The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapters 6–8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 6: Magicians as Kings

James George Frazer notes that very successful public magicians "appear to have often developed into chiefs and kings." This idea is especially evident in Africa, where "evidence for the evolution of the chief out of the magician, and especially out of the rainmaker, is comparatively plentiful." Medicine men and rainmakers often rose to the office of chief, though the accompanying power, prestige, and wealth such a magician gained were not without a price. Such a chief often "comes to a violent end," Frazer writes, "for in time of drought the angry people assemble and kill him, believing that it is he who prevents the rain from falling." Eventually—and unsurprisingly—"no one would be king, and the monarchy came to an end." Other kingly virtues described by Frazer, beyond magical control of the weather, included the ability to make crops flourish and to heal the sick by touch. Frazer concludes the chapter by again noting that some kings came to be viewed as divine during their lifetime, "through the temporary or permanent possession of their whole nature by a great and powerful spirit."

Chapter 7: Incarnate Human Gods

Over time, Frazer writes, early people lost faith in their ability to do magic, and their "sense of equality with the gods" waned. People looked more and more to higher beings to solve their dilemmas. Sacrifice and prayer took the place of private magic for those who were "pious and enlightened," while the "superstitious and ignorant" continued to practice magic, which came to be viewed as a "black art." Before this happened, though, the idea of a man-god, "a human being endowed with divine or supernatural powers," was still prevalent. Early peoples believed such a man-god had the same supernatural powers they themselves held, only to a higher degree. Moreover, they viewed actual gods—deities—as "merely invisible magicians," working like human magicians but behind the scenes of nature. Frazer cautions the reader against "importing into the savage conception of deity those very abstract and complex ideas which we attach to the term," saying the "savage" and the "civilized man" have very different understandings of the concept of god. Nonetheless, Frazer says this early conception of deity was probably "the germ out of which the civilized peoples have gradually evolved their own high conceptions of deity."

Frazer then says there were two types of incarnate gods. The first is a temporary "possession" of a human, manifesting itself in "supernatural knowledge" such as divination and prophecy, sometimes brought on by ingesting fresh blood (human or animal) or sacred plants. The second type of man-god is a more permanent inhabitation of the human body by the divine spirit, manifesting itself in "supernatural power" such as miracles. Frazer lists several examples of such primitive man-gods from various cultures; they may be either kings or people of "the humblest rank." He includes (among his examples) Christianity, which "has not uniformly escaped the taint of these unhappy delusions," because even some Christians of Frazer's time "have believed that Christ, nay God himself, is incarnate in every fully initiated Christian." Frazer also points out, "Sometimes, at the death of the human incarnation, the divine spirit transmigrates into another man," and gives as an example the Grand Lamas of Buddhism.

Chapter 8: Departmental Kings of Nature

In this chapter Frazer describes a different type of man-god who has provenance over specific areas of nature, rather than all of nature in general. Among these, he lists the King of the Wood at Nemi, the Kings of Rain of the Upper Nile, and the King of the Fire and the King of the Water of Cambodia. Many of these figures performed their magic at risk of their own life, for if they failed, they might be put to death most violently. Many of these kings were "not allowed to die a natural death," as the people believed if a king died, his power went with him. Thus, if such a king fell seriously ill, a council of elders might decide to "stab him to death" if his recovery seemed unlikely.

Analysis

Chapter 7 offers insight into James George Frazer's opinion on early people compared to modern, "civilized" people. The language he uses to describe early cultures and their beliefs reveals his bias against them. Frazer's speech is peppered with words that carry negative connotations today, such as "savage" and "primitive," as well as judgmental comments on various tribes' "superstitious and ignorant" customs. While this language may have been intended as merely descriptive, it can seem condescending to today's reader. Frazer occasionally makes statements excusing the ignorance of early humans; for example, he suggests they simply didn't have the cognitive powers of modern people. This is evident in his discussion of early humans' concept of the word "deity," which falls short of the "high conceptions of deity" modern humans hold. He notes that primitive concepts of deity laid the foundation for deeper understanding by later societies, but this seems faint praise, indeed—like a patronizing pat on the head.

Frazer's comments on Christianity in Chapter 7 are also very revealing. His evaluation of certain Christian beliefs as "unhappy delusions" seems to show a marked disregard for Christianity. To be fair, Frazer seems to discount all religions equally, viewing religion in general as a superstitious practice inferior to the modern—and in Frazer's opinion, superior—practice of science. This can hardly be surprising, given Frazer's devotion to anthropology, the science of studying human beings. From such a perspective, Frazer must have viewed human behavior in an extremely logical manner, and practices such as magic and religion, which are not necessarily based on logic, would not have had much validity to him.

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