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The Golden Bough (1890) by James G. Frazer & the Ever-growing Quest for the Understanding of Myth, Religion and Science

“Small minds cannot grasp great ideas.”

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and ReligionThe Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by James George Frazer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890) by James Frazer is a massive collection (over 900 pages worth) of legends, myths, folklore involving religion and magical belief systems from around the world since the dawn of human consciousness. To begin, we should remember the elementary concept involving a human mind rising above its station in mental evolutionary terms:

“Small minds cannot grasp great ideas,” explains Frazer, “to their narrow comprehension, their purblind vision, nothing seems really great and important but themselves. Such minds hardly rise into religion at all” (p 70),

Sir James George Frazer, Scottish Social Anthropologist (1854-1941)

and the history of religion, as Frazer later argues, “is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice” (p 573), which sounds much like what academics do when they write their research and publish it into that black hole called ‘scholarly publication’—the masses read very little of these academic essays and care far less for these constantly dated reasonings and hypotheses.


Even scientists cannot prove that there is or is not a ‘God’; the best of the best minds can only prove religion false, and religion is simply the creation by humanity in futile attempts to explain what it cannot comprehend—as of yet.



Humanity has for some time now reached an understanding between magic and religion and in such an evolution of thought we, as a human race, now comprehend how “magic has preceded religion,” just as religion has preceded science (p 40).


“It becomes probable,” writes Frazer, “that magic arose before religion in the evolution of our race, and that man essayed to bend nature to his wishes by the sheer force of spells and enchantments before he strove to coax and mollify a coy, capricious, or irascible deity by the soft insinuation of prayer and sacrifice” (p 66).


But humanity has advanced and will continue to do so. The important question relates itself to the correlation of evolutionary phases: will humanity advance morally (i.e., spiritually—not religiously, since these old notions of religion as being man-made have repeatedly been proven as inaccurate) along with the rapid, exponential technological advances we find ourselves witnessing from year to year?


Can, in effect, humanity’s inward presence match that of its outward progress? Historically speaking it has not been so and growing pains (e.g., war, slavery, global terrorism) there have been.


“The process of thought which leads to the change from the one mode of conception to the other is anthropomorphism,” explains Frazer, “or the gradual investment of the immanent spirits with more and more of the attributes of humanity. As men emerge from savagery the tendency to humanise their divinities gains strength [e.g., Islam’s prophet anyone?]; and the more human these become the wider is the breach which severs them from the natural objects of which they were at first merely the animating spirits or souls. But in the progress upwards from savagery men of the same generation do not march abreast; and though the new anthropomorphic gods may satisfy the religious wants of the more developed intelligences, the backward members of the community will cling by preference to the old animalistic notions” (p 508).


In Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By and in my next post, I will explore the effects such an understanding has brought to the psyche, at the individual and social levels. But for now, let us move forward by moving backward in time with Frazer’s quest to rationalize ‘quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus’ (p 67).


For most of the book it can be falsely concluded that Frazer is determining the “golden bough” as an indirect reference to an ear of corn, as one might gather from the following indictment against two powerful social systems that once ruled the known world:


“The Greeks and Romans sacrificed pregnant victims to the goddesses of the corn and of the earth, doubtless in order that the earth might teem and the corn swell in the ear” (p 34)…

corn“Thus far,” explains Frazer, “I have for the most part assumed an identity of nature between Demeter and Persephone, the divine mother and daughter personifying the corn in its double aspect of the seed-corn of last year and the ripe ears of this, and this view of the substantial unity of mother and daughter is borne out by their portraits in Greek art, which are often so alike as to be indistinguishable” (p 325, abridged version).


Frazer rightly applies the basic concept of human folly for those of us who are aware of the overwhelming corruption among individuals in current positions of leadership—no less unsettling as those in power, both religiously and politically, who sacrificed pregnant women and unborn children for a greater sense of control long, long ago:


“The general result is that at this stage of social evolution [no less than today] the supreme power tends to fall into the hands of men of the keenest intelligence and the most unscrupulous character” (p 55).


This is exactly of the nature of magicians to supplant chosen corruption for the common good, and not unlike the history of leaders who malformed their own roles to fit their own devilish needs to rule.


