The Reputation of Frazer's Book

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1503

There is every reason in the world to believe that Sir James Frazer’s name will be remembered for many years, due to the resounding importance of his masterpiece, The Golden Bough. The book had a powerful impact when it was first published in 1890, reaching beyond the usual academic audience that reads such scholarly works and finding a place in the public consciousness. Between then and his death in 1941, Frazer kept the work in the public eye with subsequent additions and expansions. Since then, the book has never gone out of print.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Golden Bough Study Guide

Subscribe Now

On the other hand, it would be easy to believe that The Golden Bough has outlived its usefulness. Frazer’s rich, airy, academic writing style, which once may have served to impress and attract nonacademic readers, is now considered to be hard work for the average person. The book’s vast, encyclopedic catalogue of cultural practices, gleaned from years and years of meticulous research, may have once been thought of as the best single source of facts on its subject, but now the Internet has made even more cultural information available in one location, much of it from primary sources. Modern readers, attracted to the ease of finding information and put off by Frazer’s difficult, antiquated language, might bypass the experience of reading The Golden Bough, drawn instead to more accessible sources for the same ideas, so that in time the unthinkable might happen, and James Frazer, once considered among the most influential writers of the twentieth century, could drop from memory.

From the start, The Golden Bough was accepted as both a scientific and literary achievement. It was central in getting Frazer, who was trained in classical literature, appointed a professorship for a year (in 1907) in social anthropology at Liverpool University. Such a casual crossing between the realms of science and art would be impossible today, when college education is more accessible. Today one could hardly be considered an expert in any field without at least having a degree in that area. At a time when demonstration of knowledge was more important than credentials, though, Frazer easily proved himself to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the world regarding social anthropology. Any reader of The Golden Bough can tell that Frazer weaves its fabric from such diverse strains of cultural practices because he is so entirely familiar and comfortable with such a wide variety of them. He has a point to make and thousands of examples to draw from in the course of making it.

It was his ability to weave a coherent tale that expanded Frazer’s appeal beyond academics, making the book a success in the general population. There had been studies of folklore before, books and journals about obscure beliefs and practices. Studies of the myths of Greek and Roman mythologies had absorbed many academic careers. The greatest achievement of The Golden Bough was that it not only explained ideas from diverse areas of the globe but that it gave them meaning in relation to one another. The facts of, for example, a Scandinavian tradition, a Pakistani custom, and a pagan European ritual might be interesting to someone who has a background in such matters, who can put each piece of information into a context with others that one knows from experience. To an outsider, though, they are just unrelated facts. What Frazer did was, in effect, to make his readers feel like they are insiders. His narrative, starting with one fixed but somewhat arbitrary point, provides a context that all can absorb, which gave all his readers the chance to participate as if they are part of the panel of archeological experts.

One of the most important things that The Golden Bough illustrates is an attitude to take when comparing cultures. In its broad scope, the book recognized the diversity of cultural ideas. Reading it line by line, though, readers gain a sense of the sameness of all of cultural beliefs. Frazer provides a smooth ride through ages and across the globe, softened by his measured, objective tone. The book’s authorial voice speaks with such firm confidence that it is difficult to disagree. Even in the 1800s, most of his readers would not have seen Joseph Mallord Turner’s 1834 painting, which hung in London’s National Gallery, but Frazer managed to draw them in, not alienate them, just as he has drawn in generations with his opening question, ‘‘Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough?’’ The discourse that follows the question could be considered a triumph of rhetoric, as he manages to hold the whole story of humanity together with sheer verbal dexterity. Now and then he brings the discussion back into focus with phrases such as ‘‘With these explanations and cautions I will now adduce some examples of gods’’ to remind readers of how one diversion or another fits into the larger picture. The persuasive power of using such a cultivated voice to address matters considered ‘‘primitive,’’ such as magic and pagan religions, should not be underestimated either, as readers for more than a century have felt secure that The Golden Bough’s narrative would lead to the satisfactory conclusion that there is indeed order in the development of belief systems.

And, in fact, the book went on to become one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. T. S. Eliot acknowledged the influence of The Golden Bough on his 1922 poem The Waste Land, which is generally considered to be one of the most significant texts of the modernist movement. D. H. Lawrence is said to have studied the book’s accounts of Aztec sacrifices when he was working on Women in Love. Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, who rules a remote jungle tribe in Heart of Darkness with a magical sort of charisma, shows the influence, if not directly of Frazer, then of someone who is familiar with his work. The poet Robert Graves was a follower. And, of course, all of the writers whom these writers influenced can be said to owe something to Frazer, whether they have read his work or not.

But with each generation, fewer and fewer read the book. The decline started within Frazer’s lifetime, as questions were raised about his methods. When the book first came out during the Victorian era, it was an impressive enough feat for a writer to gather a broad sampling of information and string it together. The early twentieth century was an age of specialization, though. Industries, most notably automobile manufacturers, developed the system of division of labor that had each worker on the assembly line concentrate on one small aspect of the overall production. In the spirit of this division of labor, the scientific method of collecting information was brought under tighter scrutiny. Just as support for Sigmund Freud’s far-reaching conclusions was dampened by his personal relationships with his patients, so Frazer’s work came to be viewed with skepticism because of his way of gathering information. His research was done in the library, not the field: many of the customs he reported were not observed firsthand but were instead retellings of stories reported from travelers. The possibilities of error in this method are obvious and have been often reported. Because his findings were not based on observations from anthropologists trained to understand what they were seeing, scientific interest in his writing declined.

