The Golden Bough

I started reading The Golden Bough by James George Frazer late last year, and it took me many, many months to get through. I have been trying to write about books as I finish them, but this one has been a big block in the pipe for me, so I haven’t been writing about the other books I’ve read. I’m going to try to get through this one. Written in 1890, the book is one of the first comprehensive reviews of religious and magical practices across the world. As such, it’s considered the basis of the field of comparative religion.

The book begins with a clever hook: the author’s interest in stories of the rex Nemorensis, a religious office in Ancient Rome that required each new priest to kill his predecessor to gain the role. Frazer explores in detail everything there is to know about the rex Nemorensis: the god(s) they served, the geography around Nemi that influenced the practice, the related roles in contemporary Rome. And as he follows each thread, the story opens and unfolds to cover the entire planet.

Frazer identifies an archetype in human development, namely, a leader or king who uses magic to maintain the well-being of his subjects. When the king’s magic fails to produce rain or other benefits for society, the king is killed, and a new contender takes his place. Frazer maps this archetype onto dozens of historical cultures and practices, including the cult of Adonis in classical Greece and more controversially onto Christianity.

Frazer’s style is methodical and rationalistic. In order to show that magic is and was important to peoples around the world, he does a survey of magical practices in all parts of life. In order to show how magic matters to agriculture, he refers to agricultural magical practices around the world. This technique is fascinating and convincing, but it gets tedious after a while. Once you’ve heard that children in one village of Saxony or Normandy collect coins for a corn-doll on St. John’s Day, it’s a little boring to hear about the same practice in 4 other villages.

His taxonomy of magic is really interesting, too. He breaks magic down into two essential practices: sympathetic magic is when you use similarity to invoke a phenomenon, like sprinkling water on crops to produce rain. Contagious magic is when you use contact with something to convey its powers to other things, like young couples jumping over a bonfire of young trees together to convey fertility. Frazer then defines religion as externalising magic to person-like otherworld entities when your own magic doesn’t work.

What I loved about this book was the identification of our deep, shared culture as human beings. The echo of very old practices, distributed among people on every continent, tells a story of some interesting and essential processes. I was reading at the same time The Meaning of Human Existence, by E. O. Wilson, which talks about similar shared deep culture. Next up for me is Human Universals, which is specifically about this topic.

I also loved the coverage of European agricultural and tree magic. The book was written before Christmas trees were popularised in North America or Europe, so most of the discussion of tree magic focuses on Maypoles and their ilk. It’s interesting that our culture has become more centered on tree magic, not less, over the century since the book was written.

There’s an excellent section on magic and travel taboos that was interesting to read during a time of pandemic. Frazer describes practices like minimising contact between foreign travellers from a local population, requiring people who leave the local area to travel elsewhere to quarantine when they return, and careful handling of objects from far away. Frazer lived in a time when germ theory was known, but I don’t think he realised how much practical use travel taboos could have. Identifying “evil spirits” that might accompany people from afar as the invisible microbes they carry with them might give a better idea of how these taboos developed.

What didn’t I like about this book? It’s unapologetically racist in the smug and loathsome way that only scientists of the 1800s can be. Frazer structures the different sections of the book in order of the racist ranking he imposes on humans from different continents: Australians, then American, then African, then Asian, and finally European. He calls plenty of people “savages”, and not only ignores the knowledge they might provide as primitive, but specifically considers certain ideas to be false only because “savages” believe in them.

I have been cutting books with this kind of scientific racist perspective out of my reading for a while now; even books that are foundational and part of the Western canon. There are lots of things to read, and if I don’t have to, why read things that suck?

But I found The Golden Bough readable despite the framing, because of the hundreds or even thousands of stories of real people living their lives, celebrating, making decisions the best they knew how. I got the impression that Frazer really was actually fascinated by human behaviour, and wanted to think more about these stories as stories, but felt like he had to overlay the scientific Darwinism of his time. The stories themselves rarely have value judgments on the practices described. That might be wishful thinking on my part, though.

Would I recommend this book? I don’t know. If you find deep culture and magical practices interesting, you’re going to find a lot of ideas in here. If you enjoy the intellectual puzzle of connecting histories, myths, and modern era anthropology to form cohesive narratives, it’s going to be interesting. But you’ll have to hold your nose through some of the passages that rank human cultures according to an arbitrary, false, social Darwinist scale.

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