Historical Context

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Frazer published the first edition of The Golden Bough in 1890, just eight years after the death of Charles Darwin. Darwin, a British naturalist, considered to be one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century, developed a theory of evolution, which he outlined in his 1859 book On the Origins of Species. This work popularized the phrase ‘‘survival of the fittest.’’ According to Darwinian evolution, the species that were best fitted to their environments were the ones that were bound to survive, while the ones that were not well adapted tended to die off and become extinct. Within a species, genetic adaptations were achieved when those organisms that had the traits that were most important for their survival, such as speed or strength, were the ones that lived long enough to reproduce with other survivors, and the offspring of such unions inherited advantageous traits, making each generation more likely to mature and reproduce than the previous one.

Darwin also argued that all organisms were descended from one single source and that they changed as they adapted to different situations. This idea, developed further in 1871 in The Descent of Man, met with much stronger opposition than the idea of natural selection and is contested to this day by some religious fundamentalists. Still, even his detractors would be forced to admit that Darwin was one of the most influential scientists of his day.

In The Golden Bough, readers can get a feel for the enthusiasm that Darwin’s theories inspired in scientists of the late nineteenth century. Frazer’s explanation of how cultures inevitably develop from primitive belief in magic to more complex belief in religion and then, finally, to a reliance on science shows an unwavering faith in the idea that, over time, entire systems of belief evolve from one form to another. It is a supposition, like Darwin’s evolutionary scale, that would have seemed impossible to an earlier generation. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, sciences had shifted their focus from examining isolated events to studying events in respect to their relationship to similar events. Like Darwin, who had studied the different adaptations in similar species that had evolved in different climates, Frazer speculated about the ways that different story motifs appeared in altered but recognizable form in different cultures.

Frazer’s belief in society’s inevitable growth toward faith in science—which, today, is the theory of his that is most often rejected—can be seen mirrored in the works of the most well-known economic writer of his time, Karl Marx. In his 1848 tract The Communist Manifesto, Marx proposed that all world governments would pass through specific, predetermined periods of growth before ending up with Communist political structures. Like Frazer, Marx believed that there was just one logical outcome to the growth of society, and he believed that he could determine it scientifically.

While his theories about cultural progression were challenged from the very first publication of The Golden Bough, Frazer is still acknowledged as a highly influential anthropologist. His work generated a new interest in comparative anthropology, influencing a generation of late nineteenth-century psychologists, including Sigmund Freud (whose theories often alluded to stories from ancient myths) and Carl Jung (whose theory of the collective unconscious seems to explain Frazer’s ideas of universal myths). The Golden Bough also influenced literature, particularly the work of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. Within its own field of anthropology, however, Frazer’s work has not been very influential, owing to the fact that he did not gather his information directly from the people about whom he wrote. All of...

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his work is based on secondhand information rather than field work, and as a result the value of his writing is considered marginal.

Literary Style

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Archetype An archetype is a model or type in literature that is considered to be universal, occurring in all cultures at all places and times. The story of the King of the Wood that Frazer focuses on in The Golden Bough has details that are specific to its context that do not appear in other circumstances, and so it cannot be considered archetypal. However, in trying to trace the source of this unique myth, Frazer finds that it derives from many other archetypes that gather together. Some examples of these are the stories of gods who bring on winter by descending to hell for several months a year; corn mother myths; ritual murder of scapegoats; and the reverence for the oak tree in societies where it grows. These archetypes are familiar, in some form, to all cultures. Some twentieth-century psychologists have speculated that archetypes are embedded in the genetic code of humans.

Folklore The word ‘‘folklore’’ refers to the beliefs and traditions of groups of people. Usually, these cultural aspects are not formally recorded by the culture itself, which might be unaware of them; they are more likely to be recorded by an outside anthropologist. At the time that Frazer started to work on The Golden Bough, interest in the beliefs of the common people of a given culture was just starting to gain recognition: the word ‘‘folklore’’ was coined in 1846, just a few decades before Frazer’s first edition.