Still, it is as a work of literature that The Golden Bough has come to readers today. As such, it has been free of the strict rules of scientific data gathering. Literary interpretation is not as concerned with whether the sources Frazer used are true as it is with how he explains the relationship between them. In that regard, no one can challenge his intellectual achievement. The trouble is that, as a piece of literature, the book can be exceedingly boring.

There is no rule that says that good literature should not be boring, and the idea of boredom is entirely relative: usually, the things that fascinate people in adulthood are the things that most bored them when they were children. Still, there is also a good chance that a work written for an earlier age can lose interest for all but the most narrowly specialized. What The Golden Bough accomplished, in terms of information, worldview, and style, was what the world needed then. But with the information either discredited or available elsewhere more easily and his unified worldview so prevalent that it is taken for granted, all the modern reader is left with is an antiquated Victorian prose style. The book will always have its fans because every field has its fans of esoterica, but in all likelihood future readers of The Golden Bough will pride themselves for having absorbed Frazer’s story in the same way that collectors of such things take pride in the ownership of a rare old book.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Golden Bough, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Isolation and the Sense of Assumed Superiority in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3605

Literary critics have traced the influence of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough through the works of authors as diverse as Scott Fitzgerald and Sigmund Freud. Almost no modern writer has escaped the scrutiny of comparison. However, only a few scholars have subjected The Golden Bough to the scrutiny of critical evaluation, and their studies are mostly responses to the ‘‘hostile scrutiny’’ of anthropologists and classical scholars who find fault with The Golden Bough’s theoretical framework and methodology. Their objections are twofold: On one level they find fault with Frazer’s lack of field experience—he gathers his information only from secondary sources; on another level they object to Frazer’s interpretation of this information— he can find no value for the myths and customs within their society. Yet, despite its failings as an anthropological text, The Golden Bough has considerable value precisely because of its sense of assumed superiority and consequent isolation, and no critic has adequately examined its structure based on these principles.

After reviewing the intricacies of Frazer’s argument it becomes clear that he is schooled in the vocabulary of dominance and cannot escape its instruction. This does not simply mean his education at the University of Glasgow and Trinity College, Cambridge. It means that he approached his analysis from a position of superiority and refused to yield equality or even legitimacy to the objects of his study. The method of his examination can be discerned as a three-part process. First, there is an attempted contact. Unfortunately, the contact is often attempted through a medium that belies intimacy—the second part of the process. The medium could simply be the mistaken notion that human relations can be achieved solely through intellectual means, but it is more likely that some quality of his analysis made contact impossible. The result is limited communication—the method’s fi- nal stage. This process manifests itself on many levels of The Golden Bough beginning with Frazer’s chosen sources, continuing through his method of examining those sources, and proceeding through the results of his analysis—the discovery of lost traditions harboring secret associations, the origins of the Nemi ritual, a cycle of death and regeneration modelled on the seasons, and a hierarchy of religious and societal progress.

On its most basic level, Frazer’s analysis requires an association with the wider world; in order to report various traditions he must become intimate with a diversity of cultures. He seeks to prove that certain ‘‘motives have operated widely, perhaps universally, in human society, producing in varied circumstances a variety of institutions specifically different but generally alike.’’ His study examines the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians; and various ‘‘barbarian’’ tribes—the Celts, Gauls, and Germanic people. In addition he bends his gaze towards corners of a world contemporary with his analysis—modern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Levant, the Americas, and Australia. The scope of his analysis succeeds in incorporating a diversity of cultures representing a global society throughout time.

Yet Frazer chooses incorporation through the distorted glass of imperialist perspective. His sources read like a canon of empire and dominance ranging from Julius Caesar to the Spanish Conquerors to the travellers and military expeditions contemporary with his study. His is the view of ‘‘Lieutenant Gamble’’ and ‘‘Colonel Dodge,’’ ‘‘Captain Moseby’’ and ‘‘Captain Bourke.’’ The survey begins and ends with the ‘‘Afghan Boundary Mission’’; a ‘‘Jesuit’’ or other ‘‘Christian missionary’’; and ‘‘the United States Polar Expedition’’—all of whom saw non- Western peoples and lands as threatening, pagan, and hostile. The result is association simultaneous with disassociation.

He is able to see the alien society, able to gain some understanding of its practices, yet the understanding is distorted and facile. Quaint histories result with reports of ‘‘a sect in Orissa who worship the Queen of England as their chief divinity.’’ Then there is

a sect in the Punjab [who] worshipped a deity whom they called Nikkal Sen. This Nikkal Sen was no other than the redoubted General Nicholson, and nothing that the general could do or say damped the enthusiasm of his adorers. The more he punished them, the greater grew the religious awe with which they worshipped him.

