Revisiting “The Golden Bough”

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and extracting from it the materials that are relevant to modern cognitive-evolutionary studies of religion. This may strike some as an odd assertion, given that Frazer is widely derided as the most guilty of the speculative armchair anthropologists. In fact, I’d venture to say that most anthropologists don’t even recognize Frazer as a member of the discipline. He is viewed by most as a quaint relic of our disciplinary past that is best forgotten. This is almost certainly a mistake. Frazer was widely recognized by his contemporaries as a giant in the field and his influence was enormous. Some of his ideas have so suffused the discipline and become so commonplace that few even know he was the source.

I will say this — if you haven’t ever spent some time actually reading the Bough and getting a first-hand sense for Frazer and his achievement, it is something that must be experienced in order to be known. There are no summaries, articles, or synopses that can give you any sense for its size, structure, and erudition. There are flashes of occasional brilliance, which are unfortunately buried in masses of material that are epic in scope. It’s also something of a literary masterpiece. Though I’ve done some previous posts on Frazer (here and here), those posts were not informed (as this one is) by a close or recent reading of the Bough. If the experience sounds appealing, I recommend getting a copy of the 1922 edition, which Frazer himself abridged.


In 1890, Frazer published (in two volumes) the first edition of The Golden Bough. In this early and abbreviated edition, Frazer’s goal was to reconstruct the religion of the ancient Aryans, the shadowy and largely unknown Eurasian steppe people who had invaded India, founded a civilization, and later migrated to Europe as ancestral-farming stock. Their existence had been postulated mostly on the basis of linguistic evidence, and philologists such as Max Müller had been attempting such a reconstruction using ancient Sanskrit texts (the idea being that Sanskrit was closer in time and space to Aryan origins, thus providing the best evidence). Frazer, inspired by Lubbock and Tylor’s comparative method, thought the better approach was to gather evidence, in the form of myths and rituals, from the still-living descendants of Aryans who had been least changed by civilization and Christianity. These people were rural European peasants. By gathering and analyzing their myths and folklore, Frazer thought he could reconstruct a reasonable facsimile of ancient Aryan religion. This explains the significant subtitle to the first edition: A Study in Comparative Religion. At the end of this arcane (and mostly literary) exercise, Frazer concluded that Aryan religion had revolved around agricultural fertility rites.

 When the second edition (in three volumes) appeared in 1900, much had changed. Thinking that his method could uncover larger and deeper truths, Frazer expanded his subject from Aryan religion to all religion. His study of myths, rituals, and folklore had accordingly expanded from those of European peasants to all humanity. With more expansive data and using the comparative method, Frazer imagined that he could reconstruct the evolution of the human intellect. This reconstruction entailed three distinct stages, each of which amounts to a characteristic mode of thought: magic, religion, and science. Early humans construed the world magically, later humans had developed religion, and some modern (i.e., “enlightened”) humans had progressed to science. Signaling his new goal and expanded aims, Frazer changed the subtitle: A Study in Magic and Religion.

The Golden Bough is an extraordinary and in some ways inscrutable book. In the first edition, Frazer – a classicist whose work touched on the margins of the new anthropology – was relatively focused on European myths and Aryan religion. Given its somewhat limited scope, Frazer was able to more or less demonstrate that older religious and ritual elements could still be found in the European countryside, lurking like living strata beneath the veneer of recently adopted (or imposed) Christianity. His proofs were accordingly restricted to European myths, rituals, and folklore. But in the expanded evolutionist second edition (which brought Frazer fame and recognition as an anthropologist), there were no such restrictions. Because his aim was nothing less than to reconstruct the entirety of human mental evolution, nothing was off limits and his data could be drawn from all parts of the world without regard to time or place.

In the absence of such restrictions, it was perhaps inevitable that the Bough would balloon into twelve volumes for the third edition, which was published in 1915. With each new edition, Frazer simply added new arguments and materials without deleting earlier arguments and materials. It is difficult to describe the resulting palimpsest, but in the spirit of Frazer these adjectives will do: massive, erudite, towering, protean, sprawling, and bewildering. It is also contradictory and digressive. Following Frazer’s arguments – which can appear without warning nearly anywhere in the text – through all the volumes is a difficult task.

