Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555
Search for Knowledge
The central subject of this book, and the source of its title, is the ritual replacement of the priest of Diana at Aricia through murder. Frazer was so curious about this myth that he examined it with meticulous attention to detail. Hundreds of pages filled with thousands of examples from cultures throughout history are devoted to exploring myth. The Golden Bough contains sections that seem unrelated to Diana and the King of the Wood. Readers who do not follow the book from its beginning might wonder, for example, how it could possibly lead from Roman mythology to eighteenth- century Irish Christmas rituals or the custom of people of New Hebrides who throw their food leftovers into the sea.
Despite its strange and twisting side trips, though, this book returns to its main point often enough to assure readers that it is, in fact, about that one specific myth. In addressing the question with such a tidal wave of information about a variety of cultures, Frazer illustrates something about knowledge and how it is acquired. The message that is embedded in his method is that knowledge is not simple or isolated but is instead only relevant when it is connected to related facts, which are themselves related to other facts.
Search for Self
In the course of discussing one academic question that leads him to a myriad of exotic, ancient cultural traditions, Frazer ends up showing how remote practices relate to modern times. With books about psychology or contemporary life, it is easy for readers to connect to their own lives, but The Golden Bough is burdened with the added responsibility of subject material that its author considers important precisely because it does not seem to directly affect his life or the lives of his readers. From the very beginning of the book, he does nothing to tell readers why they should care, leaving it to their own intelligence to deduce what the practices of dead civilizations have to do with the state of humanity today. Still, the personal relevance of everything in the book is hard to miss. The cold approach that Frazer takes toward the many cultures that he mentions in this book might be seen as a way for readers to distance themselves from his subjects, but then again, it is more likely to make readers see their own lives from the outside, through the objective eyes of the scientist.
The taboos of other cultures are different, but similar in structure, to modern cultural standards. The values of hunters and farmers, so strongly based in the cycles of the moon and the seasons, regulate modern life, from the holidays of the Judeo- Christian tradition (which coincide with pagan calendars) to the nine-month schedule of the U.S. school year. The tradition of sacrificing powerful priests and kings tells readers much about the otherwise contradictory ways celebrities are treated. In all of the traditions that Frazer has included in The Golden Bough, there is a common thread. He emphasizes this commonality by drawing his examples from as wide a pool as possible, in order to show that his ideas are not limited to just a few societies that happen to be similar. Frazer presents enough examples to make a convincing argument that what he says applies to the basic human situation.