Frazer and Nicholson present themselves as superior and stand amazed and contemptuous when their superiority mirrors itself in the behavior of the observed. There is affiliation—the contact of the adored or of the scientist hovering above his subjects—but the observer is distant and apart. He separates himself from the objects of his study and reports a people who are less than human, or at least less than English.

The canon of the uncivilized reads like a litany of Britain’s late Victorian prejudices—prejudices that Frazer does not hesitate to carry through when he interprets his sources. It includes not only the obvious ‘‘barbarous’’ races—the ‘‘bush negroes of Surinam,’’ the ‘‘heathen Syrians,’’ the Jews, and the Catholic Irish. It also includes ‘‘the semi-barbarous nations of the New World’’ in addition to French, Swedish, and Austrian peasants. In short, anyone outside the British aristocratic and merchant classes is seen as a quaint storehouse of antiquated beliefs and traditions. It is the world of Kipling— characters from Kim and The Jungle Book who hold the secrets of the dark natural world, and it is the theater of Boucicault—the blacks of Jessie Brown or the stage Irishman happy in his drunken ignorance.

Frazer’s vocabulary of association betrays the same type of prejudices and implies a systematic, if half-conscious, demeaning of non-English cultures. Images of ‘‘rude peoples all over the world’’ are paraded before a reader. We are shown examples of ‘‘primitive superstition and religion’’ taken from the ‘‘Old Heathen days.’’ We see the representatives of the ‘‘savage hordes,’’ and the ‘‘unfortunate beings’’ who are still taken by the ‘‘quaint superstition’’ and the ‘‘antique fancies’’ of ‘‘savage phiT losophers’’ that are nothing more than ‘‘cobwebs of the brain.’’ The language implies a crude and simple culture populated by ignorant and brutal people whose form of worship is nothing more than a wasteland because it lacks a Christian framework. By today’s standards Frazer’s methodology for examining the subjects of his analysis seems absurd, but this tendency characterized cultural studies in the late nineteenth century.

It distorts the objects of Frazer’s study just as his choice of sources does. However, Frazer is aware of the possible harm of such an approach. He warns that ‘‘in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we may one day stand in need of ourselves.’’ Frazer begs indulgence for an inferiority he has conjured from the Victorian framework of analysis. He calls ceremonies rude if ‘‘no special class of persons is set aside for the performance of the rites,’’ if ‘‘no special places are set apart’’ for the rituals, if ‘‘spirits not gods are recognized,’’ and if ‘‘the rites are magical rather than propitiatory.’’ It seems that difference implies inferiority and that these practices are only valued for their influence on civilized religion and have no import in and of themselves.

Yet there seems to be another value, produced as a consequence of the distortions and prejudices, only implicit in Frazer’s analysis—the value of lost traditions harboring secret associations. He seems to relish ‘‘the days when Diana and Virbius still received the homage of their worshippers in the sacred grove.’’ Even though ‘‘the temple of Diana . . . has disappeared, and the King of the Wood no longer stands sentinel over the Golden Bough,’’ Frazer muses that ‘‘Nemi’s woods are still green, and at evening you may hear the church bells of Albano, and perhaps, if the air be still, of Rome itself, ringing the Angeles.’’ The old gods are still summoned, and Frazer’s work is a type of summoning—an effort to conjure the sublime. It is as if the primitive and savage races can tap into a hidden power of the world, as if they can find a communion with nature that is beyond Frazer’s grasp. He is like William Sharp who needed to conjure Fiona Macleod to contact the natural world, but, for both men, the posturings of assumed superiority distort the contact.

There is a sense of loss in Sharp and in Frazer, a sense of disconnectedness. Each wants to ‘‘partake of the new corn sacramentally’’ but can only do so through what they see as an inferior—a woman or a savage people. Le roi est mort, but there is no new king. There are only the delusions of the heathen— the ‘‘primitive man’’ who ‘‘fancies he can make the sun to shine, and can hasten or stay its going down,’’ or ‘‘the savage’’ who ‘‘commonly explains the processes of inanimate nature by supposing that they are produced by living beings working in or behind the phenomena.’’ The world is alive, is animate, for the uncivilized—for ‘‘the prettiest girl’’ in ‘‘the south-east of Ireland [who] on May Day . . . used to be chosen Queen of the district for twelve months. She was crowned with wild flowers; feasting, dancing, and rustic sports followed, and were closed by a grand procession in the evening.’’ However, for Frazer, a world of emptiness and isolation dominates.

In 1909 he would write, in the preface to a volume of biblical passages selected for their literary interest, that

though many of us can no longer, like our fathers, find in its pages the solution of the dark, the inscrutable riddle of human existence, yet the volume must be held sacred by all who reverence the high aspirations to which it gives utterance, and the pathetic associations with which the faith and piety of so many have invested the familiar words.

The words are seen as fragments of a lost tradition, of a lost contact. Frazer cannot see that it is his distortions, his assumed superiority, that has caused the separation and the consequent isolation.

