Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1613
The Golden Bough, perhaps the most famous work in anthropology, began appearing in 1890. Originally a two-volume work, Sir James George Frazer eventually expanded it to twelve volumes, the last of which appeared in 1915. In 1936, he added a supplementary volume, Aftermath. The work is undoubtedly best known in the one-volume abridgment that Frazer published in 1922, which was subsequently revised by Theodore H. Gaster in 1959.
Although many of Frazer’s ideas have been superseded in the intervening years, his overall thesis has stood the test of time; certainly its influence outside the field of anthropology—for example, in twentieth century poetry, fiction, and drama—was unprecedented.
Frazer investigates one basic theme, one that starts in the dramatic opening scene, in which the doomed priest of Nemi stalks the grove of Diana at Aricia on the Italian coast, sword in hand, waiting for the unknown rival who will assail him, murder him, and in turn become the priest. This theme is the meaning in myth and ritual of the sacrifice of the heroic leader whose people are renewed through his death. Frazer industriously ransacked accounts of missionaries and travelers and transferred his data into huge notebooks from which he synthesized his parallel myths of the Middle East and Europe and composed his theories about the relations of myth to ritual, magic to religion, hero to god, and leader to people. Frazer’s power to synthesize is undoubtedly the key to his impact on his intellectual contemporaries and those who followed. He never left his Cambridge study to investigate anything at first hand, choosing rather to examine his data, taken from correspondents and diarists, for its symbolic meaning. In the course of that examination, he traced the connections between myths and religious rituals with both the cultures that had produced them and the cultures that came later. At the same time Sigmund Freud was theorizing about the profoundly significant world of human unconsciousness, Frazer uncovered the elements and meanings of human group behavior, which, though generally buried in the past, often remained alive in folk customs and beliefs.
Frazer’s quest for the meaning of the life and death of the priest of Nemi took him through the mythology of the Mediterranean area and Europe. He first discusses magic and religion, suggesting that religion is the civilized offspring of primitive magic and arose out of what he called a “homeopathic” or sympathetic magic that associates acts through similarity. When a tribe or clan desired rain, the magician commanded it through pouring water on the parched soil; priests later invoked it by the same act. Frazer also postulates “contagious” magic, in which primitive humans believed that things once associated can never be separated in the ideal sense. Here he cites the practice, known widely through voodoo, of endeavoring to harm a person by mistreating a symbolic representation containing the intended victim’s real hair or nail parings.
Frazer suggests that the primitive magician became first the tribal priest or medicine man (known to today’s anthropologist as the shaman, from the name for this vocation among the Manchurians), then, as civilization developed, the sacred king of his people. Retaining his original religious significance, this king in the highly developed ancient civilizations of the Middle East became divine. The myths of sacrificial death and spiritual rebirth are actually stories describing the regimen of the king’s rule. On the basis of his examination of a wealth of totem and taboo customs that saturated the ritualized existence of a divine king, Frazer draws a portrait of a being whose life was set apart from the rest of the people by their need to solve cultural problems through his life and death. Because the physical and spiritual well-being of the tribe was dependent on the well-being of the priest-king, an extraordinary number of rules (totem and taboo) governed his existence. Frazer also collected a number of stories of primitive people who either deposed or killed their shaman-king when his health or potency failed. Frazer considered this ritual death the explanation for why the old priest at Nemi expected attack from a mysterious stranger, for that stranger had actually been chosen to succeed him.
To show how a king’s life and death are related to myth, Frazer compiles parallel incidents from the tales of such pagan deities as Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter, and Virbius. Adonis was said to be born of tree bark; his life was linked with fruition and his death was celebrated in the early spring. Killed by a boar on Mount Lebanon, his body was said to join the land, for the red mud that washed down the rivers in the spring rains was said to be his blood. Thus the god was thought literally to fertilize the land; his resurrection and that of the land are celebrated shortly after. By trying to influence, even coerce, nature through homeopathic magic, Frazer maintains, primitive humans in their ignorant simplicity confused the human with the earth and wish with fulfillment. Frazer associates the death of Osiris with the flooding of the Nile, upon whose waters the fertility of Egyptian civilization depended. Osiris, like Orpheus, was said to have been torn apart by his sacred murderers and his body scattered to ensure fecundity of land, animals, and people. Other myths tell of eating the slain god for his power and holiness, and Frazer traces this obvious forerunner of transubstantiation in Christian communion through numerous cults. Cannibalism and the eating of sacred bread and wine are similar patterns of sympathetic magic.
