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The Golden Bough: a Study Guide (Part 2)

Author: Sorbus
Posted: February 2nd. 2014
Times Viewed: 3,048

In the first part, I reviewed this important work and made the case why every modern Pagan should read it (or at least parts of it.) So now I’m going to make a few suggestions about using it in a course of personal study. There have been many editions of the book since its inception in 1890. James Frazer kept expanding his work and adding to it until it filled 12 volumes before he was done. While Frazer did not add more to this work after the twelfth volume until his death in 1941, the bewildering proliferation of editions, revisions, and sheer size of the work is daunting. In my own case, I purchased the 1951 revised edition printed in the USA by MacMillan. The good news is that according to US copyright law, the entire work is now in public domain and getting it for study is very easy. US copyright law states copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years. Print editions abound out there. Being such an important work, it is a free download, available from a variety of web sources. There is even an audio version you can listen to.

So my goal here in this article is to give a suggested course of study for a small group to pursue. At least that was my first idea. Actually, the more I though about it, the more I realized I needed to suggest a couple of sets of study strands, each revolving around a central theme and going back to an essential question. So, if this is a work that you’d like to read for personal growth, here is my guide. Keep in mind this is based on the edition I have, and I may have inadvertently omitted some good chapters simply because I am not an expert on all the different editions of this monumental work.

Strand One:

Essential Question: “What is the role of worship in earth based rites as relating to plants and the natural cycle of the seasons?”

If a group is pursuing this strand of study this is what they need to do:

Initial reading: “The King of the wood”,
The following sections are a part of it as well:
-“Diana and Virbius”,
-“Artemis and Hippolytus”,
-“Priestly Kings”.

These are short introductory chapters in which Frazer introduces his work in general. Readers need to know his style and here he explains his general goals using the language of poetic myth.

In pursuing this thread, I would also suggest the following sections:

You may wish to assign related discussion questions to each section of reading.
A theme question for this section: Why were trees sacred in the Indo-European tradition?

“The Worship of Trees and all its subsections”:
-“Tree Spirits,
-“Beneficent Powers of Tree-Spirits”,
-“Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe”.

This chapter is where Frazer outlines how Indo-European peoples venerated trees, with specific examples from antiquity to the modern era. As a following reading I think you’d actually want to read from here:
Here is a discussion question that comes to me that helps with a reading of this section: What support does this give for the idea of a universal Goddess of growing things?

-“Diana as the Goddess of Fertility”,
-“The Sacred Marriage”,
-The Marriage of the Gods”.

As a following reading about the harvest cycle also read this. Here is a theme question for these chapters: Why did pastoral peoples have rituals to celebrate the changing of the seasons/beginning and end of growing cycle that involved killing a symbolic spirit?

Starting with “The Killing of the Tree Spirit”:
-“The Whitsundtide Mummers”,
-“Burying the Carnival”,
-“Carrying out Death”,
-“Bringing in Summer”,
-“Battle of Summer and Winter”,
-“Death and Resurrection of Kostrubonko”,
-“Death and Resurrection of Vegetation”,
-“Analogous Rites in India”,
-“The Magic Spring”.
-“The Corn Mother in Many Lands’,
-“The Corn Mother in America”,
-“The Rice Mother in the East Indies”,
-“The Spirit of Corn embodied in Human Beings”,
-“The Double Personification of the Corn as Mother and Daughter”,
-“ Songs of the Corn Reapers”,
-“Killing the Corn Spirit”,
-“Human Sacrifices for the Crops”,
-“The Corn-Spirit slain in his Human Representatives”.

You’ll find ample examples of nature celebrations of the seasons. Here Frazer devotes a lot of time and details to things like wild man rituals practiced into the 19th century in many places of Europe. Continue this strand by reading

-“The Corn Mother”,
-“Corn Maiden in Northern Europe”.

As a final section in this strand, I think reading about the use of celebratory and sacred bonfires is worth adding. A theme question here is: “Why are fire ceremonies so popular? Is a fire ceremony purgative or cone of power in its aims?

-“The Fire Festivals of Europe”.
-“The Fire Festivals in General”,
-“The Lenten Fires”,
-“The Easter Fires”,
-“The Beltane Fires”,
-The Midsummer Fires”,
-“The Hallowe’en Fires”,
-“The Midwinter Fires”,
-“The Need-fire”.

Bonfire celebrations are another one of those celebrations that are almost universal, especially in the Indo-European tradition and well worth discussion. Finally conclude your study by reading “The Farewell to Nemi” at the end of the Golden Bough. The final chapter is a good one.

You’ll have several hundred pages of reading and study to do, but I think this is some of Frazer’s best material.

Strand Two:
Essential Question- “Why is the ritual cycle of death and rebirth important to understand the human condition?”

Introductory Reading: The same as in Strand 1 with the “King of the Wood”. Read this as well as I will repeat that this is a short section, but important if you haven’t read it already.

A theme question within this reading for me is: Why are Gods who die and resurrected (or reborn) a common theme with so many past cultures?