There are other possible reasons for the sense of disconnectedness in his work. Among them is Frazer’s method of examining his information. All of it is, somehow, made to support some aspect of the Nemi tradition. A world of customs and practices is laid out before him. His survey begins with ‘‘The King of the Wood.’’ This does not necessarily mean the king of the Arician woods; any king or queen will do. Specifically, he mentions Diana and others. They have the attributes of a tree spirit or sylvan deity—they can control the weather or the state of wildlife and vegetation. Frazer then goes on to show that there is a sympathetic connection between the king and his kingdom. The ruler is subject to restrictions to help preserve it. If he should hurt himself the kingdom would suffer. Therefore, people would often subject their ruler to occasional trials, tests of wit and strength. If the king failed, his soul and the soul of the forest would be transferred to a successor; the king’s soul would often be kept in some object for safekeeping until the trial was over. Numerous examples are cited, including Osiris and Dionysus. Their deaths and regenerations are supposed to be modelled on the pattern of the seasons. After superficial consideration, his study seems to develop fascinating relationships between a diversity of cultures.

However, each of these points simply develops a part of Frazer’s Nemi thesis; they have limited value independently. Diana and the sylvan deities are mentioned because Aricia is a wooded area, and the King of the Wood is a manifestation of the tree spirit. The sympathetic connection between the king and his kingdom is important to the Nemi tradition because its king must survive occasional trials by combat to ensure his health and the consequent health of the woods. The notion of the external soul supports Nemi because the golden bough itself is the mistletoe where the king’s soul is kept. These are the primary relationships between the plethora of cultural practices. All other connections are incidental to the Nemi tradition.

Consequently, on one level Frazer’s study is simply a collection of fragments designed to serve Nemi. Certainly The Golden Bough represents much more than that; therein lies the danger of his approach. The various customs and individuals are dispossessed from their culture. Their relationship and unity must rely on the validity of Frazer’s thesis because they cannot rely on the validity supplied by their respective societies. Obviously, a tradition cannot stand on its own merits if examined out of context. In subsequent editions of The Golden Bough Frazer downplays the role of Nemi and discredits his thesis, but his analysis retains the same structure. It continues to serve Nemi even after Nemi is removed. A collection of lost fragments remains to serve an invalid hypothesis.

The major component of this lost service is the cycle of death and rebirth modelled on the seasons: The annual death and revival of vegetation is a conception which readily presents itself to men in every stage of savagery and civilization; and the vastness of the scale on which this yearly decay and regeneration takes place, together with man’s intimate dependence on it for subsistence, combine to render it the most striking annual phenomenon in nature, at least within the temperate zones. It is no wonder that a phenomenon so important, so striking, and so universal should, by suggesting similar ideas, have given rise to similar rites in many lands.

This motif rises again and again throughout Frazer’s study. It appears in the Arician grove; in the persons of Attis, Adonis, and Osiris; in the corn spirit; and in the folk-tales and folk-customs of Europe.

However, Frazer destroys this continuity by classifying and ranking the various traditions. He feels that ‘‘the spring and harvest customs of our European peasantry deserve to rank as primitive,’’ that ‘‘the writings even of these town-bred and cultured persons afford us an occasional glimpse of a Demeter as rude as the rudest that a remote German village can show,’’ and that ‘‘the Indians of California, who, living in a fertile country under a serene and temperate sky, nevertheless rank near the bottom of the savage scale.’’ Just as J. A. Cramb and the members of James Hunt’s Anthropological Society distorted Darwin to create a human hierarchy, Frazer distorts an evolution in beliefs—a simple alteration of customs in response to environmental stimuli—to create an image of progress.

This classification results in Frazer’s isolation. He stands on top of an evolutionary pyramid. Below him is the history of the world. Above him is an abyss of future uncertainty. Around him is the British Empire spread out in its imperial assurance. Specifically, Frazer outlines the progress from magic to religion to science. He sees magic ‘‘as the hope of directing the course of nature by his [mankind’s] own unaided resources.’’ Religion occurs when man ‘‘looks more and more to the gods as the sole repositories of those supernatural powers which he once claimed to share with them . . . Therefore, prayer and sacrifice assume the leading place in religious ritual.’’ ‘‘Still later, the conception of the elemental forces as personal agents’’ gives way ‘‘to the recognition of natural law.’’ The former unity of worship of the death and regeneration of the seasons has given way to the rigidity of superiority.

Like a young Rajah, Frazer travels through the capitals of the world’s major religious movements— the tribal villages of Africa, the primeval forests of Europe, the pastoral landscapes of ancient Egypt, the temples of classical Greece and Rome—classifying and organizing them into his complex framework and analysis. Darkest Africa and the Australian outback continue to function on the level of magic. Societies involved in totemism, like the Indians of the Americas, do have a ‘‘religion,’’ but it is the most primitive type because it entails worshiping trees or wild animals. Communities that worship cattle or other domesticated creatures have ‘‘graduated’’ to a pastoral religion. The highest form of primitive worship is practiced by the agricultural societies, but even this final stage has two parts. On one level gods are seen as imminent spirits residing in cultivated plants, especially corn. On the second level, the Deists, spirits are transcendent like the gods of Greece and Rome. Christianity comes next. It retains some barbarous elements—the transubstantiation of the Catholic Mass, the sacrifice of the son of God—but is, for the most part, civilized. All these movements culminate in science and scientific reasoning. Frazer assembles and disseminates the world, tracing the origins of cultured society.

