The Golden Bough is a famous work, and with it Sir James Frazer pretty much founded the school of ‘comparative anthropology’. It is a massive text which he revised and re-published several times; the abridged edition I read clocks in at over 800 pages, so it’s not a quick read. For the most part, it is relatively readable, so long as you accept that you won’t be familiar with all of Frazer’s references. Essentially, what he tried to do in The Golden Bough was to survey primitive magical rituals across the globe and the span of human history, and he incorporated a dizzying amount of material from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.
Frazer’s central idea is that there is a level of consistency across the magical beliefs and ritual practices of peoples around the world which suggests they stemmed from a common approach to understanding the natural world and in particular the passage of the seasons. Many of the rites, he suggests, have the character of practices designed to influence or control the earth’s natural cycle, or at a later stage of economic development, to boost agricultural production. Parts of the book deal with quite ghoulish subjects, particularly human sacrifice, which Frazer identifies as a common practice across many agricultural civilizations, in every part of the world. Some of these will be familiar to readers from movies and popular culture (cf. The Wicker Man).
Frazer has quite a pedagogical and accessible style, considering the challenging nature of his material, and he also has a dry sense of humour which brightens things up. Of course, as he was writing in the 1890s-1910s, there is a certain amount of what would be regarded now as politically incorrect terminology. But Frazer fundamentally has a humanist viewpoint and doesn’t take a racialist view of the world, instead highlighting the similarities between peoples and cultures at different stages of historical development. His writing style features the typically Victorian method of providing page after page of examples to illustrate his points, which can make for tiresome reading on occasion, and I would say to anyone considering reading this that it’s fine to skip forward from time to time. I read it cover-to-cover myself, but I wouldn’t have lost anything by cutting out large sections.
One of the reasons I was interested in The Golden Bough was because I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which takes this book as its starting point. I kind of wish I had read this first, as it would have helped me understand the context of The White Goddess a bit better. The Golden Bough is more readable, comprehensible, and responsible than The White Goddess, which has its points of interest but is ultimately a very self-indulgent work. Frazer was criticized for one of his main theses, though, to do with the role of corn-gods and ‘dying and resurrected deities’ in Asia Minor and Greece and Rome. This section was probably the least interesting part of the book, leaving aside the academic issues which I’m not really able to comment on.
One of the best services Frazer does here is how he documents pagan festivals which were widely practised around the world, and shows how they have been subsumed into common religious festivals and other events that persist to this day. Some of this was highly controversial when he wrote the book, particularly his treatment of the major festivals associated with the death of Christ. Festivals like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween have a heritage going back at least 5,000 years, and probably a lot longer; they were co-opted by various religions in order to try and gain legitimacy by associating their mythology with well-established, common practices. There is a fundamental relationship between our intellectual and emotional lives, the mode of production, and the natural world, which urges us to celebrate or commemorate at certain times of the year. It’s far too common, if not universal, to be a coincidence.
Frazer’s book and overall method is deeply unfashionable in academic circles today: the whole idea of shedding light on different cultural practices by comparing them to one another is looked on with scorn by many who would argue that by doing so we lose the ‘singularity’ of specific practices by incorporating them into a ‘Eurocentric’ model. At its worst, this school of thought holds that the mere act of such comparison is itself harmful, causing psychic damage to the people whose culture you are comparing. There is no doubt that Frazer’s approach was Eurocentric, and that there are significant problems with his method and many of his conclusions. However, anyone who can read this book and not be moved by the common humanity its pages reveal is either a pseudo-radical poseur or a jaded cynic. Frazer not only points out the similar cultural practices among diverse people around the world, he also begins to unveil the functional basis of ritual and mythology, which helped lay the basis for later materialist understandings of cultural behaviour.
“We stand upon the foundation reared by the generations that have gone before, and we can but dimly realise the painful and prolonged efforts which it has cost humanity to struggle up to the point, no very exalted one after all, which we have reached. Our gratitude is due to the nameless and forgotten toilers, whose patient thought and active exertions have largely made us what we are. The amount of new knowledge which one age, certainly which one man, can add to the common store is small, and it argues stupidity or dishonesty, besides ingratitude, to ignore the heap while vaunting the few grains which it may have been our privilege to add to it. There is indeed little danger at present of undervaluing the contributions which modern times and even classical antiquity have made to the general advancement of our race. But when we pass these limits, the case is different. Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the only recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways. Yet of the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession of their race since the beginning of the world. But reflection and enquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we thought most our own, and that their errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races 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.” p. 218-9