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The Golden Bough
By: Sir James George Frazer
Frazer's classic 'The Golden Bough' may justifiably be called the foundation that modern anthropology is based on. While it has been discredited in some areas since it's 1st publication, it has stood the test of time remarkably well. It's still the best book to explain the origins of magical and religious thought to a new student of comparative religions. It is especially recommended to anyone interested in mythology, supernatural magic or religion, especially any of the modern neo-pagan religions. More than one critic has said that it should be required reading for everyone.
Originally, Frazer sought to explain the strange custom at an Italian sacred grove near the city of Aricia. He wanted to know why it was custom there for a priest of Diana to continually guard a sacred tree with his life. Why was it required that this pagan priest murder anyone who dares to break a branch from the tree and why were so many willing to risk their lives to do so? What power did this broken branch have that made it a symbol of the priests own coming death? Why could the priest only be relieved of his position by being ritually murdered and who in their right mind would strive to take his place?
What Frazer discovered in his search for answers went well beyond what he expected to find. He very quickly found himself surrounded by ancient pagan beliefs and magic rituals that were as old as mankind and just as widespread. He slowly reveals to us, by way of hundreds of examples, that ancient or primitive man was bound up in a never ending web of taboos and restrictions that regulated his existence here on earth. Every move, spoken word or even thought could swing the powers of the divine for or against pagan man. Every action was bound by religious code and any mistake could invoke supernatural retribution. The entire world, it seemed, was a reflection of the mystic other world that pagan man worshipped and everything here was symbolic of something there. While studying this idea Frazer covers many other perplexing questions about culture and belief that have affected our lives. For example, he explains the origins of many of our holidays. He reveals the original symbolism and meaning of the Christmas tree and mistletoe and tells us what they represent. He explains the pagan origins of Halloween and why it's necessary to placate the spirits who visit your home that night. He solves the question of why Easter isn't a fixed holiday but is instead linked to the Spring Equinox and just what colored eggs have to do with anything. In short he covers just about every known superstition or tradition and relates it back to it's pagan beliefs.
What emerges from this collection of superstition and folktales isn't a chaotic mess of mumbo-jumbo but is instead a fully expounded religious system. Frazer shows again and again that these traditional customs and continuations of ancient rites are the basis for a religious system pre-dating any of our own. We find that in this system man can not stand apart from nature or the world. Nor can he commit any action without it's usual equal but opposite reaction. Eventually, we learn of the powerful but frightening association between a king's fertility and his lands well-being. Lastly, we learn that it's not always 'good to be king' and just what sort of horrible price one must pay to be 'king for a day'.
But more than all of this Frazer is commenting on our own times and our own beliefs. 'The Golden Bough' isn't simply about ancient pagan religious ideas for their own sake. The book provides and explains these ideas so we can see how they are still in operation even today. Primitive pagan beliefs and symbolism are with us daily, besides the obvious Christmas tree and Easter eggs. Behind his exhaustive examples and explanations of mystic or secret magic rituals Frazer is actually commenting on our own Judeo-Christian religions. A careful reading between the lines reveals what Frazer was afraid
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Last Updated 8/12/2017

This web site is dedicated to Mr. Maltie Sassaman, my fourth grade teacher. When I entered his class I could not read. When I left his class at the end of the school year I was reading at a sixth grade level and I haven't stopped reading since. Were it not for Mr. Sassaman, this page would not exist.