The golden bough; a study in magic and religion.

by James George Frazer, Sir, 1854-1941

Book, 1951



Call number

BL310 .F72


Publisher Unknown


This work by Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) is widely considered to be one of the most important early texts in the fields of psychology and anthropology. At the same time, by applying modern methods of comparative ethnography to the classical world, and revealing the superstition and irrationality beneath the surface of classical culture, and also by examining Christianity using the same techniques, it was extremely controversial. Frazer was greatly influenced by E. B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (also reissued in this series), and by the work of the biblical scholar William Robertson Smith, to whom the first edition is dedicated. That edition, reissued here, was published in two volumes in 1890; the third edition, greatly enlarged to twelve volumes, and published between 1911 and 1915, is also available in this series. Volume 2 pursues the motif of human sacrifice through the mythology and practices of other cultures.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Devil_llama
This book is a classic in freethought literature, giving a detailed (and I do mean detailed) analysis of the various early relgions and how they evolved into the pagan gods. The author started out to give an explanation of one particular, limited phenomenon, the temple of Diana, and ranged far and
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wide. Although very little of the book deals with Christianity, it is very easy to begin to see patterns in the religious traditions he discusses that became part of Judeo-Christian tradition.
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LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
This a quite a long book, at 714 pages, and index etc. on top of that, and the text on each page is small, so it may take you a long time to read it. The book will mainly interest those who like to read about historical peoples, and their myths and beliefs and traditions. Those includes are the
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Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Europeans, Scandinavians, Orientals, and primitive tribes from all over the world too. The premise of the book is to explain a certain situation which existed in an grove in Italy near Lake Nemi, where a "King of The Wood" guarded the sacred tree, and was only replaced by one who could slay him. He believed that this tradition is most ancient, and so sets out on a tour de force of magic and religion throughout time and the world, going into great detail. The book is written well, and can be really enjoyable to read in places as the author has a masterful grip of language and imagery. You will not be able to read this book without it impressing a beautiful landscape of fantastical thought, sanguine practises, and mysterious bygone festivals upon your mind. I would recommend it to those who have an interest in these things, as you will be hard pushed to find a better coverage of so much stuff, but to many I imagine it would be found hard going.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
The Foreword compares Frazer and Golden Bough in its impact to such revolutionary thinkers of the 19th Century as Darwin, Marx, and Freud. This seminal work of anthropology and comparative religion first published in 1890 was in fact a great influence on Freud and Jung as well as T.S. Eliot and
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Yeats and the modern Neopagan movement. Frazer's influence on Joseph Campbell is obvious--he's the original. Frazer tries to argue for the monomyth--the idea that religion and myth can be reduced to a few universal principles and symbols such as sacrifice, scapegoats, the soul and totem and taboo. Taking an ancient Roman custom involving the "King of the Wood" at Nemi as his launching pad, Frazer examined myths and folktales from every part of the world and drew connections to explain, as the subtitle on the cover of my copy put it, "the roots of religion and folklore." His argument seems to be that the origins of religion can be found in a crude science, an attempt to influence the world through sympathetic magic. Although he never attacked Christianity directly in this original edition, I could see how the idea of Jesus as entirely myth could come out of this book. Frazer's examination of vegetation deities, cycles of sowing and reaping and kingly sacrifice and his examination of the myths of Ishtar and Thammuz, Isis and Osiris, Aphrodite and Adonis and spring fertility rites is certainly suggestive.

I often found this book tedious, primarily because of Frazer's exhaustive examples--and the edition I read is the original two-volume work--before he, as the Foreword put it, "overburdened the book with volumes of illustrative examples which tended to hide the thread of his argument." (Twelve volumes in fact.) In his pile-on it reminded me of my recent read of the original edition of Darwin's Origin of Species. This was a time when science wasn't yet so technical and specialized as to be unduly esoteric to the layman. So as with Darwin, I think Frazer was aiming his book at both his scientific brethren as well as the layman--thus the exhaustive examples in an effort to prove his theories. However, unlike the case with Darwin, I believe Frazer's examples do more to hide--nay, bury--his argument rather than illustrate it, even in this original more compact edition. More and more I found myself skimming. There is an abridged edition from the author, but my understanding from reviews is that it excised a lot of the more controversial and interesting parts found in the expanded versions, such as a chapter on "The Crucifixion of Christ." Also as with Darwin, who didn't at the time have the advantages of our advances in genetics and geology, I suspect much of the anthropology in Golden Bough is outdated. Especially given that unlike Darwin, who famously conducted many observations in the field and experiments of his own, Frazer seemed to entirely rely on second-hand accounts, mostly by travelers and missionaries. Nor do I entirely buy Frazer's contention that modern peasant customs and folklore represented a continuity with a pagan past.

Some may be put off by Frazer's characterization of peoples as "rude" and "savages." To his credit though, Frazer doesn't exempt Europe or Britain in his examples of primitive rituals and superstitions. Given that and the context of the times, I don't as some reviewers do see this book as essentially racist. Frazer notes, "when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him." This book reminded me, of all things, of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. That novel is famous as a denunciation of colonialism. But one of the things I took away from Achebe's book was that the Christian missionaries gained adherents because they freed their converts from frightening and oppressive superstitions that propagated slavery, infanticide and human sacrifice. As much as I can see the ugly side of the history of modern monotheistic creeds such as Christianity, I think we forget that much of the legacy of polytheistic pagan beliefs isn't as pretty as many of its New Age adherents would have it. This book--for all I suspected the accuracy of many details--was a salutary reminder of that with its tales of scapegoating, sacrifices and taboos. Ironically, Frazer's successors, such as Joseph Campbell, have formed a new myth of the "noble savage," of a pagan and pre-historic past as egalitarian and in harmony with nature. We seem to have few fans of civilization and reason these days. It's ironic that a book that tried to explain the spiritual scientifically might have contributed to that. Ultimately I'm glad I read it, and I'm keeping it on my shelves, at least for now, as a rather thorough reference book of beliefs and rites across cultures and ages--or at least as far as was known over a century ago.
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LibraryThing member melannen
So this is the condensed version, only about a thousand pages, but still full of fascinating tidbits of folklore and culture, and some very incisive theorizing about human belief patterns and theories of culture to link it all together. Very much a product of its times, but if you can get past the
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(generally mild) period imperialism, the meat of the book is still good.

It's very obviously condensed, though, and therefore I find it best dipped into in small portions. I've no idea how the 12-volume version compares - even the one up in Preject Gutenberg is the condensed edition, as far as I can tell - but I'd like to put down the book's tendency to list a bunch of apparently unrelated facts, then a bald theory, then some more random facts, to the abridging process. Unfortunately it's a style that was picked up by a lot of less rigorous researchers into the liminal spaces (erikvondaniken *cough*), with unfortunate results.

But if you're at all interested in magic or folklore or myth or culture, this is a classic, the basis of a lot of fiction and all later theoretical work (even the works that have partially overturned it) and, for all my caveats, still suprisingly readable - a great bedtime book.
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LibraryThing member lilinah
A ground breaker when it was published 80+ years ago. Too bad many people still use it as a handbook for understanding ancient mythology and creating neoPaganism. It is a fascinating read, but more useful for understanding the mind-set of the time in which it was written. My copy date from around
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LibraryThing member tole_lege
Would you like this in one volume, nine or twelve? This is the one volume and is a reasonable introduction to the ideas Frazer wanted to get across - not that I've read the 9 or 12 volume....
LibraryThing member jsburbidge
This is a great and fascinating work, steeped in detail and careful scholarship, and very well-written.

The pity is that the underlying assumption of the work, that the customs it details are evidence ofva primitive, psn-European, primitive culture. There is evidence enough that many of Frazier's
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pagan survivals were in fact developments of the high middle ages, perhaps immemorial but not antique.

It's still a wonderful and compelling book, ad long as one keeps in love be that the patterns it documents are more re widely spread in time, and less primitive, than Frazier thought.
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LibraryThing member IreneF
Frazer has probably had as much influence on 20th century literature as Freud. As one of the most influential anthropological tomes ever written, I thought this book would hold some interest, even though its thesis (like psychoanalysis) is discredited. Oh, am I ever sorry. The contents are jumbled
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lists of beliefs and practices of various societies, seemingly cherry-picked to support the centrality of the dying-and-arising god myth in religious practices. (On the positive side, it certainly applies to Christianity.)

I'm willing to accommodate the small-mindedness of older authors, but the constant denigration of "savages" just rubs me the wrong way. I suppose I'll use it as reference, but I'm certainly not going to read it through.

I'd be happier with a book *about* The Golden Bough. I think the only reason to buy it is as a required text.
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LibraryThing member ritaer
Thank you for the abridge edition, Sir James. Even the abridgements contains a confounding amount of information and examples. Like any attempt to shoehorn a large portion of human behavior into one theory, the book has its problems. While a classic of its time it is no longer considered
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authoritative in the field. I wouldn't consider it a "must read" but it certainly illustrates the amazing complexity of magical and religious customs around the world.
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LibraryThing member therebelprince
It's important to note that the abridged version of this book, aside from being abridged, omits Frazer's most groundbreaking and controversial (at the time) thesis, regarding Christianity's relationship to the rest of humankind's myriad religions.
LibraryThing member zomgpwnbbq
This is an impressive collection of global customs that is tainted by the author’s racism, and ignorance. Sometimes they brush with brilliance but the reader must come with enough updated knowledge to get anything of value out if this book.

Original publication date

1890 (2 volumes)
1900 (3 volumes)
1915 (12 volumes)
1922 (abridged edition)


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