Skylar Burris's Reviews > The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion

The Golden Bough by James George Frazer
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Jan 27, 08

it was ok
bookshelves: mythology
Read in January, 1998

Frasier seems to depict religion as an evolutionary process, from primitive superstition and magic on to a more refined monotheism, finally culminating in enlightened scientific thought. We find Darwin in absolutely everything these days. The problem with such a depiction, however, is that the enlightened scientitificism and rationalism of modern times has created just as much (if not far more) terror than the primitive magicians and priests of old (giving us communism, Nazism, eugenics, etc.); superstition and polytheism can co-exist with rationalism in the same period of humanity among the people of the same nation (note the modern growing popularity of neo-paganism); the a single, individual monotheist can find himself backsliding into polytheism in a single lifetime (as the Jews often did in their own history); and, of course, the scientists have dogmatisms and superstitions of their own. The path from magic to science is simply not a straight line; there is not an evolutionary "progress" in place whereby man evolves out of superstition and into religion and then out of religion and into presumably better scientific thought. Humanity is more complex and more cyclical than that.

Frasier draws rather suspect parallels between the practices of different religions. I found these comparison often questionable when I first read the book, but I could not quite put my finger on what disturbed me about them, until I read G.K. Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man," in which he very insightfully noted: "I would undertake to trace a notion like that of the Golden Bough through individual modern novels as easily as through communal and antiquated myths. I would undertake to find something like a bunch of flowers figuring again and again from the fatal bouquet of Becky Sharpe to the spray of roses sent by the princess of Ruritania. But though these flowers may spring from the same soil, it is not the same faded flower that is flung from hand to hand. Those flowers are always fresh."

As a reference and a catalog, however, this is certainly a useful volume, and it was clearly extremely influential and worth reading for that reason alone. It is probably required reading for the student of literature.
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