The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 4–5 | Summary



Chapter 4: Magic and Religion

James George Frazer begins by comparing magic to science, holding that both are based on a faith in the "uniformity of nature" and the laws of cause and effect. For the magician, "the proper ceremony, accompanied by the appropriate spell, will inevitably be attended by the desired results" in the same way a scientist will obtain consistent results from a controlled experiment. Magic's "fatal flaw," he writes, is that it is based on mistaken lines of thought: "the association of ideas by similarity [homoeopathic magic] and ... by contiguity in space or time [contagious magic]." Therefore, "all magic is necessarily false and barren," because if it truly worked, "it would no longer be magic but science."

Frazer then compares magic to religion, which he defines as having "two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely, a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them." Religion differs from both magic and science, he writes, because it does not conform to the idea of fixed laws of nature. Frazer asks, "Are the forces which govern the world conscious and personal, or unconscious and impersonal?" If—as religion supposes—a higher power can change the course of events, this assumes "the course of nature is to some extent elastic or variable." If one prays to a god, one must believe the god can supersede the laws of nature. In Frazer's opinion, this sets up a "radical conflict" between magic and religion, which explains why magicians have so often been despised by priests. A priest cannot abide the magician's claim of godlike powers, his denial of a power higher than himself, while the priest humbles himself before such a higher power. But as Frazer notes, for much of history the offices of magician and priest were combined—for example, in the pharaohs of Egypt who were considered both magicians and living gods. Frazer proposes, "Ancient magic was the very foundation of religion," and an "Age of Magic" gradually gave way to an "Age of Religion" in much of civilization. Over time, he maintains, early humans must have used logic to see that magical acts were not truly connected with their supposed results; the rain fell whether he had held a rain ceremony or not. Frazer believes such magicians must have gradually turned to beliefs of a higher power outside themselves, and thus began religion.

Chapter 5: The Magical Control of the Weather

In Chapter 5 Frazer discusses the public magician and the magical control of the weather in four sections.

1. The Public Magician

There are two types of "man-gods." The first are divine beings that incarnate in human bodies. The second are human magicians who have risen to a high level of personal power, who are deeply attuned to and affected by the natural world around them. He then reiterates the concept of the private magician who acts for himself, and the public magician who acts for the good of the community. Frazer views the emergence of the public magician as a great advance in primitive society, as it is, in its own way a beginning of the division of labor. Magical acts once performed by individuals, such as the hunter using magic to procure food, were taken over by magicians dedicated to performing these acts for the entire community. It was a public magician's job to observe the world around him acutely, including "the properties of drugs and minerals, the causes of rain and drought, of thunder and lightning, the changes of the seasons, the phases of the moon," and so on. Frazer asserts that such public magicians were usually highly motivated to perform their duties well, as "a single mistake detected might cost them their life." Frazer calls such public magicians "the direct predecessors" of modern physicians, surgeons, and other investigative scientists, despite their "crude theories."

2. The Magical Control of Rain

Public magicians used various techniques to make the rain fall or stop falling. This was viewed as one of the most important acts a magician could perform for the tribe. Much of the magic performed was homoeopathic in nature. A magician could cause rain to fall by "sprinkling water or mimicking clouds," or to stop the rain using fire "for the sake of drying up the too abundant moisture." Frazer points out when such magic failed to produce results, magicians weren't above using "threats and curses or even downright physical force to extort the waters from heaven." For example, Japanese villagers might throw the image of their "guardian divinity" into the fields to "see how you [the deity] will feel after a few days' scorching in this broiling sun."

3. The Magical Control of the Sun

During solar eclipses some tribes would shoot fiery arrows into the air, "hoping thus to rekindle his expiring light." In many cultures rituals or offerings were meant to ensure the continued rising of the sun. Some were meant to propitiate a solar deity—a religious act—while others aimed to physically renew the sun's "energies of heat, light, and motion"—a magical act. In Mexico, people gave extreme offerings: human sacrifices "to feed the solar fire."

4. The Magical Control of the Wind

Magicians sought to influence air's movement in various ways. "Finnish wizards used to sell wind to storm-stayed mariners" using knot magic, writes Frazer. "The wind was enclosed in three knots," and as the mariner untied each knot, the force of wind would increase. Other cultures viewed strong wind as "an evil being who may be intimidated, driven away, or killed." Villagers might scream and wave weapons or blazing torches in the air to chase away such demons. Frazer gives myriad examples from various cultures for each of these magical controls of the weather.


James George Frazer's logical brain is at work again in Chapter 4 when he suggests the performance of sympathetic magic is based on "mistaken lines of thought." His logic certainly seems solid, but he doesn't offer proof of his assertion. It is only a theory, and in fact, a theory modern science is overturning. Quantum physics, which is used to describe and predict how physical systems work, has offered convincing proof particles (such as photons) affect one another, even when separated by great distances. Through this "quantum entanglement," when one photon is altered, the connected—or "entangled"—photon is similarly altered. This theory seems to parallel the Chapter 1 theory about sympathetic magic, in which Frazer says, "Things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy." The reader may well wonder what Frazer would think of today's scientific theories and how they might change his outlook on the theories he has presented. He says if magic truly worked, "it would no longer be magic but science"; this seems to be coming true before the modern world's eyes. Perhaps magic is a science after all.

Frazer's mention of the "radical conflict" between magic and religion certainly has historical precedent, from the suppression of pagan religions (many of which had magical elements) in the early days of Christianity to the Salem witch trials spurred on by Puritan laws. Interestingly, the publication of The Golden Bough has been credited as contributing to the growth of the modern neo-paganism due to the book's wealth of information on early pagan practices. This is rather ironic, given Frazer's strong bias toward science over religion and magic.

Frazer's comparison in Chapter 5 of public magicians to modern scientists is particularly intriguing. Indeed, his description of a public magician's duties reads remarkably like a list of scientific inquiries: to observe "the properties of drugs and minerals, the causes of rain and drought, of thunder and lightning, the changes of the seasons, the phases of the moon." He also emphasizes the public magician's most important act of making rain. This emphasis on water as crucial to life was a primary concern then as it is now—demonstrated, for example, in the modern "Water is Life" movement and the United Nations' 2010 declaration that access to clean water is a basic human right.

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