The Golden Bough by James George Frazer

A Study in Magic and Religion.

Abridged Edition. Macmillan and Company, 1949, 759 p, including 42 p Index. Plus iii p Preface, vi p Contents. Abridged edition first published in 1922. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Golden Bough cover

I would not have read this had it not been on the 100 Best Scottish Books list and also available from my local Council’s library service. Nevertheless it provided an interesting overview of its subjects. This abridged version – of 759 pages! – has been distilled down from no fewer than twelve volumes. The original must have been a prodigious feat of research and scholarship.

In his preface Frazer states the book’s primary aim was to explain the “remarkable rule which regulated the succession to the priesthood of Diana at Aricia”. His examination shows this rule was not in any way unusual as he presents countless examples of similar practices and expands his investigation into various religious rites from around the world which have a bearing on the matter.

He considers the evolution of human thought on the way in which the world works as a progression through magic into religion and then science, with both magic and science seeing a set of rules as governing natural phenomena (though belief in magic is of course misplaced) and religion as a case of the rules being alterable by the relevant deities who must therefore be propitiated or supplicated. What he calls “primitive” humans envisioned that similar objects could each be affected alike by treating one of them in a certain way and also that things that had been in contact thereafter somehow bore the essence of what they had touched; hence the belief in sympathetic magic. Magicians developed into priests when those who knew quite well that magic was ineffective took to faking its supposed effects. The power that priests enjoyed eventually mutated into kingship and the priestly functions became divorced from the ceremonial ones. The protection kings’ subjects enjoyed could only be provided by the king being strong hence arose the custom of their being replaced before their faculties eroded, either ritually or by combat. Out of all this came the actual (and later symbolic) killings of kings, their resurrections, and consumption of kings/gods in the form either of vegetable matter shaped in the desired way or of animals which embodied the god’s spirit.

Frazer provides numerous examples of customs from many cultures all of which he asserts point to a common origin or at least to common apprehensions of the same kind.

His frequent references to savages (Australian Aborigines for example) read distressingly to modern tastes. Indigenous peoples living with and respecting the land (and its spirits) are arguably less deserving of such a term than the colonialists who treated them and their ways of life as backward and disposable.

Our long journey through the ways and beliefs of the world via kings of the wood, sympathetic magic, magical control of the weather, magicians as kings, incarnate human gods, the worship of trees, taboos, myths of varying god(desses), sacrifices, corn-spirits, those consumptions of gods, scapegoating and fire-festivals seems to have for Frazer a crucial link in the tale of the Norse god Balder, killed by a sprig of mistletoe. The resemblance to the plucking of the Golden Bough with which the priest of Diana at Aricia was killed and replaced cannot be missed.

Despite the abridgement there are still longueurs and arguably too many examples of instances of the behaviours which Frazer discusses along with too frequent repetitions of the points he is making but this is still a remarkable survey of the practices with which humans have attempted to understand and to control the world.

Aside:- Frazer notes that in the north-east of Scotland the Beltane fires in which witches were symbolically burned were called bone-fires. Bone-fires such as these are indeed from where the modern term is derived. In his discussion of fire festivals Frazer notes people, especially children, going round the neighbourhood to collect items of wood and the like to be burned in the fire. He does not, however, mention the similar long-established Halloween custom in Scotland of guising (adapted in the US – and Canada? – to trick-or-treat) nor indeed the penny-for-the-guy collections which used to precede Bonfire Night, a festival which it strikes me must have been handily co-opted for secular (well, sectarian) purposes from the All Hallows Eve fire ceremonies he describes, albeit shifted by five days. The apparently non-religious purposes of these customs may be the reason for that omission. They certainly don’t relate as easily to the Golden Bough as others in the book.

Pedant’s corner:- There were several examples of usages which have since altered- wrapt (wrapped,) blent (blended,) Hindoostan, Hindoos, Hindoo Koosh (all now spelled Hindu, plus Kush) connexion (connection,) Hallow E’en (though Hallowe’en is used later,) deas-sail and dessil (deasil,) bark (barque.) Otherwise: “the reason why a clan revere a particular species” (why a clan reveres.)


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