Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review : The Golden Bough - A study of Magic and Religion by Sir James Frazer (Wordsworth 1993, first published in this edition 1922)

In classical times the priest of Diana Nemorensis at Aricia did not enjoy a comfortable tenure. Any challenger who broke a bough from the trees in his grove could challenge the priest in mortal combat, and if the challenger won, he would become the next priest. In “The Golden Bough”, Sir James Frazer studies the origins of this custom. The study runs to ten volumes, and virtually invents the science of comparative anthropology in doing so.

Frazer’s thesis is that this ancient Roman custom displays traits inherent within the beliefs of indigenous communities throughout the world, and that by studying these customs, one can start to explain – despite the lack of written evidence – how such a tradition came into being.

The argument is complex. Essentially, Frazer believed that the custom has arisen from ancient ceremonies of agricultural fertility. Primitive tribes believed in magic which would assist their crops to flourish and their hunting to be successful. As society developed, magical customs became institutionalised as religious ceremony. The priest / king as guarantor of the wellbeing of the tribe was particularly subject to custom, and in some cases answerable with his life for the success of the crops and the wellbeing of his people. However, powerful kings tried to offset this responsibility onto family members, sacrificial substitutes and ultimately to proxy deities. The cycle of death and rebirth was incarnate within the ancient deities such as Attis, Adonis and Dionysus. Within Greek religion, the cycle became refined as the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the mother / daughter relationship reflecting the old woman / maiden of agricultural fertility ceremonies throughout Europe.

There is a radical subtext. Frazer was convinced that the fundamentals of Christian religion were themselves an extension of ceremony and custom to be found in tribes around the Middle East in ancient times. One can see parallels between the death and rebirth of Attis , Adonis or Isis, for example, and the resurrection. Christmas was timed to coincide with ceremonies to celebrate the renewal of the Sun after the Winter Solstice, whilst Easter coincides with spring fertility festivals of death and rebirth.

For each stage in his argument, Frazer brings to bear an astonishing number of examples, ranging from primitive South Sea headhunters to the agricultural traditions of his native Scotland. To take one example, human sacrifices to ensure the success of crops are referenced by the Indians of Guayaquil in Ecuador, Incas, Aztecs, Pawnees, West Africans at Lagos and Benin, the Bagaboos of Mindanau, the Lhota Naga of the valleys of the Brahmapootra, and the Gonds and Khonds of India. And similar examples are given for the killing of the king if the crops fail, or if he shows weakness, or if the term of his office expires and so on.

The scope of the study is awesome, and the breadth of erudition on display is truly breathtaking. One needs a reference source at hand to be able to pinpoint the islands of the Moluccas, the Native Americans of British Columbia, the African tribes or the Carpathian villagers which are constantly referred to in passing, the reader assumed to be familiar with Thompson Indians or Nuba tribesmen. Yet apparently, Frazer travelled little in remote parts. His encyclopaedic knowledge of tribal customs was based on extensive reading and correspondence.

In fact, the detail is exhausting. One could develop the argument more succinctly with reference to fewer examples. It becomes impossible to absorb paragraph upon paragraph of similar customs from around the world (and I have only read the single volume summary at a mere 700 pages of close type), and it is undeniably depressing to witness the universal scope of human barbarity in propitiation of all forms of deities. But this is Frazer’s genius – by universalising the particular, his investigation into the origins of an arcane Roman custom transformed the way we understand human belief systems and how mankind in every obscure part of the Earth has created its gods in its own barbarous image.

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