The Golden Bough Readalong: Part the First

I'm going to try out doing Golden Bough posts every couple of weeks, and I think I'm going to do a quick outline format just to keep track.  I'm finding that Frazer likes to pile on the evidence "evidence."

Frazer's goal is to investigate the origins of religion and magic.  He figures there was a sort of Ur-practice back in ancient days, and that world religions (at least, I think he's implying this) developed from this pre-historic practice, which involved -- so far -- a king who was killed and then symbolically reborn as a kind of fertility rite.  But, since he doesn't really lay his argument out in the way we would expect from a modern author, it's hard to follow.  Instead, he meanders around, poking into this or that aspect of magic or religion.  Any folk-magic practice or religious belief that he likes, he'll throw in as a piece of evidence for his theory -- which seems like obvious cherry-picking of data -- and apparently he wasn't above changing the evidence to suit his theory. 

I should explain that while Frazer was an enthusiastic early anthropologist and did much to foster anthropology as a discipline, even he knew that he would soon be superseded.  Nowadays, we would call him an 'armchair anthropologist' and look upon his methods with horror.  But to be fair to him, people had to invent all those methods and standards, and he helped with that process.  As far as I can tell, while some of his stuff is well enough, his overarching theory (of this Ur-practice) was utterly wrong and he tried too hard to fit his facts to his theory, rather than the other way round. 

And of course, Frazer suffered from the endemic prejudices of his day, assuming that societies could be ranked in higher or lower order, with his own at the top and most other groups as 'savages.'  He did not at all seem to mean that 'savages' are uncivilized or vicious (though they might be!), but more unsophisticated.   He certainly applied the term liberally, however, and the result is strange.  He'd say that belief in magic is the belief of a 'savage,' and then he'd describe magic practices in Germany, France, Scotland, and even England itself.  You end up with the impression that anyone who wasn't educated at Oxford qualifies for the definition.   So I'm inclined to think that folk-magic is not only a nicer term, but a far more accurate one -- even by his own ideas.

Every time Frazer made an assertion (say, that magic has a contagious aspect) he would produce a pile of evidence.  "Among the Galelareese...." "In Shropshire until just 50 years ago..."  This ends up being rather confusing, as the reader loses track of just what it is we're learning about.  And since it's just a sentence or two about each one, you don't necessarily gain real understanding -- and I'm not sure he had it either.  I came upon a short description of an Australian totemic practice, and wound up looking up a bit about it.  I doubt very much that Frazer always, or even often, had a deep understanding of the practices he wrote about; he decided what they meant.
OK, on with the outline:

I. The King of the Wood
1. Diana and Virbius: the original question, about Diana worship at Nemi, where a priest-king rules in a grove and watches out for his murderer
2. Artemis and Hippolytus: worship of Hippolytus.  A pattern emerges!
3. Recapitulation: Diana/Artemis as fertility goddess, and sacrificed man her consort.

II.  Priestly Kings: the combination of kingship with priestly duties is an ancient one; kings are supposed to embody the land

III. Sympathetic Magic
1. Principles of Magic: magic falls into two broad categories
2. Homeopathic or Imitative Magic: if two things look alike, they can influence each other.  Thus a wax image of a person may be used to inflict injury on him.  (Soooo many examples.)
3. Contagious Magic: if two things have been connected, they can influence each other.  Thus someone's hair may be used to inflict injury.
4. The Magician's Progress: thoughts on the social utility of magic.  Talented and unscrupulous people in ancient settings would have used magic as a tool of power, and perhaps caused social progress along the way.  (I couldn't agree with some of his assertions.)

IV. Magic and Religion: differences.  Pure magic is like science, except mistaken; it believes in cause and effect, that the spell done correctly will always have the same result because that's how nature works.  While religion consists of a plea to a conscious being who may or may not grant the request.  In practice these get mixed together.  Magic develops first in evolution, and so there was an age of magic before religion was invented.  Science comes after that.

V.  The Magical Control of the Weather
1. The Public Magician: You might do magic just for yourself, or for the good of the town, as with the weather.
2. Rain: The most important one!  Lots of examples here, even my favorite of dressing up a girl as a bush and pouring water all over her.  Also, if no rain comes, people might punish their god or magician.
3. Sun: Fewer examples.
4. Wind: Sailors like this one.

