The Golden Bough
|Preach to the choir|
|Crux of the matter|
|Speak of the devil|
|An act of faith|
“”Frazer was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death by carefully and methodically sailing all around his dangerous subject, as if charting the coastline of a forbidden island without actually committing himself to a declaration that it existed. What he was saying-not-saying was that Christian legend, dogma and ritual are the refinement of a great body of primitive and even barbarous beliefs, and that almost the only original element in Christianity is the personality of Jesus.
The Golden Bough is a twelve-volume collection of mythology and accompanying commentary on the religions around those myths. Published by James Frazer (1854-1941) between 1890 and 1915, it became a seminal work in the study of comparative religion.
Unlike any other collection of myths, Frazer added the Jesus mythology to his work — an act that was in its time quite scandalous. The work attempted to study these religions as human cultural artifacts and not as theological work. This, too, was bothersome to many contemporary British readers, again because it considered Jesus as a "cultural artifact of man."
The Golden Bough attempts to classify and comment upon shared aspects of religion found across many cultures including cannibalism and theophagy; social rites including fertility rites, coming of age rites, marriage rites, death and funerary rites; human and animal sacrifice; and dying and rising gods. He was one of the first to suggest a migration from woman/mother worship to fertility cults, to more formalized pantheons of gods, to (pseudo)monotheism.
One of Frazer's claims is that the Dying-Rising Solar God is central to all world religions, and that the ideas of that god and the rites and rituals associated with the worship of that god come from older fertility cults.
Each year, on the Sunday after Imbolc, the Nacirema tribe conducts a curious ritual. Two teams of men are chosen by a complicated series of preliminary rites. They dress in ritual costumes designed to make them look imposing, and don helmets blazoned with totems identifying themselves with dangerous wild animals or fearsome warriors. In this garb, they enter a highly formalized mock combat to push or throw a bladder made from animal hides and fashioned in the shape of an egg from one end of an open green field to another. Virgins, scantily clad despite the season, urge the two groups forward. Clearly, this seasonal ritual, with its egg symbolism, seasonally inappropriate semi-nudity, and two opposed groups of elaborately costumed totem warriors represents a survival of an ancient fertility rite. The two teams represent the combat between the winter and the returning spring, and relate to the theme of the dying and reviving vegetation spirit. The meaning of the egg is obvious.
If you find this account of the Super Bowl less than convincing, the flaw of the Golden Bough system becomes apparent. It encourages a confident disregard of the explanations the actual participants give for their own customs. You know you are looking for pagan survivals and fertility rites; armed with the certainty that all immemorial customs must somehow relate to this monomyth, just about any custom can be pressed into the mold. If it is a seasonal ritual, and fire, vegetation, or eggs are somehow involved, it's easy.
Social sciences were just beginning at the time of publication of Golden Bough but the way it presented religions has directly impacted anthropology and classical Religion Studies around the western academic world. However, as more research has been done, and more texts discovered, it was found that many of the stories he relates are inaccurate representations of the myths and religions from around the world. What is unclear is how much he may have knowingly edited his work to reinforce his findings.
Many authors have cited Frazer as an influence or rewritten him entirely. Robert Graves is one of the most famous interpreters of Frazer's work, penning the mostly fanciful work, The White Goddess which has become the cornerstone for the Goddess/Ancient Matriarchy Movement, used to supplement their own views of what life was like before modern penis-focused, Sky-Daddy religions "took over".
Frazer's work was a significant influence on T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. It is one of the books on Colonel Kurtz's desk in the film Apocalypse Now.
Joseph Campbell would go on to cite Frazer at length in his own studies of mythology.