The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Context


Critical Reception, Then and Now

Upon its initial publication in 1890, The Golden Bough caused a sensation. James George Frazer's inclusion of Jesus Christ as an example of a dying and reviving god, equivalent to figures such as the Egyptian god Osiris and the Greek god Adonis, was controversial among Christians who consider Jesus real, not mythical. The work also had an immediate impact on the field of anthropology. Succeeding generations of scholars adopted Frazer's definitions of magic and religion as the new standard. Frazer was the first anthropologist to bring together such a large and diverse body of information to make comparisons about practices across cultures. His theories made early humans' lives and beliefs accessible to contemporary readers in both the academic and literary worlds.

Since Frazer's time, much of academia has come to view his ideas about the evolution of magical, religious, and scientific thought as invalid. No evidence has emerged to support his theories, and new historical and archeological discoveries have overturned some of his ideas. Frazer has also been criticized for speculating excessively and for cherry-picking evidence to fit his theories. Moreover, he repeatedly postulates what early humans "must have been thinking," something he could not possibly know. Furthermore, critics consider Frazer's original data unreliable, because some of it came not from scientists but from questionnaires he sent to white colonial laypeople or missionaries. And his characterization of early people as "primitive" with "ridiculous" ideas brimming with "childish ignorance" raises the hackles of some readers today due to its tone of superiority. Frazer's Eurocentrism is evident in the text, and today some are offended by his use of terms such as "negro" and "savages."

Cultural Anthropology and Comparative Religion

The Golden Bough remains an important text in cultural anthropology, the study of human culture, and comparative religion. It is rich in mythological lore, and challenges readers to draw their own conclusions on a wide variety of topics. Frazer is never satisfied with a single example to support his theories. Rather, he pulls together similar anecdotes and examples from a huge variety of cultures around the world. While much of his work is Eurocentric, focusing on the classical realms of ancient Rome and Greece, Frazer also draws from disparate cultures in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australia. Whether it's the Rice-mother in the East Indies or the Maize-mother of Peru, Frazer draws together far-flung examples to offer substantial evidence of similar rites and rituals around the world.

Frazer's ideas on sympathetic magic are still evident today in various cultural and religious groups. These ideas include examples such as imitative magic, where like creates like; and contagious magic, where an object once in contact with a person can still affect that person across time and distance. For example, some practitioners of Santería, a religion originating in Africa, might use a puppet representing a sick individual to channel healing to that patient. This is a form of imitative magic, in which the healing offered to the doll is believed to affect the patient equally.

The Golden Bough has also served as a source text for the revival of neo-paganism—modern religious movements that incorporate rituals and beliefs from traditions outside the main world religions, particularly those of pre-Christian North America and Europe. Some of these revived traditions include the Goddess movement, which celebrates a dominant female deity rather than a male "sky-god"; Neo-Druidism, a modern interpretation of ancient Celtic polytheistic traditions; and Wicca, a popular synthesis of old world practices, from the worship of nature to so-called witchcraft.

Literary and Scholarly Impact

The Golden Bough influenced many important writers and thinkers for decades after its publication. Among the most widely known are Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Irish novelist James Joyce, and Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The Golden Bough influenced Jung, for example, in proposing the existence of a "collective unconscious," or a shared unconscious mind accessible to all of humanity. Such a construct could explain many of the seemingly unrelated traditions that Frazer relates from cultures separated in time and distance. Shamanism, for example, developed independently in many areas of the world, and is one of the methods through which Jung proposes the collective unconscious may be accessed. Freud drew from Frazer's collective works in developing his theories on totems and taboos.

American mythologist Joseph Campbell called Frazer's work "monumental" and drew on ideas from The Golden Bough in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), in which he explores the impact of mythology on the individual mind. To Campbell, individuals embark on their own "hero's journey," encountering obstacles, gaining skills and self-knowledge, and returning to share their gifts with the world. This "journey" mirrors many of the myths set forth by Frazer, such as that of the death and resurrection of Osiris.

Joyce, raised a Catholic, found inspiration in Frazer's vast collection of religious stories and cultural myths. He based his novel Ulysses, set in modern Dublin, Ireland, on tales from Greek mythology. Much of Yeats's work shows a knowledge of anthropology and comparative religion, a trait almost certainly influenced by Frazer and The Golden Bough. Others who have directly acknowledged Frazer's influence include American writer H.P. Lovecraft, in his short story The Call of Cthulhu (1928); British writer T.S. Eliot, in his lengthy poem The Waste Land (1922); and American writer Camille Paglia, in her book Sexual Personae (1990).

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