In this tale the sibyl (prophetess) Deiphobe, over seven hundred years old, consents to escort Aeneas on a journey into the underworld to comply with his wish to see the “shade” of his deceased father.
Before entering Hades, she tells Aeneas that he must obtain the bough of gold which grows nearby in the woods around her cave; it must be given as a gift to Proserpina (the queen of the Underworld) in order to gain entrance into Hades.
In the woods, Aeneas’s mother, Venus, sends two doves to aid him in this difficult task. With the assistance from his mother’s doves, Aeneas finds the tree holding the Golden Bough. When Aeneas tears off the bough, a second golden one immediately springs up, which is a good omen, as the sibyl had said that if this did not happen the coming endeavor would fail.
Soon after they start their descent into the Underworld, the sibyl shows the golden bough to the ferryman (Charon) who only then allows them to enter his boat and cross the Stygian river. On the other side, she casts a drugged cake to the three-headed watchdog, Cerberus, who swallows it and falls asleep.
Once in the Underworld, Aeneas puts the golden bough on the arched door of Pluto’s palace (the Ruler of the Underworld) and goes through to the Elysian Fields, the abode of those who led just and useful lives.
Aeneas finally locates his father in the green and sunny Elysium and attempts three times to hug him, but has no success as his father’s shade is like thin air, or empty dreams.
In spite of this, they have a happy encounter and Anchises (father of Aeneas) tells his son a about the nearby river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, on the other side of which are a multitude of spirits waiting to be born on Earth- many of whom would live in the future Roman Empire such as Romulus, Camillus, Fabillus and Caesars. The Ivory gate, one of the gates of “Sleep” returns the party to Earth.
The Golden Bough was written during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire under the auspices of Caesar Augustis. Some believe the symbol of “The Golden Bough” refers to mistletoe; as popular superstition cast a mystic glamour on the plant that “blazed into supernatural golden glory”.
It has been believed throughout history that a tree hosting a mistletoe plant was a tree marked as particularly sacred by the gods; its golden color associated with the sun. It has also been widely believed that mistletoe takes on the properties of its host tree (it actually feeds on its host) containing its essence and power.
Mistletoe has been considered sacred for centuries. It was a Scandinavian custom that if enemies met under a mistletoe bearing oak tree, they would lay down their arms until morning. Druids cut mistletoe following the winter solstice and distributed it among the people to hang over their doors for protection against evil in the coming year.
Today, we still hang this mysterious “Golden Bough” from our doorways, as Aeneas and the Sibyl did when entering the gates of Hades, to protect us, and provide good luck in the coming year.