However, like the Germany of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Frazer keeps the world a ‘‘country of the mind.’’ With rare exception he relies on the work and the stories of various scholars and colonial representatives. As he recognizes the danger of judging ‘‘rude and savage races,’’ Frazer acknowledges the danger of not considering living testimony. He writes that ‘‘compared with the evidence afforded by living tradition, the testimony of ancient books on the subject of early religion is worth very little.’’ However, just as his judgments on prejudice fail to permeate the depths of his analysis, Frazer’s observations fail to escape ‘‘the course of’’ his ‘‘reading.’’ He takes the field work of Mannhardt and Tyler, or Wilken and Gregor, and shapes it to his specifications for the history of religion and worship.

Consequently, his vast storehouse of information contains fragments of traditions that tend to support late Victorian conventions. Frazer assembles his catalogue of religious practices in such a way as to position the scientific and cultural achievements of the late nineteenth century as a point toward which all converges. Certainly, such notions of superiority are not limited to Frazer. In 1866 Luke Owen Pike posited the English at the top of an evolutionary hierarchy in The English and Their Origin. In 1870 Sir John Lubbock, in a book titled The Origin of Civilization, traced a progressive evolution similar to Frazer’s. Victorian scientists and scholars accepted as fact the belief that man evolved from savagery to barbarism to civilization. Consequently, Frazer and his colleagues stand in self-imposed exile, isolated by the burdens of assumed superiority.

Obviously, both the method and the object of Frazer’s inquiries find many models in the world he knew. The longing for a communion with a wider world, a world animate and alive, consumes vast portions of late Victorian society. Oscar Wilde asks to be taken from darkness—

Come down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee.
Gerard Manley Hopkins asks his God to notice

banks and brakes
Now, leaved how thick! laced they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

In addition, the rise of psychical research and a fascination with the occult are widespread, taking in both the uneducated and the highly educated. People are looking for lost gods, lost meanings, lost contacts. In a passage reminiscent of Frazer, Yeats writes that he

planned a mystical Order which should buy or hire the castle, and keep it as a place where its members could retire for a while for contemplation, and where we might establish mysteries like those of Eleusis and Samo-thrace . . . I did not think this philosophy would be altogether pagan, for it was plain that its symbols must be selected from all those things that had moved men most during many, mainly Christian, centuries.

In many ways The Golden Bough is an altar prepared for the sacrifice waiting for its priest, and Frazer’s worldwide inquiries are a searching or a summoning. However, as with Tristan, the cry comes back, ‘‘oed’ und leer das Meer.’’

The origins of the lost connections lie deep in the Victorian consciousness. They can be discerned by examining the elements that keep Frazer at a distance from the objects of his inquiries—the assurance of empire, the certain superiority, the systematic demeaning of other cultures, and the manipulation of countless societies and traditions. There are Darwin and the industrial revolution making the old gods obsolete; there are Nicholson and Cardigan leading countless to a death for Queen and country, and for a peerage; and there is the Earl of Lucan insisting that ‘‘the population must be reduced’’ as skeletons and typhus grow in Ireland. Contact exists, but it is the contact of the master and the lash.

As a consequence, emptiness remains. As in Eliot’s wasteland, there is talking but no communication. There is ‘‘A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead trees give no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water.’’ Only F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘‘valley of ashes’’ is left—

a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ashgray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

The wastelands of the twenties were bred in the Arden and the Somme, but their tragedy was simply the final scene in the final act of the play of empire.

Source: Bernard McKenna, ‘‘Isolation and the Sense of Assumed Superiority in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough,’’ in Nineteenth-Century Prose, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 49–59.

Magic and the Human Mind: A Reconsideration of Frazer’s Golden Bough

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3655

The Golden Bough is a work of many tensions and contradictions, not the least of which is one which the author himself repeatedly pointed to, that is the tension between fact and theory, objectivity and subjectivity. Thus, in the preface to Aftermath, published in 1936, twenty-three years after work on the GB itself was completed, Frazer says:

Now as always, I hold all my theories very lightly and am ever ready to modify or abandon them in the light of new evidence. If my writings should survive the writer, they will do so, I believe, less for the theories which they propound than for the sake of the evidence which they record.

Elsewhere, Frazer describes his work as a repertory which may be used by subsequent scholars to sustain their own theories, and this was more than a polite disclaimer, since Frazer did not think that the discipline of anthropology had in his day reached a stage where it could maintain and prove any theory definitely. Thus, in 1905 he wrote, ‘‘The Newtons and Darwins of anthropology will come after us,’’ and, more gloomily in 1914:

The longer I occupy myself with questions of ancient mythology, the more diffident I become of success in dealing with them, and I am apt to think that we who spend our years in searching for solutions of these insoluble problems are like Sisyphus perpetually rolling his stone uphill only to see it revolve again into the valley.

