of celebrity is steeped in the innocent belief that a life and death ruled by passion is noble because it is instinctual and pure. The glorification of the hero who lives the life and dies the death of Dionysus is an extreme form of cultural primitivism, transposed onto a modern template of mass communications and mediatization; the ancient sacrificial sense of carrying the sins of society and theoretically removing them of it requires larger doses of sacrifice to feed the Moloch. The Western world’s and especially America’s heroic ideal remains anchored upon the notion of innocence…

---Especially since the logical corollary of his argument is that cultures 'grow out' of mythology and into science. Wittgenstein says that the odd thing about Frazer is that he keeps representing people as doing these things out of stupidity, and it is just not that plausible that no one for thousands of years would notice that it rains sooner or later sometime. Frazer's error is in trying to explain ritual and mythology by saying that it depends on people's opinions about the world. But it does not depend on people's opinions, because if you change a person's beliefs about the reason the sun moves, it does not mean he automatically stops sacrificing to the sun god. The reasons for myth and ritual are found in the emotions we experience when we hear about/experience the myth and ritual, the very deep emotions. And something else: Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied. For Wittgenstein, an expressed desire contains within itself the means of its satisfaction: if you are thirsty, your thirst contains the concept of water, which you know you need. And magic, ritual, these are expressed desires (as indeed most fantasy writers agree-- how many books in which the efficacy of magic is based on how badly you want something). But for Wittgenstein, and this is where I think his theory becomes original, magic is like any other expressed desire, in that it contains its own fulfillment.---Read More: image:

These celebrations were of particular importance at the beginning of spring, when they marked the return of life after winter. They were thus death-and-rebirth celebrations, and it is in light of this that Dionysus was a god who died young but always rose again. In this there is a parallel to Christ, who also rose at springtime, as celebrated during the Easter holiday.( Gellert)

Geller:Like UFO reports or repressed memory syndrome, these apparitions are a contagion myth, or what Jung called a visionary rumor: they have spread through the culture like wildfire, seemingly leaping from person to person on the level of the collective unconscious. Elvis won't die because his death has made him an eternally young god, a hero who lives on in the imagination and culture forever and who moves people's souls so powerfully that he appears to them in visions as real as anything in their physical world. Read More: image:

To James Frazer in The Golden Bough, far more important than the interpretation of a particular and obscure rite is the evolutionary drama of the transition from magic to religion and the theories of the mental processes underlying them. Frazer’s interest was in primitive psychology but even here he had a tendency to change his interpretations. The criticism to Frazer’s interpretations; such as magic always precedes religion or that primitives have no notion of cause and effect, against all evidence, went beyond the specifics and into his whole strategy: the way examples are presented torn from their social context and habitual everyday behavior and strung together to form a speculative evolutionary sequence of primitive metaphysical ideas. What results is a standardization and caricature, that ultimately sought to justify the values of science and the technological age, “progress”. Savages, with Frazer acting as impressario, provided an endlessly fascinating menagerie of exotic human behavior.

The savage was absurd and one could look down on him, but he was also uncomfortably close. Science was destined everywhere in the 1920’s to supercede and extinguish superstition- but was it? Frazer, like Freud, another rationalist who devoted his life to studying the irrational, had a powerful and alarmed sense that underneath the civilized and rational surface of life there lay a dormant volcano of non-rational forces.

Not the least of The Golden Bough’s attractions were its references to a ritual and pagan origin of Christianity. Eating the God, the title of one of the chapters, was a common ritual practice rooted in magic. So was hanging divine scapegoats on a tree and even piercing their sides with  a spear, that they might take upon themselves the sins of the people.

---Could this death wish be a necessary first step in a larger death-and-rebirth process which our culture is about to undertake? Similarly, one may wonder whether rock groups with names like "Arrested Development," the "Dead Kennedys," and "Suicide," or the nihilistic, violent features of punk and rap music, merely glorify destruction and death, or if they also point to this larger process. However, transformation is always dependent upon consciousness. A society's critical reflection upon its own need to change is a crucial ingredient for such change. America seems to be largely unconscious of the dynamic behind its fascination with eternally young and innocent deathheroes. This dynamic consists of the society's own youthful innocence and a death wish that would quite appropriately end that innocence. America must face the end of its innocence in order for there to emerge a heroic ideal that is more suitable for a maturing nation.---Read More: image:

“For Frazer, ritual practitioners are stricken with a basic misunderstanding of the practical principles that govern
reality. The reasoning that supports the ritual structure is faulty; it is a mistake. And, working from a faulty beginning, the end is faulty as well, forever consigning magic to be that false and barren bastard sister of science….As a first step, Wittgenstein rejects Frazer’s notion that magico-religious practice is founded on a basic mistake in reasoning, essentially a kind of persistent stupidity, where the ritual practitioner insists on the correctness of his action in spite of its direct contradiction by the nature of reality….At any rate, Wittgenstein goes on to point out that ritual practitioners, or ‘savages,’ have a clear understanding of what science is and what it should be used for, and they separate it from the things that should be addressed by ritual.

“The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.” This is to say, where science is needed, science is used. And it is used correctly. Only when there is some need to accomplish or comment on something beyond the bounds of science, do men turn to magico-religious practices. Read More:



---Not even John Lennon, whose music almost consistently had a timeless quality and who was assassinated, became a cult idol after he died. The factor that has catapulted Morrison to a cult status seems to be his Dionysian death. It is as if the youth culture itself has glorified the principle of Dionysian death through Jim Morrison, as it has made not only a hero out of him, nor just a death-hero, but a Dionysian death-hero. This marriage between the cult of passion and the cult of celebrity is steeped in the innocent belief that a life and death ruled by passion is noble because it is instinctual and pure. The glorification of the hero who lives the life and dies the death of Dionysus is an extreme form of cultural primitivism. Read More: image:

Gellert: Dionysus died from dismemberment, and, in a manner of speaking, so did Elvis. Drugs, insomnia, exhaustion, the struggle to force his body to stay forever young and trim, and an insatiable appetite for adulation but a debilitating emptiness within, all contributed to his depression and falling apart. A Dionysian death raises the hero’s demise to dramatic proportions as unequivocally as would an assassination, thereby also assuring his immortality in the public’s memory. The hero who dies from having surrendered to the passions would in olden times have been looked upon as having made the ultimate self-sacrifice to the gods, or at least to the god Dionysus. In modern times, although such an act is condemned as a waste, it is, paradoxically, still held in awe. This is because a life that is so engulfed in passion that it leads to death is one that for many is secretly attractive. Read More:

"They became victims of the same adoring society that had idolized them insofar as they became, willingly or not, the objects of that society's innocent but thanatotic fantasies. To make matters worse, their woundedness has also been glorified, and thus there is now an all-enveloping shroud of innocence from which the culture has almost hopelessly left no way out for itself. A wound, Hillman tells us, usually marks the end of a consciousness that is too young. It kills innocence with reality. But America will not accept the wounds of its heroes or its own wounds for very long; these too it converts into the high drama and innocence of eternal youth." Read More: image:



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