The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapter 3 | Summary



Chapter 3: Sympathetic Magic

Chapter 3 introduces the basic concepts of sympathetic magic, and includes four sections.

1. The Principles of Magic

James George Frazer introduces the concept of sympathetic magic, which assumes "things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy." This, he terms the "law of sympathy." Sympathetic magic is further broken down into two types: homoeopathic magic and contagious magic. Homoeopathic magic (or imitative magic) operates by the "law of similarity," the idea a magician "can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it." In contagious magic, which operates by the "law of contact," the magician "infers that whatever he does to a material object will equally affect the person with whom the object was once in contact." Frazer also identifies and differentiates theoretical magic and practical magic. Theoretical magic concerns "the rules which determine the sequence of events throughout the world"—in other words, universal rules or natural laws apply to both humans and inanimate nature. Practical magic, by contrast, concerns "the precepts which human beings observe to compass their ends," or the actions a magician takes to achieve his goal.

Frazer criticizes all this magic as "a spurious system," "a false science"; he even calls it "the bastard art." In his opinion, "the primitive magician" does not have the capacity to understand science or the concrete laws of nature; he relies on magic to combat a world he cannot understand. Frazer points out the lack of scientific logic in magic, stating, "Homoeopathic magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which resemble each other are the same: contagious magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact."

2. Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic

The author lists numerous examples of homoeopathic magic in cultures worldwide. One common example Frazer presents is the idea that one can "injure or destroy an enemy by injuring or destroying an image of him." Frazer also discusses the use of puppets, which a magician might burn or bury to maim or kill his enemy. He then lists several "beneficent" uses for homoeopathic magic, such as making a doll in hopes of becoming pregnant and ceremonies meant to "heal or prevent sickness." For example, some ancient peoples believed a bird, the stone-curlew, could take away people's jaundice simply by looking at them. "The virtue of the bird," write Frazer, "lay ... in its large golden eye, which naturally drew out the yellow jaundice." Homoeopathic magic can also be performed "on the person of the doctor" instead of on the patient, "who is thus relieved of all trouble and inconvenience." Frazer also notes many cultures used homoeopathic magic in fishing and hunting, such as a hunter seeking to draw white cockatoos near "by holding an effigy of the bird and mimicking its harsh cry."

Frazer also notes that negative magic—"Do not do this, lest so and so should happen"—contrasts with positive magic—"Do this in order so that so and so may happen." Taboos are a negative form of homoeopathic magic—people may refrain from doing certain acts so they do not attract bad luck or unwanted troubles. Both negative and positive magic fall under the umbrella of practical magic, according to Frazer, because both are attempts by the magician to achieve specific goals. Furthermore, such magic was believed to act at a great distance. For example, the wife of a hunter might wear a sword "day and night" while her husband was away, "in order that he may always be thinking of his weapons."

3. Contagious Magic

Contagious magic particularly concerns "the magical sympathy which is supposed to exist between a man and any severed portion of his person," such as teeth, hair, or nail clippings. Such personal effects could be used by a magician or even a mythical being to wreak havoc on the person from whom they were acquired. Similarly, the umbilical cord and placenta were seen as powerful organs that retained a connection with the infant after birth; thus, they were guarded or treated with particular care to keep the infant from harm or to encourage good fortune. Contagious magic isn't limited to body parts, either. Clothing, personal possessions, or even footprints could be used by a magician to harm or cast a spell on their original owner.

4. The Magician's Progress

Frazer notes most of the preceding examples were forms of private magic, practiced by the magician for his own benefit. He then defines public magic, which is performed "for the benefit of the whole community." Over time, such public magicians could gain a great deal of authority or power, and could even become a king or chief. Frazer maintained such people must be "conscious deceivers" who used their perceived powers "to dupe their weaker brother and to play on his superstition for their own advantage." He further concludes, "Supreme power tends to fall into the hands of men of the keenest intelligence and the most unscrupulous character," though he acknowledges some magicians may use their so-called powers in a genuine wish to serve their people. Frazer sees this change from private magic (used by all) to public magic (performed by only a few) as the initial shift from democracy to monarchy. Frazer is not against such a system, and indeed suggests "one man of supreme power" may carry out grand changes "in a single lifetime which previously many generations" were not able to do. He offers as examples ancient empires such as Rome and Egypt, which rose to prominence under the guidance of strong leaders "in the double character of a king and a god."


It is critically important for the reader to understand sympathetic magic's concepts, and James George Frazer's explanation of the types of magic in Section 1 is wonderfully lucid. His opinion of magic isn't very flattering, though, as the reader discovers when he calls it "the bastard art" and various other uncomplimentary names. While such language may be amusing or sensationalistic, it is not very scientific, because it shows the author's personal bias.

In Section 4 Frazer acknowledges some good has emerged from the practice of magic: namely, public magicians paved the way for "despotic and theocratic governments." He argues, "This early epoch despotism is the best friend of humanity and, paradoxical as it may sound, of liberty." He believes such supreme leaders helped forward the cause of civilization, "to emancipate humankind from the thraldom [sic] of tradition and to elevate them into a larger, freer life." This seems like a personal opinion rather than an objective, provable fact. Frazer's bias toward contemporary society as superior to early society is clear.

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