Other readings that follow in this strand include:
-“The Myth of Adonis”,
-Adonis in Syria”,
-Adonis in Cyprus”,
-“The Ritual of Adonis”,
-“The Gardens of Adonis”,
-“The Myth and Ritual of Attis”,
-“Attis as a God of Vegitation”,
-“Human Representatives of Attis”,
-“Oriental Religions in the West”,
-“The Myth of Osiris”,
-“The Ritual of Osiris:
-“ The Popular Rites”,
-“The Official Rites”
-“The Nature of Osiris”
-“Osiris as a Corn God”,
-“Osiris a Tree Spirit”,
-“Osiris a God of Fertility”,
-“Osiris a God of the Dead”,
-“Osiris and the Sun”,
-“Eating the God”
-“The Sacrament of First Fruits”,
-“Demeter and Peresephone”,
-“Songs of the Corn Reapers”
-“Killing the Corn Spirit”.
-“Human Sacrifices for the Crops”.

Finally, in the first edition, but removed due to it’s the controversy, it created at the time and restored in some late editions is a chapter on the Jesus resurrection myth, comparing it to classical Pagan myths of Gods who die and reborn. If you can find this chapter, it would certainly be a good point of comparison for study and discussion. It is not in my 1951 edition, so I plan on tracking it down and reading it sometime soon when I can find a reprinted account. The Oxford University Press edition of 1994 has the full, restored section.

There is a bit of overlap between the first strand and second since the vegetative cycle of worship blends with the life and death cycle of the second. There is no need to read the repeated sections twice if you’ve done so the first time, but the overlap does point to the way rites tend to converge at times. As before if you haven’t read the conclusion “Farewell to Nemi” do so since James Frazer’s conclusion tells much about his goals with the Golden Bough and worthy of discussion in itself.

A Third Strand of study:
Essential Question- “What are the principals of magikal work and how did they direct the use of ritual magik in Ancient Pagan rites?”

In this strand, the purpose is to examine how people used both sympathetic and contagious magik in past times as a part of religion. If you study this strand you’ll have to be prepared to examine your belief in how you use spells. James Frazer is rather brutal in how he treats magik as a part of belief systems, especially towards those who literally believe that spells work in creating a literal affect on nature. As pointed out in the last section about , The Golden Bough, this is one of those places where a specific point of view on behalf of the author is present. A magikal practitioner will likely find many points to discuss in reading these sections:

-“Priestly Kings”,
-“Sympathetic Magic: The Principles of Magic”,
-“Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic”,
-“Contagious Magic”,
-“The Magician’s Progress”,
-“Magic and Religion”,
-“The Magical Control of the Weather: The Public Magician”
-“The Magical Control of Rain”,
-“The Magical Control of the Sun”,
-“The Magical Control of the Wind”,
-“Magicians as Kings”,
-“Incarnate Human Gods”,

A related question in the discussion of Magik: How have Neo-Pagans changed the definition of magik as it is practiced now?

You’ll get quite a bit of how Magik is supposed to work in these chapters. The explanation of how the theory of magik works as a pre-scientific theory is concisely stated. Some will find it odd that there is no mention of Theurgy or movements like the Golden Dawn in Frazer's works. Certainly this was well enough known in the UK during his lifetime. All I can speculate is that Frazer may have felt that they were beyond the scope of his work since in his time these were not tied to a specific myth cycle. This means that the influence of groups like the Golden Dawn on Wicca is way beyond the scope of study here. In Wikipedia, the dialogue about the Golden Bough (click on the talk tab) has a bit about how Frazer personally felt that superstitious belief in magik has been one of the impediments to humanity’s growth (and he is clearly referencing Christianity as well.) Being of a similar mindset, all I’ll say is read it and have your own discussion. Mind you, in the final Chapter “Farewell to Nemi” Frazer is open enough to recognize that his final rational/scientific phase of myth cycle may in time be superseded. I like to keep in mind Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws when you think how the modern scientific view of things may itself change.

Whichever strand a person chooses one strand to study, or even if the whole twelve volume set, there is much to think about here. If you read my first part on this work, you know how difficult getting through it was. I will also say how much I would have loved a reading partner to share this book with. Echoes of the <>Golden Bough have appeared in so many different works I’ve read over the years from Joseph Campbell to The Farrars books on Wicca. I won’t say that reading The Golden Bough will turn a person into an instant skeptic. All I’ll say is to read the darn book and talk about what it says (or doesn’t say if you’d like to take that tack.)

This is a deep work that deals with fundamental issues of religion and how it is practiced. Over the last hundred years modern Pagans have reinvented systems of belief and veneration. As a look to the past as well as a nod to a future still being made, discussing the fundamentals this work is so good at showing should help us keep our connections to the past even as we invent new ways to celebrate our religion (s.)

One thing I feel for sure, nobody will ever accuse a person of being a “Fluffy Bunny” who can talk about their ideas of Wicca or Paganism in general if they can cite a study of Frazer as one of their readings.

Enjoy the ride.

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

Copyright: c. 2014 A. I. Mychalus
Permission given to use this work so long as author credit given and for educational purposes.



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