But at the same time, the GB does have a theoretical purpose, or rather, two interdependent theoretical purposes, the relation between which shifted in the course of the twenty-three years which elapsed between the publication of the first edition of the work in two volumes in 1890, and the publication of third edition in twelve volumes in 1913.

This shift is explained by Frazer himself in the prefaces to the three editions of this work. In 1890, he wrote:

For some time, I have been preparing a general work on primitive superstition and religion. Among the problems which had attracted my attention was the hitherto unexplained rule of the Arician priesthood; and last spring . . . I came across some facts which . . . suggested an explanation of the rule in question. As the explanation, if correct, promised to throw light on some obscure features of primitive religion, I resolved to develop it fully, and . . . to issue it as a separate study. This book is the result.

According to the rule of the Roman priesthood of Aricia which Frazer here refers to, the aspirant priest had to kill the incumbent of the office, having first—as Frazer interpreted the rule—plucked a branch from a tree in the nearby sacred grove. This rule still preoccupied Frazer deeply in 1900, when in the preface to the second edition of the GB, in three volumes, he reiterated: ‘‘this is not a general treatise on primitive superstition, but merely the investigation of one particular and narrowly limited problem, to wit, the rule of the Arician priesthood.’’ By 1913, however, the position had changed. Frazer still begins and ends his work with the rule of the Arician priesthood, as he had done in 1890. But he viewed its role in his conclusions as marginal:

Should my whole theory of this particular priesthood collapse—and I fully acknowledge the slenderness of the foundations on which it rests—its fall would hardly shake my general conclusions as to the evolution of primitive religion and society.

In the outcome, then, the GB became the treatise on primitive religion which initially Frazer had planned to issue separately from his researches on the Arician priesthood.

As might be expected, considering both its scope and the complexity of its aims, the GB has been widely criticized by classical scholars, anthropologists and others for errors of fact, theoretical framework and emphasis, so that almost no aspect of this very long and complex work has escaped hostile scrutiny. At the same time, however, the book has been, and arguably still is, extraordinarily influential. Thus, what reader of the GB will not find one of that work’s principal themes, that of the Dying God, the victim sacrificed for the good of the crops, hauntingly evoked in T. S. Eliot’s lines:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden, has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

Another of the many authors who was deeply imbued with Frazerian ideas was Freud, who thought, as did Frazer, that ‘‘long-forgotten important happenings in the primeval history of the human family’’ are in fact not simply forgotten, but are ever reenacted in new guises.

My purpose in the present study is to show that, despite its diverse themes, which, as we have seen, changed over time, the GB does have a fundamental methodological consistency and a coherent structure. This may help to explain the appeal which the work has exercised on its many readers. At the same time, it will be seen that the structure of the GB gives us an insight into Frazer’s concept of the nature of human knowledge, and therefore into his aims in writing as he did.

To begin, then, with the structure of the GB. Throughout the book, Frazer expounds the rule of the priesthood of Aricia from two different points of view. Firstly, he examines evidence from ancient Greece and Rome in order to elucidate the workings of the rule, evidence, that is, which is contiguous in space and time. The parts of the GB which fall under this denominator are thus a historical exegesis—in the broadest sense of that term—of the rule of the priesthood. That is, they belong to the field of classical scholarship. Secondly, the rule of the priesthood is examined in the light of evidence drawn from all over the world and from all periods down to Frazer’s own present. This second class of evidence is used because for various reasons it is similar to the functioning of the rule of the priesthood. These parts of the GB can be classified, in the nineteenthcentury sense, as ethnography, a discipline which at that time drew widely on cross-cultural comparisons to reach its results.

In terms of the scholarship of his own day, therefore, Frazer used the comparative method, which had been advocated as applicable to the study of human society by, among others, Lang and Tylor, in two respects, which converge on each other. That is, Frazer used the comparative method in the narrow sense by applying to the priesthood of Aricia contiguous evidence coming from the same civilization, that is, Rome, and from a geographical and culturally related one, that is, Greece. He then proceeded to apply the method to its fullest extent by bringing in materials from all periods and places on the ground that they were similar to the issue on which the GB revolves.

Expressed in Frazer’s own terms, he applied to the solution of his chosen problem the two methods of human thought which he considered basic, that is, the association of ideas by contiguity, and the association of ideas by similarity. ‘‘The principles of association are . . . absolutely fundamental to the working of the human mind,’’ he says. These two ways of association of ideas, according to Frazer, form the foundation of any advancement of human knowledge there can be, for it is by means of them that hypotheses and theories are formulated, so as to then be tested and accepted or rejected on the basis of ‘‘facts.’’ There is a tension here in Frazer’s thought between ‘‘facts’’ and hypotheses, to which we will return.

At present, we will examine Frazer’s explanation of the rules of magic because he argues that they follow the same two basic laws of thought whereby ideas are associated with each other according to contiguity and similarity. The rules of magic are a fundamental theme in the GB, the theme which, along with the rule of the Arician priesthood, gives the work its continuity. Frazer classifies magic into two branches:

If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will . . . resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance. . . . The former principle may be called the law of similarity, and the latter the law of contact or contagion.