“Hence the king,” writes Frazer, “starting as a magician, tends gradually to exchange the practice of magic for the priestly functions of prayer and sacrifice” (p 109)…


“On the whole,” continues Frazer, “comparing the traditions about Athamas with the custom that obtained with regard to his descendants in historical times, we may fairly infer that in Thessaly and probably in Boeotia there reigned of old a dynasty of which the kings were liable to be sacrificed for the good of the country to the god called Laphystian Zeus, but that they contrived to shift the fatal responsibility to their offspring, of whom the eldest son was regularly destined to the altar. As time went on, the cruel custom was so far mitigated that a ram was accepted as a vicarious sacrifice in room of the royal victim” (p 352).


So has the politician and world leaders of today who have gradually exchanged their priestly function of prayer and sacrifice for their political functions of serving the rich while stealing from the poor, a not too uncommon deception since the birth of civilization itself. I digress.


There is no doubt for over eight hundred pages or so Frazer does focus in great depth on corn and the corn goddesses as what might help answer the question, “What is this golden bough?”


With chapter titles like “Corn-Mother and Corn-Maiden in N. Europe”, “Corn-Mother in Many Lands”, and “The Corn-Spirit as an Animal”, along with section headings such as “The Corn-mother in America,” “The Spirit of the Corn embodied in Human Beings”, “The Double Personification of the Corn as Mother and Daughter”, “Songs of the Corn Reapers”, “Killing the Corn-spirit”, “The Corn-spirit slain in his Human Representatives”, “Animal Embodiments of the Corn-spirit”, which include the corn-god as inhabiting the cock, hare, cat, goat, bull, cow, ox, horse, mare, pig, boar, and sow, it is no wonder any reader might grow to believe that Frazer was coming to the conclusion that the golden bough that adorns the book’s cover was in reference to corn or a corn-goddess or the like, but that reader, as is Frazer’s attempt, would be wrong.


Granted, Frazer states his primary aim of the book is to determine the religious rules and rites which governed the succession to the priesthood of Diana at Aricia so long ago,


(1) Why had the priest of Aricia [the King of the Wood at Nemi] to slay his predecessor?
(2) And why, before doing so, had he to pluck the Golden Bough?


Frazer even admits the process of discovering such a reason for succession took him more than thirty years to do so and multiple editions regarding just such a discussion. But by the end of this book the golden bough is not corn or a corn-goddess, as he explains in the following,


“Virgil definitely describes the Golden Bough as growing on a holm-oak, and compares it with mistletoe [now up until this point Frazer has been focused on corn, and this, from a thesis standpoint, is a sudden shift in view from corn to mistletoe as to a valid reason for having to “pluck” the golden bough before a ritual slaying]. The inference is almost inevitable that the Golden Bough was nothing but the mistletoe seen through the haze of poetry or of popular superstition…


“Breton peasants hang up great bunches of mistletoe in front of their cottages, and in the month of June these bunches are conspicuous for the bright golden tinge of their foliage…


“A hint of its real origin is possibly furnished by the statement of Pliny that the Druids worshipped the plant because they believed it to have fallen from heaven and to be a token that the tree on which it grew was chosen by the god himself. Can they have thought that the mistletoe [also known as “thunder-besom”] dropped on the oak in a flash of lightning?” (p 840-51)


After all that Frazer is still not quite certain as to what the golden bough is, but he has narrowed it down to either corn or mistletoe, which turns a golden hue if cut from the oak after some time. Frazer, like all good academics writing into that black void that doesn’t ever quite reach the ears of the masses, has this excuse to offer:


“We can never completely replace ourselves at the standpoint of primitive man, see things with his eyes, and feel our hearts beat with the emotions that stirred his. All our theories concerning him and his ways must therefore fall far short of certainty; the utmost we can aspire to in such matters is a reasonable degree of probability” (p 851).


Frazer is right, after all. We can never know what primitive men and women were thinking or feeling eons ago. We can only surmise and make educated guesses, which is exactly what both religion and science do—make good guesses. Scientists, unlike priests and the church, are often far swifter at changing their positions if found to be originally misguided, misjudged or miscalculated. After all, we are only human, right?


“We must remember,” Frazer reminds us all—scientists and children of God alike, “that at bottom the generalisations of science or, in common parlance, the laws of nature are merely hypotheses devised to explain that ever-shifting phantasmagoria of thought which we dignify with the high-sounding names of the world and the universe…


“In the last analysis magic, religion, and science are nothing but theories of thought” (p 854).

And now that is something worth considering—these theories of thought.

Keep reading and smiling…

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CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.

He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Fathers Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.

You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers


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