Saturday 16 May 2020

The Illustrated Golden Bough | Sir James George Fraser #Readalong

Given the ridiculous amount of books I have on the go at the moment, the idea of starting yet another, seems rather ridiculous. But I struggle to pass up any opportunity to join a readalong at the best of times, but when it also means reading along with Jean and Cleo, then how could I possibly resist!

Jean @Howling Frog is hosting the spontaneous readalong in question. Part of the appeal is the lack of firm reading dates. Jean and Cleo plan to read 2-3 chapters a week, however my edition is The Illustrated Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. It's not only full of pretty colour pictures, but it's also the abridged version with only 221 pages (plus indexes).

First published in 1890 in two volumes (then three volumes in 1900 and finally a whooping twelve volumes in 1906-15), my one volume edition was published in 1996 with eleven chapters. Which means that my edition does not have the chapter on the crucifixion (that Fraser removed from subsequent editions after being criticised for including a Christian story in his comparative study of myths and pagan rituals and religions). A disappointing fact, that may lead me to search out the missing chapter online somewhere, to round out my reading journey. 
(I have found the Project Gutenberg ebook here).

I've now had The Golden Bough lurking on my bookshelves since the year 2000. I started reading it back then, but my interest fizzled out part way through. I'm hoping that Jean and Cleo can help me finally finish this book.

Frazer was born in 1854 in Scotland. He was a social anthropologist. His work describes the three stages of human belief from primitive magic to religion to reason & science. He said,
Books like mine, merely speculation, will be superseded sooner or later (the sooner the better for the sake of truth) by better induction based on fuller knowledge."
His critics were not only upset by the inclusion of the Christian story, but one Edmund Leach, "one of the most impatient critics of Frazer's overblown prose and literary embellishment of his sources for dramatic effect" said that,
Frazer used his ethnographic evidence, which he culled from here, there and everywhere, to illustrate propositions which he had arrived at in advance by a priori reasoning, but, to a degree which is often quite startling, whenever the evidence did not fit he simply altered the evidence!
Frazer was a social anthropologist interested in speculative human psychology; Leach (1910-1989) was a social anthropologist interested in functionalism and kinship structures. As Frazer predicted, his ideas were superseded by newer, modern methods of reasoning and science. Many of Frazer's ideas may now be outdated, but the conversation had to start somewhere.

I'm curious to see what he has to say. 

As a frustrated amateur anthropologist from way back, I feel that I should warn Jean and Cleo that I'm about to enter into a topic and subject matter that I have been known to obsess over ad nauseam. Blogger beware!

My first caveat is that I'm not always convinced by the idea of continual progress dressed up as a positive forward march for all humankind. Evolution, change and adaptation - yes, by all means - but it's not necessarily superior or better; it's just different - a sign of modification and acclimatisation - not ascendancy. 

My other bias is that I view all religion as part of our human urge to create a life narrative - a story that seeks to satisfy our need to ascribe our lives with a higher meaning and purpose. We're all looking for something bigger than us, something to belong to that gives our lives significance. 

Thousands of years ago, the gods inhabited the heavens. They were powerful, unpredictable and not of this earth. Then, curiously, within about 500 yrs of each other, the main civilisations on this planet at that time, all grew tired of these distant, uncaring, demanding gods and turned to something, or someone closer to home. Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad changed the spiritual narrative into a more personal one. It became a story about people, here on earth, with human frailty and flaws as well as the potential for goodness and kindness and altruism. 

Some wonderful stories have grown out of these traditions, but so too, have many poor ones. Ones that no longer serve us well. In the end, though, it's whatever works for you. You have to find the story that gives your life significance. Just don't try to convince me that your story is somehow better than any other story. Like all stories, some people are into it and some aren't. Some win awards and some don't. Some are hidden gems and some would probably be better if they got pulped. Trying to convince anyone that your story is more right than any other, will only lead to discontent, vexation and hostility.

That's the personal predisposition I bring with me whenever I delve into the topic of myth, magic and religion.

I'm extremely curious. I don't feel it necessary to believe any of it. My lens is impersonal and pragmatic. I'm like an interested outsider, looking in, trying to understand how something works and what it looks like in practice. I'm looking for the patterns, the rituals & rites, and the timelines. But mostly, I'm looking for the reason why. 

I'm endlessly fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves. What do they reveal about the times in which we live, what need do they fulfil, how are these stories used (for good and for evil) and how do these stories get converted into our daily routines and practice? 

Post-Introduction update:
  • I should have read the Intro by Robert Temple before publishing this post.
  • He posits a kinder way of viewing Frazer's work than did Leach.
  • Temple clarifies Frazer's anthropological position as an interest in taboos and totemism.
  • He believes that Frazer took 'the grand view' surveying 'world history as a whole'.
  • Temple saw Frazer's ability to 'change his hypothesis if he saw it to be inadequate' as one of two 'exemplary characteristics.' The other being his 'disregard for excessive specialisation'. 
  • He concluded with, 'Frazer was essentially a nineteenth-century thinker, and approaches to social anthropology have changed....some of his views are no longer compatible with current thinking. However (his work) remains a vital part of cultural history. It is a unique archive and work of literature, and Frazer's splendid prose style is a pleasure to read.'
  • A far more generous appraisal of The Golden Bough and Frazer, I'm sure you will agree.


  1. Oh, hooray, I'm so excited that you're joining us! It will be great to have someone who knows something about real anthropology and has a lot to say. I mostly know about the literary end of things. And I should have looked up Frazer before I started reading, because while I knew he was pretty speculative and it's obvious he was cherry-picking things to fit into his theory, I didn't know that he would also just "change the evidence." Wow!

    I agree with you about 'continual progress.' For one thing it's much more complicated than that. I look forward to seeing what you have to say!

    Oh, and I have another Australian question for you from Richard Mahony. How is his name supposed to be pronounced? To me it looks like MaHONEy, but apparently he doesn't like that. Or are people saying MaHONEY, like bees, and that's wrong? How on earth is it supposed to be pronounced? I feel like I have a history question too, but it's slipping my mind at the moment...

    1. Thanks for the warm welcome Jean. My anthropology skills are pure amateur and self-taught! But always willing to throw in my two bobs worth :-)

      I believe Richard's names is pronounced Maa-ney -lose the h and o sounds. It's the English pronunciation of the name.

    2. Huh. So, like 'money' except a more drawn out 'aa' sound in the first syllable? I NEVER would have thought of that! Like Worcester or Magdalene. Thanks!

    3. Gotta loves the Brits and their peculiar pronunciations :-)

      I've also added a little more to post above after finishing the Introduction. I was reminded that there is always a more generous way of viewing every situation, if you only take the time to look.

  2. I commented on Cleo's blog at one point I was going to join in, but all I've done is pull the book off the shelf so far. This is helpful & motivating!

    1. It would be lovely to have someone else reading along with us. Although I say us loosely, as all I've done so far is read the Intro and write one post :-)

  3. I'll be so interested to hear your views on it. It's yawnsville for me at this point but I could certainly be missing tons of important "speculation". I must keep on reading (help!) !

    1. Yeah, I'm struggling & I'm only ploughing my way through chapter one. It's coming back to me why I stopped reading it all those years ago!


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.