The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Quotes


The primary aim of this book is to explain the remarkable rule which regulated the succession to the priesthood of Diana at Aricia.


In this sprawling work it can be easy to lose sight of the author's main purpose: to solve the mystery of the King of the Wood, the priest of Diana's grove in Aricia (Italy). James George Frazer's opening sentence plainly states the book's objective: to understand how priests were chosen for this office.


A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest.

Chapter 1

Here, James George Frazer explains the "remarkable rule" by which the King of the Wood becomes priest: he must kill the old priest to take on the position. After he does so, he can stay in office until someone slays him. This is the mystery the author wishes to solve: what is the reason behind this gruesome act?


There are strong grounds for thinking ... in the evolution of thought, magic has preceded religion.

Chapter 3

According to one of James George Frazer's key theories, magic came before religion. In his view, humans were magicians first, believing themselves to have the power to change the world around them and their circumstances. According to Frazer, only later did people begin to believe these powers lay outside themselves, with spirits or deities that people worshipped or honored with sacrifices and rituals.


The savage ... is a slave ... to the past, to the spirits of his dead forefathers.

Chapter 3

James George Frazer refutes the notion "the savage"—the early human—felt freer than modern humans. Frazer maintains that early humans followed strict rules and customs instituted by their ancestors, and such "blind unquestioning obedience" prevented humankind from advancing civilization more rapidly, because tradition was prized over innovation.


The true or golden rules constitute the body of applied science which we call the arts; the false are magic.

Chapter 4

Throughout the book James George Frazer offers his opinions as if they are fact, a tendency criticized by modern scholars. Here, Frazer says science is valid and magic is not. He sees science as a superior cultural achievement, whereas magic is, in his opinion, a less advanced form of human thought—and one he, in general, scorns.


Religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely, a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them.

Chapter 4

James George Frazer breaks down the complex subject of religion into two simple ideas: religion requires a belief in a higher power, and there must be interaction between this power and the believer. Frazer further says one without the other doesn't qualify as religion. Those who don't act on their beliefs are not truly religious, nor are those who go through the motions of religious rites without genuine belief supporting their actions.


Ancient magic was the very foundation of religion.

Chapter 4

One of James George Frazer's key ideas is the relationship between magic, religion, and science. Although—in his opinion—ancient magic was misguided and ineffectual, it nonetheless served as the springboard for religion to develop. He repeatedly points out the differences between magic and religion but also concedes that some acts are both magical and religious in nature.


In primitive society ... every man is more or less his own magician; he practices charms and incantations for his own good and the injury of his enemies.

Chapter 5

Frazer maintains early people practiced magic independently, prior to the rise of "public magicians" who practiced magic for the community. For example, in undertaking magical control of the weather, a hunter or farmer might use magic to benefit himself or his family only.


Magicians appear to have often developed into chiefs and kings.

Chapter 6

James George Frazer traces the evolution of society from individuals' private use of magic to "public magicians" who benefitted the community. Such public magicians often gained great social power, prestige, and even wealth; thus, public magicians often rose into political positions of authority, such as kingship. At times, Frazer equates magic with spirituality, making it difficult to distinguish between them in the text.


The height of heroism is reached in men who renounce the pleasures of life and even life itself for the sake of ... others.

Chapter 11

James George Frazer considers sacrifice to be the greatest good a person can offer society, and self-sacrifice to be the highest form of sacrifice. When he notes early humans sacrificed sexual pleasure to ensure an abundant supply of plants and animals to eat, Frazer praises this impulse as a noble virtue; it served to build "strength of character in the race," enabling humans to reach greater heights over time. An even higher form of sacrifice is that of life itself.


Man has created gods in his own likeness and being himself mortal he has naturally supposed his creatures to be in the same sad predicament.

Chapter 24

James George Frazer explains the apparent contradiction of gods who are able to die. Because religion sprang from the mind of humans, Frazer says, humans created gods who were similar to themselves. Although these gods were powerful, they were also mortal and could be killed as a sacrifice for the good of the people. Such "divine kings" were believed to die and then miraculously return to life, an important cycle noted as "the dying and reviving god."


He fancied that by masquerading in leaves and flowers he helped the bare Earth to clothe herself with verdure.

Chapter 25

James George Frazer says early people used sympathetic magic to ensure fertile vegetation. By dressing in leaves and flowers, "primitive man" believed he encouraged the greenery of spring to return to the land.


The world cannot live at the level of its great men.

Chapter 37

James George Frazer distinguishes between the common man who relies upon ritual for his salvation, and the "great men" who make tremendous sacrifices for the common good. Specifically, he is referring to followers of Jesus Christ and the Buddha, who have not lived up to the standards set by these holy men.


For ages the army of spirits ... has been receding ... banished by the magic wand of science.

Chapter 56

James George Frazer distinguishes between "the savage" who believes in demons and spirits, and contemporary man who uses science to dismiss such notions with logic and reason. He may have been biased toward science, but many of his readers and the authors he influenced found science as magical as spirituality and longed for a return to a more spiritual worldview.


The consideration of human suffering is not one which enters into the calculations of primitive man.

Chapter 64

James George Frazer indicates early humans considered human suffering unimportant compared to the need to make sacrifices. He says people believed human sacrifice was needed to ensure a fertile harvest; they could not be deterred by the suffering of the individual being sacrificed. In other words, the collective good was more important than the individual pain.

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