VI.  Magicians as Kings: A good magician might well rise to become a king.  This chapter is odd; Frazer has the fixed idea that a society without a king or despot, that is run on some form of democracy or with a council of elders, is not as advanced as a society with a king.  Having a tyrant is an advance in his book, and a sure sign of a higher level of civilization.  On another note, he mentions the California Maidu, which is the Native American people local to my area, so that was fun.

My own thoughts:

Oddly, Frazer's theories about the development of magic before religion lead to an entire section (too long to quote) in which he poetically describes Neolithic people as believing that they controlled all of the world -- they called the sun to rise and set, the rains to fall, and the plants to grow, and they must have felt quite powerful until they realized that their rituals weren't that effective, and so turned to religion and a recognition of their dependence on outside factors.  This strikes me as preposterous.  I would bet that Neolithic peoples did not feel in control of anything very much!

For a guy who thought that kingship was important to the development of civilization, Frazer sure didn't have a lot of respect for actual kings.  He called George III "an honest dullard," and take a look at the last quotation for his opinion of Queen Anne!

Frazer's big 12-volume work did include at least one chapter on the Christian religion, but that scandalized everybody, and I guess he had to take it out again.  I'm sure that it would seem utterly mundane to us, 100 years later!  I can't see that my copy has it in there, but who knows -- maybe I'll run into it, or if not I can probably find it online somewhere. 

Some quotations (I'm doing this so you don't have to?):
If my analysis of the magician's logic is correct, its two great principles turn out to be merely two different misapplications of the association of ideas.  Homeopathic magic is founded on the association of ideas by similarity: contagious magic is founded on the association of ideas by contiguity.  Homeopathic magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which resemble each other are the same: contagions magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact.

The magic virtue of a pregnant woman to communicate fertility is known to Bavarian and Austrian peasants, who think that if you give the first fruit of a tree to a woman with child to eat, the tree will bring forth abundantly next year.

So far, therefore, as the public profession of magic has been one of the roads by which the ablest men have passed to supreme power, it has contributed to emancipate mankind from the thraldom of tradition and to elevate them into a larger, freer life, with a broader outlook on the world.   This is no small service rendered to humanity.  And when we remember further that in another direction magic has paged the way for science, we are forced to admit that if the black art has done much evil, it has also been the source of much good; that if it is the child of error, it has yet been the mother of freedom and truth.

...if magic be deduced immediately from elementary processes of reasoning, and be, in fact, an error into which the mind falls almost spontaneously, while religion rests on conceptions which the merely animal intelligence can hardly be supposed to have yet attained to, it becomes probably that magic arose before religion in the evolution of our race...

...however justly we may reject the extravagant pretensions of magicians and condemn the deceptions which they have practiced on mankind, the original institution of this class of men has, take it all in all, been productive of incalculable good to humanity. They were the direct predecessors, not merely of our physicians and surgeons, but of our investigators and discoverers in every branch of natural science. They began the work which has since been carried to such glorious and beneficent issues by their successors in after ages; and if the beginning was poor and feeble, this is to be imputed to the inevitable difficulties which beset the path of knowledge rather than to the natural incapacity or wilful fraud of the men themselves.

[on the practice of curing scrofula with the king's touch in England]....Charles the First cured a hundred patients at one swoop in the chapel royal at Holyrood. But it was under his son Charles the Second that the practice seems to have attained its highest vogue. It is said that in the course of his reign Charles the Second touched near a hundred thousand persons for scrofula....The cool-headed William the Third contemptuously refused to lend himself to the hocus pocus... However, the practice was continued, as might have been expected, by the dull bigot James the Second and his dull daughter Queen Anne.
So, I'm going to declare my first two weeks a success.  Frazer is often horrifying, but also entertaining, and I'm glad to finally be reading this very influential work.


  1. wonderful post... i wonder if Robert Graves got some of his weird ideas from Frazer?

  2. I would say definitely. IIRC, in the White Goddess he pretty much said Frazer had some good ideas but didn't take them far enough. So Graves took them *really* far.

  3. Woohoo, this is such a good project! And while I probably disagree with Frazier about, like, most things, I agree with him about kings. Terrible thing to have! :P

  4. Great post and I pretty much agree with you. I can't even imagine that Frazer wanted this work taken seriously. It's as if he's writing his thoughts to himself, just to get them down. That said, I'm only on chapter V. Time to catch up!

    @Jenny ..... we still have kings, they are just carefully disguised ... 😉

  5. Cleo, you might indeed be right! :D

    I found myself wondering if Frazer had ever read the Old Testament, which abounds with warnings about the dangers of kingship....


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