The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Main Ideas



Many of the mythological and religious ideas James George Frazer explores relate to the natural world, the weather, and the seasonal cycles of plants and animals. The author presents anecdotes from cultures that observe the cycles of the sun and the moon to mark the passage of time with solar and lunar calendars. Magical attributes of the sun and moon are also noted, such as the idea certain magical acts should be performed either at the new moon or the full moon. The weather is another key topic, with much of the early magic of humankind being devoted to controlling the wind, rain, and sun. In addition, chapters on the worship of trees, deities of vegetation, nature spirits (such as the corn-spirit), and sacred animals comprise a large portion of the text. Frazer's numerous anecdotes on human interaction with and beliefs about nature reinforce its central importance in early magic and religion across a wide array of cultures.

The Dying and Reviving God

Frazer explains how in many ancient religions, a central figure would die and then be resurrected. This death and rebirth was generally associated with the annual revival of vegetation in the spring followed by the death of plants in winter. For example, Frazer proposes the death of the Egyptian god Osiris represents "the decay of vegetation," and his subsequent resurrection equates to the reawakening of the earth in spring. According to Frazer other deities who played a similar—if not virtually identical—role included Adonis, Attis, and Dionysus. The key figure of the book, the priest of Nemi as the King of the Wood, is the most important example of a dying and reviving god, as noted in the text.

Ancient people who did not yet understand the scientific reasons behind the cycles of nature viewed such deities as a way to understand and work with the mysterious natural world around them. The earth provided the plants and animals they needed to survive, wood to make fire, herbs for medicine, and many other vital materials, so preservation of its bounty was of utmost importance. By honoring the dying and reviving god, people hoped to ensure the return of fertility to the earth as the seasons changed.

Magic, Religion, and Science

Frazer offers his ideas on the evolution of human thought and understanding, beginning with magic as the earliest and lowest form of the three disciplines. He proposes that religion evolved from magic, and science arose after religion. Frazer's bias against magic (and to a lesser extent, religion) and in favor of science is evident throughout the book. Among many other pointed words, Frazer describes the magical rituals of "the savage magician" as "false and absurd," and religious beliefs such as the virgin births of deities as "childish ignorance." He also says, "The true or golden rules constitute the body of applied science which we call the arts; the false are magic," and the belief in spirits such as demons have been "banished by the magic wand of science."

Frazer describes the principles of magic, beginning in Chapter 3, "Sympathetic Magic," which is governed by the assumption that "things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy ... to explain how things can physically affect each other." Under this umbrella Frazer defines two types of sympathetic magic: homoeopathic (or imitative) magic and contagious magic. Homoeopathic magic is said to work by the "Law of Similarity," in which "like produces like" or in which "an effect resembles its cause." For example, "amongst the Bari tribe one of these Rain Kings made rain by sprinkling water on the ground." The sprinkling of the water was supposed to imitate rain falling from the sky and thus encourage or produce this weather effect. Contagious magic, by contrast, is based on the "Law of Contact," in which an object that comes in contact with a person can later affect him or her. One instance of this is the use of hair or nail clippings collected from a person's body to work magic against that person. Frazer offers the example of "a Malay charm," in which these items are molded into a wax figure of the intended victim and then burned over a lamp to cause his or her death.

Frazer also differentiates theoretical magic from practical magic. Theoretical magic is defined as "a statement of the rules which determine the sequence of events throughout the world," while practical magic is "a set of precepts which human beings observe to compass their ends." So, theoretical magic might govern natural phenomena such as the sun rising and setting, while practical magic might deal with the conjuring of a person's individual desires. Frazer calls theoretical magic a "pseudoscience" and practical magic a "pseudo-art," viewing neither as valid. He further breaks down practical magic into positive magic, or sorcery—"Do this in order that so and so may happen"—and negative magic, or taboo—"Do not do this, lest so and so should happen."

In Chapter 4 Frazer defines religion as "a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life." He breaks this definition down into two parts: the theoretical, the belief in a "higher power" or divine being; and the practical, man's attempts to "propitiate or please" this being.

Frazer ends the text by restating his belief that science is superior to both magic and religion as a mode of human thought. He also leaves open the possibility that some new discipline of thought might arise to take the place of science, carrying human development forward even further. Importantly, many of his readers, especially the poets and artists who followed him, saw magic differently than Frazer, and found in his description of religion's foundation a new source for artistic, psychological, and spiritual explorations.

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