James George Frazer Books

Franklin Library James George Frazer books

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion - Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century - 1982


The Golden Bough - A Study in Magic and Religion

Sir James George Frazer's 'The Golden Bough' was first published in 1890 and gradually expanded into an enormous (and almost unreadable) 12 volume work over the next 20 years. Hailed as "a milestone in the understanding of man's cultural past, and a profoundly significant contribution to the history of ideas" Frazer's study is a fascinating overview of mythology and 'primitive' cultures, encompassing such disparate subjects as The Priest-King, the Dying God, Taboos, the Scapegoat, Saturnalia and 'days of Misrule', and Killing the Divine King. 'The Golden Bough' established a framework for classifying and understanding the myriad variations of human social and religious behavior. Its influence extends far beyond the merely anthropological -the book is known to have influenced such literary classics as 'Finnegan's Wake' and 'The Wasteland'. This edition introduces 'The Golden Bough' in an accessible and readable form while retaining Frazer's original engaging prose.

A world classic. The Golden Bough describes our ancestors' primitive methods of worship, sex practices, strange rituals and festivals. Disproving the popular thought that primitive life was simple, this monumental survey shows that savage man was enmeshed in a tangle of magic, taboos, and superstitions. Revealed here is the evolution of man from savagery to civilization, from the modification of his weird and often bloodthirsty customs to the entry of lasting moral, ethical, and spiritual values.

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief to The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief to scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices which have influenced the 20th century. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king. Specifically, that man progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.

The thesis on the origins of magic and religion that it elaborates "will be long and laborious," Frazer warns readers, "but may possess something of the charm of a voyage of discovery, in which we shall visit many strange lands, with strange foreign peoples, and still stranger customs." Chief among those customs at least as the book is remembered in the popular imagination is the sacrificial killing of god-kings to ensure bountiful harvests, which Frazer traces through several cultures, including in his elaborations the myths of Adonis, Osiris, and Balder.
While highly influential in its day, The Golden Bough has come under harsh critical scrutiny in subsequent decades, with many of its descriptions of regional folklore and legends deemed less than reliable. Furthermore, much of its tone is rooted in a philosophy of social Darwinism sheer cultural imperialism, really that finds its most explicit form in Frazer's rhetorical question: "If in the most backward state of human society now known to us we find magic thus conspicuously present and religion conspicuously absent, may we not reasonably conjecture that the civilised races of the world have also at some period of their history passed through a similar intellectual phase?" (The truly civilized races, he goes on to say later, though not particularly loudly, are the ones whose minds evolve beyond religious belief to embrace the rational structures of scientific thought.) Frazer was much too genteel to state plainly that "primitive" races believe in magic because they are too stupid and backwards to know any better; instead he remarks that "a savage hardly conceives the distinction commonly drawn by more advanced peoples between the natural and the supernatural." And he certainly was not about to make explicit the logical extension of his theories "that Christian legend, dogma, and ritual" (to quote Robert Graves's summation of Frazer in The White Goddess) "are the refinement of a great body of primitive and barbarous beliefs." Whatever modern readers have come to think of the book, however, its historical significance and the eloquence with which Frazer attempts to develop what one might call a unifying theory of anthropology cannot be denied. - Ron Hogan

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