The Golden Bough Summary
by Sir James George Frazer

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Golden Bough Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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Although many of Frazer’s ideas have been superseded in the intervening years, his overall thesis has stood the test of time; certainly its influence outside the field of anthropology—for example, in twentieth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)...

(The entire section is 2,548 words.)