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.



Curious Myths of the Middle Ages

May 19, 2011

Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, written by S. Baring-Gould, M.A., is fascinating. When I first saw the title, I thought, “Oh, this will be fun. It’ll be about werewolves, and vampires, and ‘… ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggity things that go bump in the night!'” But it is not about those myths. This book deals with myths having to do with Christianity. The stories and the origins of the myths make for enthralling reading, at least to me.

One of the legends intrigued me by its title: The Wandering Jew. Now, I am familiar with a plant by that name. It’s a vine, which has dark green leaves with purple lines in them, and it propagates by growing along the ground and putting down roots anywhere one of its joints touches the ground. I thought, “I’m finally going to find out why this plant has that name!” I was wrong: the myth recounted in the book is about a man called The Wandering Jew, who was made to wander the Earth till the return of Christ. The Jew was condemned to wander because he refused to let Jesus rest in the man’s doorstep on His way to Calvary.

Divining RodAnother myth that was interesting to me was the legend of the divining rod. Now, I’ve used divining rods myself, to find water and underground pipes. I know that something weird happens, when I use them. My rods were not made of hazel wood or any other “magical” wood, but of whatever sticks were laying around. So, it was interesting to me to read about the efforts on the parts of scientists to prove or disprove whether divining rods actually work. The author comes to the conclusion that it is most likely that divining rods work because of muscle tremors, but he cannot say for sure. Another way to divine things was to suspend a ring over various metals, and by the rotation of the ring one could determine the type of metal. The author did an experiment himself:

I remember having been much perplexed by reading a series of experiments made with a pendulous ring over metals, by a Mr. Mayo: he ascertained that it oscillated in various directions under peculiar circumstances, when suspended by a thread over the ball of the thumb. I instituted a series of experiments, and was surprised to find the ring vibrate in an unaccountable manner in opposite directions over different metals. On consideration, I closed my eyes whilst the ring was oscillating over gold, and on opening them I found that it had become stationary. I got a friend to change the metals whilst I was blindfolded—the ring no longer vibrated. I was thus enabled to judge of the involuntary action of muscles, quite sufficient to have deceived an eminent medical man like Mr. Mayo, and to have perplexed me till I succeeded in solving the mystery.

Most of us have heard the familiar “William Tell Overture.” It’s the music most famously played at the beginning of “The Lone Ranger.” I knew the story: William Tell must shoot an apple off the head of his son, to prove his prowess as a bowman. But, I did not know that this legend was widespread across the Medieval world, and was not just a Swiss story. The author describes how the myth originated, and retells versions from Scandinavia, England, Scotland and the Faroe Islands, and even a Persian version. He says,

The coincidence of finding so many versions of the same story scattered through countries as remote as Persia and Iceland, Switzerland and Denmark, proves, I think, that it can in no way be regarded as history, but is rather one of the numerous household myths common to the whole stock of Aryan nations. Probably, some one more acquainted with Sanskrit literature than myself, and with better access to its unpublished stores of fable and legend, will some day light on an early Indian tale corresponding to that so prevalent among other branches of the same family. The coincidence of the Tell myth being discovered among the Finns is attributable to Russian or Swedish influence. I do not regard it as a primeval Turanian, but as an Aryan story, which, like an erratic block, is found deposited on foreign soil far from the mountain whence it was torn.

One of the most interesting chapters is the one about numbers and numerology. I wonder if Dan Brown read this treatise on the sigificance of various numbers, before he wrote The Da Vinci Code. I doubt that he did, because I think if he had, that book never would have been written! Baring-Gould does a good job of debunking numerology.

Pope Joan

I think anyone interested in mythology of the Medieval period would find this book a valuable resource. Baring-Gould is careful to explain the far distant origins of many of the myths. While he clearly detests Lutherans and some other Protestants, his work is quite interesting. Many of the myths (such as Prester John, and Pope Joan) are ones I had never heard. Others are old favorites like William Tell—but they have origins that I did not know before I read this book.

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