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The Golden Bough as a Seminal Work in the Neo Pagan Movement (Part 1)

Author: Sorbus
Posted: January 26th. 2014
Times Viewed: 3,248

If you are a Pagan, you are probably aware of this book. Chances are you may have seen it referenced by other Pagan or Wiccan authors, usually mentioning how it is an influential work, but in the second part of that same statement they also putting it down as hopelessly dated and flawed.

Okay, I’m an idea nerd. I love reading about ideas and where they lead. I’m also tenacious about sticking to a book even when it is not exactly reader friendly. One of the first Neo Pagan works I ever bought was Robert Grave's The White Goddess. I still remember buying it at my college bookstore and struggling to read it cover to cover. Since buying that book over thirty years ago, I think I’ve read it twice more, and still I’d get lost trying to figure out exactly what Graves wanted to explain at times. It turns out that I really needed to read The Golden Bough first.

So what is this book? The Golden Bough is one of those books (actually a set of books) that were a pioneering study of cultural anthropology. It is a study of myth and magic systems from around the world. The first volume was published in 1890 and was added onto over the next thirty-one years with successive volumes. The work eventually became a twelve-volume set. However it has been reprinted, abridged, and edited over and over in the last century many times.

Last summer I found a copy of the 1951 edition that was a condensed version (only 864 pages!) . It took me quite a while to actually read through the book. It is not an easy read. To call the writing dense is like saying it is hard to see on a dark, foggy night. This is a book written by a professional scholar for a scholarly audience. As is the case with most scholarly works, this book was created to prove a thesis. James Frazier’s thesis was based around the idea of how myth and magic systems related to religion go through evolutionary stages. While his scientific/rationalistic thesis no longer is considered generally acceptable, chances are most Pagans today accept some of his ideas and many of these notions hold an important place in the Neo Pagan revival.

Do you think that the purpose of magic spell casting is to send a prayer? If so, you are accepting at least one of James Frazer’s ideas.

One other thing is clear from his work: the man did his research. He is exhaustingly thorough in his examples, drawing from a huge range of cultures around the world. Written in a dated prose where terms like “barbarian”, “rude” and “primitive” are tossed out to refer to any people not up to the standards of civilization of early 20th century European society, the language of the time causes problems with modern readers. In fact, during his lifetime he was frequently criticized for being too nonjudgmental about the rituals and practices he describes. Ironic when you consider he is today criticized for being just the opposite. To me, however, there is no question about it: whether you accept his ideas or are highly critical of them, The Golden Bough is a seminal reading for the modern Pagan practitioner.

So what exactly is within The Golden Bough? What are the ideas it expresses and cultural, religious, and magical practices recounted that make it so important?

To answer this I have to be critical, yet fair about the contents of this work. Is this a flawed work? No doubt. The author was a leading intellectual of his time, but he was also a product of a world that was very Eurocentric and did not have the benefit of a century of cultural scholarship that followed. The Golden Bough led the way, and like many pioneering efforts you can tell it leads for all the points that subsequent work has exposed where he got it wrong or hadn’t gone far enough.

So I’m going to start with the truly great parts about the work and will keep specific criticisms to the very end of this essay.

Praises of the Golden Bough:
The thing that comes across clearest when reading the Golden Bough is how it recounts ways peoples around the world relate to the world of nature with their myths and magic practices. More than anything else, the range of practices and the scope of coverage with which Frazer goes impressed me.

Significant parts I liked in the book:
It has wonderfully detailed descriptions on the how of many earth and nature rituals from around the world. I won’t give specific pages since these change from edition to edition of the work, but I found the following sections particularly fascinating: “The Worship of Trees”, “Our Debt to the Savage”, “The Killing of the Tree-Spirit”, “Demeter and Persephone”, “The Corn-Mother in Many Lands”, “The Fire-Festivals of Europe”. These are my favorite sections since I am most interested in rituals and customs that express a devotion to the land. A last section that especially interesting to me was on animal totems: “The External Soul in Folk-Customs”.

Earth magic and rituals from a past time:
The Golden Bough was published just as European peoples made the final move away from a pre-industrial lifestyle. This lifestyle, based on an agrarian society clearly shows how European peoples lived in contact with the land before industrialization and war uprooted that lifestyle. The 20th century brought mechanization even to rural life and accelerated a process that universal education and mass movements away from rural roots.

In an essay on futurism written in 1964, Isaac Asimov referred to “humanity’s retreat from nature”. It is no surprise that this process has been taking place as part in parcel with the advancement of a highly technological culture. The ramifications of this world apart from nature are still a work in progress. How many people do you know today who only know of nature what they see in the daily weather forecast? There are so many now who live in their little self contained environment of house or apartment and barely are aware of nature around them.

When James Frazer started his work this process was only just starting. One of the things I appreciate about The Golden Bough is how it details all kinds of celebrations and rituals devoted to the seasons of the year. Many of these celebrations have since fallen by the wayside as humanity has become more technological and agriculture mechanized and scientific. If not for research like his, we wouldn’t know just how intimate people lived in touch with the land.

One of those fallacious notions that pervade modern society is how our ancestors raped the land and defiled it willfully. On the contrary, when you read The Golden Bough you can see just how much Gaea was celebrated in general by pastoral societies the world over. Scientific understanding of how ecosystems work have made people generally more aware of how people in the past did not understand nature’s workings, but Frazer deals with this aspect as well. Part of his thesis is how looking at nature from a standpoint of magic led to many of the odd, sometimes destructive rituals and practices of past societies. As Frazer puts it, when a magical understanding of how nature works is all you have, it follows that some queer understandings of nature resulted. My take is that ignorance is not the same as malice and contempt. The Golden Bough brings out this point again and again in how humans in general want to live in harmony with the natural world.