Objectivity One of the most notable aspects of Frazer’s style is the dry, scientific tone of his writing. He never conveys an opinion or any feeling about the stories he relates. Given the volume of information that he presents, this objectivity can make it difficult for readers to absorb what he has to say: because the work shows no variance nor any emotional involvement of any kind, readers are left to determine the importance of each piece of information for themselves. Even though this characteristic makes the book less interesting to read, Frazer’s objective tone is necessary. This book’s main purpose is to be educational, not entertaining, and the objective tone assures that he is taking a properly neutral stance toward what he is reporting.

Compare and Contrast

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1890: People in Europe and the United States know little about non-Western culture; they refer to Africa as ‘‘The Dark Continent’’ and Asia as ‘‘The Mysterious Orient.’’

Today: Inexpensive travel and the Internet have made it possible for people all over the world to be aware of distant cultures.

1890: Greek mythology is studied in almost all schools and is generally well-known. Today: More students know about the Greek gods from Disney movies than from studying them in class.

1890: A scholar like Frazer can make an international reputation for his theories by making assumptions about the results of other anthropologists’ work.

Today: Leading scientists have research assistants who can assemble data under their supervision.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Hyman, Stanley Edgar, ‘‘What Do You Dance?,’’ in The Tangled Bank: Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud as Imaginative Writers, Atheneum, 1962, pp. 212–32.

Malinowski, Bronislaw, ‘‘Sir James George Frazer,’’ in A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays, University of North Carolina Press, 1944, pp. 177–221.

Review of The Golden Bough, in the Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 3, No. 40, October–December 1890, pp. 316–9.

Further Reading Bruner, Jerome S., ‘‘Myth and Identity,’’ in Myth and Mythmaking, edited by Henry A. Murray, Beacon Press, 1960, pp. 276–87. Bruner examines the psychological reasons why humans are attracted to myths.

Downie, R. Angus, Frazer and ‘‘The Golden Bough,’’ Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1970. This study examines Frazer’s entire career, including his influences, his methods, and his other writings.

Patai, Raphael, Myth and Modern Man, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972. Patai, whose early career interests overlapped with Frazer’s, examines mythological aspects in contemT porary America in such chapters as ‘‘Madison Avenue Myth and Magic,’’ ‘‘The Myth of Oral Gratification: Coke and Smoke,’’ and ‘‘The New Sex Myth.’’

Vickery, John B. The Literary Impact of ‘‘The Golden Bough,’’ Princeton University Press, 1973. The focus here is on works by Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce, all of which show Frazer’s influence. Nearly a quarter of the book is about James Joyce.


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Ackerman, Robert. The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists. New York: Garland, 1991. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2002. Examines the ideas expressed in The Golden Bough and in the works of other Cambridge University-based scholars whose ideas linked myth theory, the classics, and anthropology to create a new school of religious thought.

Douglas, Mary. “Judgements on James Frazer.” Daedalus 107, no. 4 (Fall, 1978): 151-164. A masterful assessment of Frazer’s critics and work by a leading anthropologist. Addresses the intellectual and cultural problems involved in criticizing works produced by earlier generations.

Downie, R. Angus. Frazer and “The Golden Bough.” London: Victor Gollancz, 1970. A clearly written introduction by Frazer’s biographer and amanuensis. Outlines the comparative approach, narrative, and critical impact of The Golden Bough and examines the work in the context of Frazer’s other scholarly and literary efforts.

Fraser, Robert. The Making of “The Golden Bough”: The Origins and Growth of an Argument. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Traces the genesis and evolution of Frazer’s ideas from the original 1890 two-volume edition of The Golden Bough through the massive 1911-1915 third edition and to the 1936 addendum.

Manganaro, Marc. Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, and Campbell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Applies the language of postmodern literary scrutiny and rhetorical analysis to The Golden Bough. Argues that Frazer moved strategically from being an anthropological fact-finder to claiming authority as a literary author during the twenty-five years that he revised and expanded The Golden Bough.

Stocking, George W., Jr. “James Frazer and The Golden Bough: From Magic to Religion to Science.” In After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 1888-1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. Chapter 4 of Stocking’s history of British anthropology focuses on “the Frazerian moment” and features a lengthy discussion of The Golden Bough.

Vickery, John B. The Literary Impact of “The Golden Bough.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Outlines the ideas and intellectual importance of The Golden Bough and discusses in depth the literary uses of The Golden Bough by William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide