The Literary Influence 1: The Golden Bough

Pagans are more known for their ‘live in a field’ aspect than that of ‘live in a library’, but camping out amongst the shelves may just find you a gem or two which has influenced pagan critical thinking about how we see the world around us, and how we view the past.

We begin this look at literature and critical theory with the monumental tome of Frazers The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion first published in 1890.  As books go, it’s a bit of a beastie, with some of the early editions reaching 10+ volumes.  Thankfully it was abridged in later editions, and generally now comes in one handy, if heavy, book.

Once you fit your water wings, gird your lifejacket and wade in, the principal kernel to the massive work is a simple three step theory:as society progresses, magic evolves into religion, and religion evolves into science.

The myth which connects to the title receives an anally retentive amount of information, discussion and comparison.  The myth being that of the replacement of the King of the Wood at the temple and lake at Nemi, by an escaped slave who became the next king until another came to slay him.  Frazer was so curious about this myth that he examined it with meticulous attention to detail. Hundreds of pages filled with thousands of examples from cultures throughout history are devoted to exploring myth.

Frazer attempted to raise the profile of world cultures at a time when western societies considered the peoples of Africa and Asia to be primitive.  The work was considered somewhat of a scandal at time of publication as the author invited a secular comparison with Christian mythology, which disappeared from later editions.  Frazer also sought to identify the basic human story motifs to which all human beings respond.  This idea was carried forward in the works of Jung, Freud, James Joyce and TS Elliott.

Although the book was hailed as a master work of its time, with an anonymous 1890 reviewer in the Journal of American Folklore being “grateful” to Frazer “for the exhibition of materials so rich, and for the literary skill with which he has made accessible observations so important to the central ideas of our modern thought.”  The methods used by the author to gather information on which to base his conclusions are now generally seen as unscientific,which considering his main theory or religion evolving into science is somewhat ironic.  Instead of going directly to the cultures he included, he relied on other researchers work, or better still, sent questionnaires out with people going to visit different cultures to gather information for him.  Perfectly valid at the time, but not now considered the best way to research an anthropological subject.

You can download a copy of The Golden Bough for free from the Gutenberg Project HERE  or find a PDF version HERE and find the Wikipedia critical analysis HERE

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