The Golden Bough

December 1, 2019
Turner Golden Bough

The Golden Bough, by J.M.W. Turner

Distributed Proofreaders recently completed posting to Project Gutenberg all twelve volumes of Sir James George Frazer’s masterwork, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (3rd edition, 1915). This monumental study of comparative mythology and religion, first published in two volumes in 1890, had a huge influence not only on the newly developing fields of social anthropology and psychology, but also on modern literature.

Frazer’s studies in classics at Cambridge sparked a deep interest in myths and religious rites. The Golden Bough was inspired by an ancient Roman myth depicted in J.M.W. Turner’s painting of the same name. As Frazer explains in Volume I:

Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi—”Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients….

Within the sanctuary at Nemi grew a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt entitled him to fight the priest in single combat, and if he slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis). According to the public opinion of the ancients the fateful branch was that Golden Bough which, at the Sibyl’s bidding, Aeneas plucked before he essayed the perilous journey to the world of the dead.

Although he read extensively in ancient texts, Frazer’s research was not confined to Greek and Roman myths. He also sent detailed questionnaires to missionaries and British colonial officials all over the world, including Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific, seeking their observations of the natives’ customs and rituals. Today this method would cause a field anthropologist to raise an eyebrow, but it was a start. Until then, no one had attempted so vast a comparison of human beliefs.

Frazer’s global study of myths and rituals formed the basis for his theory that human civilization evolved from belief in magic, to faith in religion, to reliance on science. Of course, the implication that science is on an evolutionary plane higher than religion did not endear Frazer to Christian church authorities. And Frazer’s inclusion of events sacred to Christianity in his comparative studies, such as Christ’s resurrection, outraged some contemporary critics, because it implied that these events were the equivalent of pagan myths.

But to others, Frazer’s work was revolutionary and inspiring. Particularly fascinating was the realization that the essential archetypes of ancient myths are universal across all human cultures, “civilized” or not. This concept had a profound impact on modern literature, influencing artists as diverse as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, H.P. Lovecraft, Jim Morrison, and even George Lucas (through the later work of Joseph Campbell). And the newborn science of psychology benefited as well, influencing Sigmund Freud’s theories in Totem and Taboo and, indirectly, Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.

Some modern critics have faulted Frazer for what they perceive as his unscientific methods and Victorian biases. But others continue to appreciate the multicultural scope of Frazer’s work. The Golden Bough‘s vivid synthesis of worldwide myths about life and death, gods and monsters, heroes and kings — stories common to all human cultures — shaped modern thought in ways that cannot be underestimated.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

 

 


%d bloggers like this: