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The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion is a broad comparative cultural study of mythology and religion by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941). Aimed at a broad literate audience raised on tales as told in Bulfinch's Age of Fable, Frazer's book joined the modernists in discussing religion dispassionately as a cultural phenomenon, rather than from within the field of theology itself. Yet Frazer's point-of-view often reveals a confidence in a linear intellectual progress of mankind to a superior position, which anthropologists no longer share. As cultural anthropology has expanded and deepened, many individual conclusions of Frazer's have required revision within local and historical cultural contexts. Modern anthropoligists conclude that Frazer placed too much weight on what he called " the essential similarity of manís chief wants everywhere and at all times" (ch. lxix). Though the final worth of its contribution to anthropology will be newly summed by each generation, its impact on contemporary European literature was unquestionably grand.

This seminal book (see The White Goddess) attempts to define what almost all primitive religions share with each other—and with "modern" religions such as Christianity. Its thesis is that ancient religions were fertility cults that centred around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king, the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the earth, and who died at the harvest and who was reincarnated in the spring. It claimed that this legend was central to almost all of the world's mythologies. It was the scandal of the book from the first date of sale to the innocent public that Frazer included the Christian story of Jesus Christ in his book, thus inviting an agnostic lesé majeste against the Lamb of God. Frazer removed his analysis of the Crucifixion to a speculative appendix for the third edition, and it was entirely missing from the single-volume abridged edition.

"If the test of truth lay in a show of hands or a counting of heads, the system of magic might appeal, with far more reason than the Catholic Church, to the proud motto, Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus ["Always, everywhere, and by all" - ed.], as the sure and certain credential of its own infallibility." (Chapter 4, "Magic and Religion".)

Parts of the book, most notably its discussion of the symbolism of magic, and its elucidation of the concept of sympathetic magic, remain well accepted by scholars today. The larger thesis about dying and reviving gods has not fared as well in the world of anthropology and comparative religion; most contemporary anthropologists have concluded that Frazer overinterpreted his evidence to fit it into the system.

William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Robert Graves, and Ezra Pound are but a few of the major authors that have been deeply influenced by The Golden Bough. Joseph Campbell depended on it in his studies of mythology. Its ideas have also been borrowed by many fantasy novelists from Mary Renault forward. The literary impact of The Golden Bough has given its thesis a new life even as its influence in anthropology waned.

The title was taken from an incident in the Aeneid, illustrated in this painting The Golden Bough by the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851): Aeneas and the Sibyl present the golden bough to the gatekeeper of Hades to gain admission.

Editions of The Golden Bough

External links to text of the 1922 edition