Now, magic, according to Frazer, is one of the ways in which man attempts to control his environment, and as such it is brought to bear on interpreting the rule of the priesthood of Aricia.

The priest of Aricia is viewed as, in origin, one of those ‘‘departmental kings of nature’’ whose professional knowledge of magic—for, Frazer holds, magicians were the first professionals in human society—enables him to cause the crops to grow, because, according to the citation above, an effect resembles its cause: the crops will be encouraged to grow by the rule of similarity, i.e., by imitative magic, whereby a rain-making ceremony produces rain. But, if similarity operates on the basis of cause and effect, so does contagion: that is, the priest-king must die when his strength fails lest his weakness— on the principle of contagion—contaminate the course of nature and cause the crops to fail. Hence the priest of Aricia must at some point be slain, the GB argues, by a stronger rival.

With this, it may be seen that the GB displays a coordinated pattern of meanings built up on three levels: first, it is stated that the human mind works by associations built up by means of the principles of contiguity (contagion) and similarity; second, the comparative method which Frazer uses to adduce his material is structured by the same principle, and third, magic, the leitmotiv of the work, is, by virtue of also being a product of the human mind, structured analogously. With this, I have of course said nothing about the truth or falsity of these propositions, or of the conclusions which arise from them. Rather, the purpose of raising the propositions was to show how the GB, despite its vast diversity, does have a coherent structure. On the one hand, it studies the workings of the human mind, and on the other, it is itself an exemplification of these workings. The argument of the GB thus revolves around two themes: there is, on the one hand, the story of the Arician priesthood, and on the other, there is the human mind. And, as we have seen, the relationship between these two themes changed in the course of Frazer’s researches.

But what of the essential truth or falsity, or even, simply the substantive content of a book which is constructed in this way? Are we dealing with a vicious circle, or with a work which does advance the enquiry it posits? I will argue that the GB does the latter.

Frazer began his literary career in 1879 by writing an essay entitled The Growth of Plato’s Ideal Theory, which he published unaltered in 1930. In it, he was looking for a theory of knowledge. The reasons for which he rejected Plato’s theory of knowledge and the theory of forms are crucial for an understanding of what is said, and how it is said in the GB. In The Growth of Plato’s Ideal Theory, Frazer first argues that the ideal theory was derived from Socrates’ theory of knowledge, and that Plato then turned it into a theory of being in such a way that knowing and being become the same thing. Frazer calls this ‘‘the gigantic yet splendid error which converted a true theory of knowledge into a false theory of being . . . knowledge into ontology.’’ Later in the book comes a statement which is crucial for our present purposes:

[Plato] mistook the method and scope of physical enquiry. What a physical philosopher does is this: he puts himself in the most favourable position for watching the phenomena . . . ; then he registers the sequence . . . then, observing . . . he infers that this sequence is universal. . . . [The resulting] extended inferences are called laws of nature. They really are, however, nothing but inferences as to the sequence of our sensations. The philosophy of nature is after all the philosophy of mind.

In other words, Plato, according to Frazer, bestows objective existence on subjective abstractions.

Now, in the GB, Frazer repeatedly argues that savage philosophy, one product of which is magic, functions according to exactly the same error:

Few men are sensible to the sharp line that divides the known from the unknown. To most it is a hazy borderland where perception and conception melt indissolubly into one.

Men mistook the order of their ideas for the order of nature and hence imagined that the control which they have . . . over their thoughts permitted them to exercise a corresponding control over things.

In other words, being and knowing, perception and conception, are viewed by savage man as being one and the same thing.

Two points arise with respect to magic. Firstly, if being and knowing are the same thing, as, according to Frazer, they are in savage thought, because the savage makes no distinction between perception and conception, then what is known in the mind actually is. We may illustrate this state of affairs from Frazer’s analysis of savage thought on death and immortality.

At an early stage of his intellectual development man deems himself naturally immortal and imagines that were it not for the baleful arts of sorcerers . . . he would live for ever.

Thus arguing . . . from his own sensations, he conceives of life as an indestructible kind of energy, which, when it disappears in one form, must necessarily reappear in another.

That is, for the savage, sensation expresses a permanent reality independent of the individual experiencing it. This reality, both in the mind and external to it, is ruled by the two laws of thought, similarity and contagion. Here we have the reason why a magical rite, when conceived and then performed, is, according to Frazer, considered by the savage to be efficacious in a predictable fashion, i.e., it is efficacious according to the laws of similarity and contagion.

In short, the magical rite is the cause of a specific effect. This relationship of cause and effect in magic as viewed by Frazer brings us to a further issue in his thought: his question why the ‘‘error’’ of magic turned out to be so durable:

The answer seems to be that the fallacy was far from easy to detect . . . since in . . . most cases the desired event did actually follow at a longer or shorter interval, the performance of the rite which was designed to bring it about. . . . Hence the practical savage . . . might well turn a deaf ear to the theoretical doubter, the philosophical radical who presumed to hint that sunrise and spring must not after all be the direct consequence of the . . . performance of . . . certain ceremonies.