Fortunately, Frazer’s reputation and the Bough’s success caused his publisher to ask for an “abridged” (~1,000 pages) edition, which Frazer produced in 1922 and is reasonably accessible. Although almost no one today reads the 12 volume third edition of The Golden Bough, it remains a tremendous resource and repository of world myths, rituals, taboos, and beliefs. But for all the Bough’s virtues, it ended up so damaging Frazer’s reputation among anthropologists that few in the discipline even recognize him as one of their own. While scholarly history has not been kind to Frazer, this does not diminish the fact that he was a giant of his times and widely recognized as such. Moreover, some elements of Frazer’s theory have become so widely diffused and commonplace that few recognize him or the Bough as the source.

On the surface, Frazer’s staged-evolutionary scheme (magic-religion-science) resembles Tylor’s, which begins with animism, progresses to religion, and culminates in science. These are normative schemes firmly grounded in Enlightenment and rationalist ideals. Also like Tylor, Frazer finds that the first stage is thoroughly sensible: it is based on empirical observation and an attempt to explain the world in causal terms. Frazer’s primitive magicians are philosophers and would have been scientists, if only they knew about inert materials and impersonal mechanics. But unlike Tylor’s first-stage animism (which includes causal cognition coupled with ideas about anthropomorphic agencies), Frazer defines this first stage as an attempt to think about the world in strictly causal terms without the action or intervention of anthropomorphic agencies. Primitive magic is an epistemology and logic that arises from associations:

If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic. Charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion may be called Contagious Magic….

If my analysis of the magician’s logic is correct, its two great principles turn out to be merely two different misapplications of the association of ideas. Homoeopathic magic is founded on the association of ideas by similarity: contagious magic is founded on the association of ideas by contiguity. Homoeopathic magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which resemble each other are the same: contagious magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact. But in practice the two branches are often combined; or, to be more exact, while homoeopathic or imitative magic may be practised by itself, contagious magic will generally be found to involve an application of the homoeopathic or imitative principle. Thus generally stated the two things may be a little difficult to grasp, but they will readily become intelligible when they are illustrated by particular examples.

Both trains of thought are in fact extremely simple and elementary. It could hardly be otherwise, since they are familiar in the concrete, though certainly not in the abstract, to the crude intelligence not only of the savage, but of ignorant and dull-witted people everywhere. Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and the contagious, may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic Magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated by modern science for a precisely similar purpose, namely, to explain how things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.

It may be convenient to tabulate as follows the branches of magic according to the laws of thought which underlie them:


Following a pattern that he will use throughout the Bough, Frazer – having enunciated a general or theoretical principle – states that he will now illustrate it with examples or “adduce proofs.” In these example or illustration sections, Frazer invariably draws on an enormous array of myths, rituals, beliefs, and practices to prove his point. Though these proofs can at times become tedious, rote, and sometimes tangential, the effect is impressive and at times overwhelming. While one may doubt or question Frazer’s theories, there can be no doubt that he is the polymathic master of his “ethnographic” materials (most of which Frazer verified and would not use unless it came from at least two sources he considered reliable) from around the world. In the proof section that follows his theoretical discussion of magic, Frazer adduces example after example of its use in nearly every aspect of daily life. While most of the examples are drawn from small-scale societies or “primitive” cultures, not all are. Frazer contends that “magical” thinking is a basic aspect of mind and is present in all cultures – it undergirds later religion and, over time, gives rise to its materialist-rationalist twin: scientific thinking.

In these excerpts (which resonate with echoes of Hume), Frazer explains the distinctions and process by which he thinks this occurs:

Wherever sympathetic magic occurs in its pure unadulterated form, it assumes that in nature one event follows another necessarily and invariably without the intervention of any spiritual or personal agency. Thus its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science; underlying the whole system is a faith, implicit but real and firm, in the order and uniformity of nature….Thus the analogy between the magical and the scientific conceptions of the world is close. In both of them the succession of events is assumed to be perfectly regular and certain, being determined by immutable laws, the operation of which can be foreseen and calculated precisely; the elements of caprice, of chance, and of accident are banished from the course of nature…. Hence the strong attraction which magic and science alike have exercised on the human mind; hence the powerful stimulus that both have given to the pursuit of knowledge.