Frazer’s book is organized by topic and pulls examples from all over to make his case. This strategy has its problems as the reader is taken willy-nilly, back and forth from society to society. However if the reader wishes to find an example of a magic ritual to perform it does make it easy to use. The book is organized by topic, with related sections in short chapters. For example, many Pagan readers will know at least a little bit about the ritual of harvesting the last sheaf. If you read The Golden Bough, you’ll see how it is done whether from Scotland or with a particular Native American tribe in North America. The thread of many paths to the same goal is one of the truly great strengths of this work.

Another thread that is so important, and that comes from the Golden Bough is Frazer’s thesis itself. His model is compelling even if flawed. Frazer advanced the idea of how worship has evolved. His model revolves around the stages of Shaman (which he refers to as magician) , The rise of priests as a class and a final, scientific stage. In Frazer’s model, belief began with shamans who used spells to appease and propagate the spirit and in the magical phase of society, spirits exist in every place. Constant appeasement of both benign and malevolent spirits needed to be done in order for crops to grow, diseases to leave, etc…

In the next phase of societies, priests used rituals to please the Gods and force favors in exchange for offerings based on sympathetic and contagious magik. In this phase, there were Gods for every aspect of nature and the spiritual realm. The Priest class used ceremonies that combined highly ritualized devotions and spell craft to, in essence, pay off the Gods to make sure that humanity was able to cause all things to work normally.

In the modern phase, according to Frazer, a prayer is simply devotion without a magical effect being expected quid pro quo, as the worshiper has no expectation that their spell with affect a natural process.

There are surprises and topics in The Golden Bough that will make a Neo-Pagan uncomfortable. There is no mention of a universal God/Goddess so central to modern Wicca. True, there are many different God and Goddesses that contain elements of what modern Wicca celebrates, but only in an eclectic sense. I may be wrong here, but it seems thatThe White Goddes by Robert Graves (1948) is where a single incarnate Goddess under many names came about as the mythic model for Wicca. Frazer mentions Witchcraft in general in a number of places, but only in a negative sense as Witches were universally feared and many rituals existed to keep their baleful magiks at bay.

It was clear to me, that European Heathens or hereditary witchcraft were not reported by any of literally hundreds of correspondents that Frazer used to gather anecdotal accounts of magic and ritual practices from all over Europe and the wider world. So where are all the hidden European Pagans in general? All of Frazer’s accounts were from openly celebrated practices. There is no doubt that Pagan rituals existed within many folk traditions and he calls attention to this over and over. In fact, in many rituals, local clergy took a role as well (sometimes in spite of official disapproval of such participation) .

Now a negative result is not proof that something did not happen, but it does put a damper on claims in general that there were Pagans practicing in secret during the medieval and post medieval into the pre-modern eras. If there were hereditary European Heathens still existing when Frazer was doing his research, they stayed well hidden and out of sight. What I do see in the Golden Bough is that people in general accepted a wide range of magical practices while still considering their selves to be a part of the general monotheistic culture of European peoples before the 20th century.

A few specific criticisms of the Golden Bough relate to its age. To put this work in historical context keep in mind the following about when it was written:

-The book was published for the most part before Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s works had affected the intellectual understanding of emotions and the psychological makeup of people’s minds.
-The book is also before modern classic works of anthropology had set what became the standard for doing such studies (For example, Margaret Mead’s classic “Coming of Age in Samoa”, circa 1930s) .
-While James Frazer was appears to be a fairly liberal man in regards to the role of women, he was still a product of his time: a Victorian era man whose view of women was defined by fairly strict gender roles.
-Spelling and language usage are not modern. A reader needs to get past word choices that appear stilted.
-Finally Frazer used anecdotal reports gathered via correspondence as a source of material about cultural customs from around the world. While he does attempt to keep a non-judgmental stance, unknown bias on the part of his sources will color how he presents his facts at times.

So how is a modern Neo-Pagan and/or Wiccan supposed to deal with Frazer’s work in general? For myself, it shows over and over that earth based religious practices are endemic to humans. Modern Wicca and Paganism in general have arisen in a movement to celebrate our connection to the earth. Reading the Golden Bough is important because any serious study of a topic requires a person to get as close to source material as possible, and not simply repeat other people’s interpretations. Seminal works like this are so important because they exist before the filters were put on a topic and they define the conversation that follows. Like it or not, this is a work to provoke thought, critique what was, and motivate responses in the reader that lead to personal growth. Read this book but keep in mind the old saying: “don’t shoot the messenger”.

As I was writing this essay it became apparent that it would be a good idea that I should make some suggestions on using the Golden Bough in a course of study. This is not a book I think should be read in isolation, and discussion with a reading partner, or seminar group is important when dealing with a topic so rich and controversial.

Frazer, James., The Golden Bough (single volume condensed edition) , New York., MacMillan Company, 1951

Graves, Robert, The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth (Amended and enlarged edition) , New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux., c. 1948, American ed. 1966

Isaac Asimov’s 1964 predictions article referenced below
accessed Jan. 12th, 2014.
accessed Jan. 12th, 2014.

Copyright: A. I. Mychalus c. 2014
Reproduction rights given with credit and for educational purposes



Location: New Park, Pennsylvania

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