The King of the Wood

The King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis) was a priest-king of the goddess Diana at Lake Nemi in Italy. This honor was obtained by slaying the previous incumbent in a trial by combat. A successful challenger would hold the title until challenged and killed by their successor. Anyone could challenge the King by stealing a golden bough from one of the trees in the wood.

Thomas Macaulay wrote this quatrain about the tradition:
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain.

The story forms the basis of a book by James George Frazer called The Golden Bough. It was a significant early anthropological study of mythology and religion across cultures. It was an extremely important text for late victorian and early modernist writers and artists. T.S. Eliot often mentions it in the footnotes to his work and drew a great deal from it for his own poetry. As an exploration of how our beliefs demonstrate the way we relate to the world and find meaning within it, the text remains relevant to this day.

Oil on Linen
76cm x 101cm
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© Kieran Ingram 2018