The Golden Bough  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
The Golden Bough (mythology)

The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (retitled The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion in its second edition) is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941). It was first published in two volumes in 1890; in three volumes in 1900; the third edition, published 1906–15, comprised twelve volumes. The work was aimed at a wide literate audience raised on tales as told in such publications as Thomas Bulfinch's The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes (1855).

Frazer offered a modernist approach to discussing religion, treating it dispassionately as a cultural phenomenon rather than from a theological perspective. The influence of The Golden Bough on contemporary European literature and thought was substantial.

The book scandalized the British public upon its first publication, because it included the Christian story of Jesus in its comparative study, thus inviting an agnostic reading of the Lamb of God as a relic of a pagan religion. 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.

Contents

Subject matter

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king.

This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world's mythologies.

The germ for Frazer's thesis was the pre-Roman priest-king at the fane of Nemi, who was murdered ritually by his successor:

"When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Bough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood." (Aftermath p vi)

The book's title was taken from an incident in the Aeneid, illustrated by the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner: Aeneas and the Sibyl present the golden bough to the gatekeeper of Hades in order to gain admission.

Reception

The book scandalized the British public upon its first publication, because it included the Christian story of Jesus in its comparative study, thus inviting an agnostic reading of the Lamb of God as a relic of a pagan religion. 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.

Its influence on the emerging discipline of anthropology was pervasive and undeniable. For example, Bronisław Malinowski, stricken with tuberculosis shortly after receiving his doctorate in physics and mathematics, read Frazer's work in the original English to distract himself from his illness. "No sooner had I read this great work than I became immersed in it and enslaved by it. I realized then that anthropology, as presented by Sir James Frazer, is a great science, worthy of as much devotion as any of her elder and more exact studies and I became bound to the service of Frazerian anthropology."

Despite whatever controversy the work may have generated, and its critical reception amongst other scholars, The Golden Bough had a tremendous effect on the literature of the period. Robert Graves adapted Frazer's concept of the dying king who is sacrificed for the good of the kingdom to the romantic idea of the poet's necessary suffering for the sake of his Muse-Goddess in his Frazer-esque book on poetry, rituals, and myths, The White Goddess, which was published in 1948. William Butler Yeats makes reference to it in his poem, "Sailing to Byzantium". H. P. Lovecraft mentions the book in his short story "The Call of Cthulhu". T. S. Eliot acknowledged indebtedness to Frazer in his first note to his poem The Waste Land. William Carlos Williams references it as well in Book Two, part two, of his extended poem in five books, Paterson. James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, Ezra Pound, Mary Renault, Joseph Campbell, Naomi Mitchison (in her The Corn King and the Spring Queen), and Camille Paglia are but a few authors deeply influenced by The Golden Bough. Its literary impact has given it continued life, even as its direct influence in anthropology has waned.

Critical analysis

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein returned time and again to The Golden Bough, so much so that his commentaries have been compiled as Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough, edited by Rush Rhees, originally published in 1967 (the English edition followed in 1971). He writes, "Frazer is much more savage than most of these savages." Weston LaBarre observed that Frazer was "the last of the scholastics" and wrote The Golden Bough "as an extended footnote to a line in Virgil he felt he did not understand."

Some modern critics set Frazer in the broader context of the history of ideas, for example, Robert Ackerman in his The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists. The myth and ritual school includes scholars Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray, F. M. Cornford, and A.B. Cook, who were connecting the new discipline of myth theory and anthropology with traditional literary classics at the end of the nineteenth century. This school was an important influence on much Modernist literature.

Quotations

"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"], as the sure and certain credential of its own infallibility." (Chapter 4, "Magic and Religion".)

"The danger, however, is not less real because it is imaginary; imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid." (Chapter 21, "Tabooed Things".)

In popular culture

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See also




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