Along with rites designed to bring health and prosperity, some primitive rituals were thought to ward off danger and evil. In many rites, a sacrificial victim or scapegoat served as the representative of an entire people’s atonement. Frazer suggests that the sacrificed god frequently served as a scapegoat, thus introducing the idea of sacrifice to later cultures and to literature. He links this phenomenon with later festivals of saturnalia and carnival, with their kings of misrule who are allowed free conduct and then deposed.
Frazer links fire festivals throughout Europe both to seasonal religious ritual and to human and animal sacrifices. He suggests that the life-giving property of the sun is invoked, and the destructive power of fire appeased, through such complex ritual, especially at midsummer, which Frazer found to be the time of most widespread religious rites known to Aryans.
Using the legend of the Norse god Balder, Frazer draws the threads of his theme together. Balder is alleged to have been slain by a branch of mistletoe and burned in a great funeral fire. The parasitical mistletoe is strange and magical because it is rootless, and it grows on oaks, which makes both mistletoe and oak sacred. Returning to the sacred oak grove on the shore of Lake Nemi, Frazer describes the priest of the sacred wood as a representative of the divine king, the doomed god of organic life who must die so that his spirit and power may be propagated throughout the world. The yellow, waxy mistletoe represents the spirit of the oak, the sacred tree, and is the golden bough carried by Vergil’s Aeneas through the world of the dead in order to show the power of life available to the hero of myth and epic that enables him to triumph over death.
Later anthropologists and linguists revised many of Frazer’s speculations about the material he had accumulated. Ironically, some of the principal revisions involved his primary concern. The sacred grove at Nemi was not of oak, and the famous bough was probably generalized greenery carried by supplicants in religious ceremonies. The shrine at Nemi, most scholars later agreed, seems to have been a sanctuary for escaped slaves, not a temple of a seasonal god of death and resurrection. Later scholars also criticized Frazer for being too simplistic and logical when he interpreted his material according to the tenets of his orderly Darwinian mind. Frazer called almost all humans living in cultures before the birth of the city-state “primitive,” but, gradually, knowledge accumulated as to the stratification that existed in so-called primitive cultures. Religious ritual did not grow out of magical practice, for magic is a separate cultural phenomenon. Most of Frazer’s deities are not merely seasonal or vegetable gods; they are also embodiments of divine force and heroic human qualities. Osiris, for example, is more the avatar of the sacredness of the Pharaoh than he is a vegetable deity. Frazer tends to oversimplify and often to denigrate his subjects, and he tends to trace too mechanically human movement toward the Victorian world. He was also handicapped by having to rely on secondhand accounts compiled by amateur travelers, many of whom did not know the cultures about which they reported and rarely knew the languages and dialects spoken in the regions they had visited.
Given all these qualifications, Gaster, Frazer’s contemporary editor, claimed that The Golden Bough had contributed more to the intellectual and artistic climate of the twentieth century than any other anthropological work. Frazer’s vast compilation turns up materials of myth and ritual that lie at the root of twentieth century customs and literature, many of which continue to survive in folk customs associated with festivities such as Christmas, Easter, and May Day. Frazer’s work remains the most influential anthropological study known to well-educated general readers. Despite the voluminous number of examples cited by Frazer, the work possesses distinctive clarity and great dramatic drive. Its drama still moves because Frazer’s primary plot—the quest for the secret of the life and death of the haunted priest in the grove at Nemi—is analogous to myth.