The fatal flaw of magic lies not in its general assumption of a sequence of events determined by law, but in its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws which govern that sequence. If we analyse the various cases of sympathetic magic which have been passed in review in the preceding pages, and which may be taken as fair samples of the bulk, we shall find, as I have already indicated, that they are all mistaken applications of one or other of two great fundamental laws of thought, namely, the association of ideas by similarity and the association of ideas by contiguity in space or time. A mistaken association of similar ideas produces homoeopathic or imitative magic: a mistaken association of contiguous ideas produces contagious magic. The principles of association are excellent in themselves, and indeed absolutely essential to the working of the human mind. Legitimately applied they yield science; illegitimately applied they yield magic, the bastard sister of science. It is therefore a truism, almost a tautology, to say that all magic is necessarily false and barren; for were it ever to become true and fruitful, it would no longer be magic but science. From the earliest times man has been engaged in a search for general rules whereby to turn the order of natural phenomena to his own advantage….

If magic is thus next of kin to science, we have still to enquire how it stands related to religion….By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. Thus defined, religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely, a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them….But if religion involves, first, a belief in superhuman beings who rule the world, and, second, an attempt to win their favour, it clearly assumes that the course of nature is to some extent elastic or variable, and that we can persuade or induce the mighty beings who control it to deflect, for our benefit, the current of events from the channel in which they would otherwise flow. Now this implied elasticity or variability of nature is directly opposed to the principles of magic as well as of science, both of which assume that the processes of nature are rigid and invariable in their operation, and that they can as little be turned from their course by persuasion and entreaty as by threats and intimidation….

Thus in so far as religion assumes the world to be directed by conscious agents who may be turned from their purpose by persuasion, it stands in fundamental antagonism to magic as well as to science, both of which take for granted that the course of nature is determined, not by the passions or caprice of personal beings, but by the operation of immutable laws acting mechanically. In magic, indeed, the assumption is only implicit, but in science it is explicit. It is true that magic often deals with spirits, which are personal agents of the kind assumed by religion; but whenever it does so in its proper form, it treats them exactly in the same fashion as it treats inanimate agents, that is, it constrains or coerces instead of conciliating or propitiating them as religion would do (1922:58-59).

As should be apparent, the Bough is much more than a collection of myths and rituals, all colorfully collected, collated, and rendered in Frazer’s mellifluous prose. It is a system that entails psychology, epistemology, and history. I fear that in forgetting Frazer, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. While his “intellectualist” reduction of religion manages to capture only a small part of the much larger and more complex phenomena, it captures something important.

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2 thoughts on “Revisiting “The Golden Bough”

  1. Juggernaut Nihilism

    I can’t help myself. I still love all the old generalists. They’re fantastic from a literary standpoint, and I still think there is something noble, if naive, in the confident attempt to wrap your arms around a grand narrative. Frazer, Eliade, Spengler, Toynbee, Quigley… even the old histories of civilization and philosophy that Will Durant wrote are great reads. Even the stuff that’s a little more mushy-headed like J. Campbell, Gebser, etc generally makes for better reading than a cynical post-modern existentialist whining about how we can’t really know anything for sure, and who took a dive out of his upper-floor window when he’d finally had enough.

  2. Cris Post author

    The astonishing thing is that some of their insights (for instance, Frazer discussing the associationist psychology of what he calls “magical” thinking) read no differently than modern cognitive accounts of causal psychology. The primary difference is in idiom, with the “modern” stuff expressed using different metaphors, often of the computer/computing variety.

    There may even be a sense in which the more scientific sounding stuff, which uses the impressive idiom of neurobiology, also avails itself of explanatory metaphors. To the extent some of these aren’t simply using new metaphors (i.e., analogies), they often deploy scientific language in ways that amount to boot-strapping or tautology.

    One would be hard pressed to find a better explanation of causal cognition than Frazer’s, regardless of metaphor or idiom.

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