Frazer then transposes the argument to his own England, confronting a scientific innovator with ‘‘the man on the street,’’ where the latter takes the former to task for being a ‘‘theorist, splitter of hairs and chopper of logic’’ and ignoring the evidence of facts which are ‘‘patent to everybody.’’

If such reasonings could pass muster among ourselves, need we wonder that they long escaped detection by the savage?

In accordance with these ideas, Frazer, so as to distinguish magic from science, calls magic a pseudo- science. It is a science because by means of it, man seeks to control nature, but at the same time, it is a false science because it operates on the basis of an erroneous theory of cause and effect.

The means by which [magical rites] were supposed to effect [their] end were imitation and sympathy. Led astray by his ignorance of the true causes of things, primitive man believed that in order to produce the great phenomena of nature on which his life depended, he had only to imitate them, and that immediately by a secret sympathy or mystic influence the little drama which he acted . . . would be taken up and repeated by mightier actors on a vaster scale.

In short, magic would be an unimpeachable body of knowledge—unimpeachable because coherent and systematic—were it not for the crucial flaw that it is built up on a false premise.

A difficulty arises here which runs throughout the GB. This is that on the one hand, Frazer rejects the possibility of absolute definitive knowledge, and on the other, he posits that a true explanation and understanding of phenomena of whatever kind can be reached through sustained observation and correlation of fact with theory. Perhaps, seeing that Frazer insists that he was studying nothing other than the human mind, what elsewhere he calls comparative ethics, one may argue that he should have renounced his insistence on ‘‘fact,’’ that is, on objectivity external to and independent of the individual’s mind.

We may at this point compare Frazer’s analysis of human thought to Hume’s. Hume also describes human thought as proceeding by association of ideas, but instead of Frazer’s two categories of similarity and contiguity, he has three, resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect. Thus where according to Hume cause and effect can figure as a mode of thought, according to Frazer they are an objective ‘‘scientific’’ reality, a reality independent of any observer. In other words, in locating cause and effect not in the human mind, but in an environment independent of the human mind, Frazer did posit a reality external to and independent of man and his perceptions.

This view of Frazer’s affected his interpretation of magic, for thanks to it, he could conclude that the premiss of magic as he understood it was indeed false. At the same time, Frazer regarded magic and the mode of thought it exemplifies as resolving an impasse, and that not only among savages. Of the Plato of the middle period, when the ideas, according to Frazer, first emerged clearly, he says:

The cause why Socrates sat and talked . . . was that it seemed to him good to do so. . . . And if good is the cause of my actions, it must be the cause of all things, of material things as well as of human actions. Now, it is quite true that every voluntary action of every man is directed to . . . something that seems to him good. . . . But from the fact that all our voluntary actions are prompted by this mental perception of an object, were we to infer that every change in physical things is prompted by a striving after the good, we would be committing the same mistake into which savages fall when, from the analogy of their own acts, they ascribe the action of inanimate objects to a principle of life, thought and feeling inherent in these objects. However, we cannot suppose that Plato meant to suggest anything so extravagant.

Thus, according to Frazer, the predicament of explaining cause and effect is handled by Plato at this point in his thought in a fashion which is not altogether disconnected from how savages handle it. This is the ‘‘gigantic yet splendid error’’ we mentioned earlier.

The issue Frazer comments on in the above passage is how not only Plato (as he understands Plato) but also primitive man formulates a conceptual framework such as might render intelligible the reality which is external to man. This issue was carried over into the GB. Throughout the work, therefore, Frazer confronted the question of how effectively and durably a conceptual framework could be delineated by any one person or even, by any one generation of researchers and scholars. As in Ideal Theory, so in the GB, his estimate of the likelihood of success was cautious.

The task of the scientific discoverer is to trace the series of invariable antecedents and consequents, in other words, of physical, not final causes and effects.

Here also, cause and effect are realities independent of and outside the human mind. In principle, they may be definitively intelligible to human reason, but in actual fact, the advance of learning is at best exceedingly slow.

In reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages . . . we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we ourselves may one day stand in need of: cum excusatione itaque veteres audiendi sunt.

And at the end of the work we have a last image of the ancient quest for truth:

The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression toward a goal that forever recedes. We need not murmur at the endless pursuit:

Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

Great things will come of that pursuit, though we may not enjoy them. Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future—some great Ulysses of the realms of thought—than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day become the waking realities of science.

We have seen on what foundations the GB is constructed, and gone on to ask whether the work, in the light of its structure, can advance the enquiry it proposes, rather than merely create a vicious circle. To answer this question, we looked at how Frazer formulated his disagreement with Plato’s theory of knowledge, and how he carried the results of the disagreement over into the GB. Put simply, Frazer concluded that in practice, knowledge is both finite and relative. But we also noted that Frazer very carefully stopped short of suggesting that the reality which according to him does exist outside the human mind must remain ultimately inexplicable.

Source: Sabine MacCormack, ‘‘Magic and the Human Mind: A Reconsideration of Frazer’s Golden Bough,’’ in Arethusa, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall 1984, pp. 151–76.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Critical Overview

Explore Study Guides