The Golden Bough

A Study in Magic and Religion

[Amazon Link]

Sometimes enough time elapses between me (a) putting a book on the should-read list and (b) actually reading it, that I forget what the reason for (a) was. That's not the case here! National Review's Summer 2016 reading recommendations had this from rock star Kevin D. Williamson:

Consider neutralizing this ugly and stupid political season with a few beautiful and intelligent books about politics that aren’t exactly books about politics. The best book about politics that isn’t a book about politics is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and it contains within it everything you really need to know about presidential campaigns. The book explores the most ancient foundations of religious thought, and argues that the earliest religions were fertility cults organized around the person of a sacred king. When the crops failed or the rains didn’t come, it was concluded that the sacred king had somehow failed in his duties — that the gods were not satisfied — and he was ritually sacrificed. All their careers ended the same way, and yet the position was a coveted one. You may notice that Colonel Kurtz is reading The Golden Bough before the unfortunate events at the end of Apocalypse Now.

Good enough for me! Google tells me that Kevin has, over the years, recommended The Golden Bough again and again.

There are a number of options for the potential reader. The original two-volume work was published in 1890, but Fraser kept dinking with it. By 1915, it was 12 volumes. In addition, its history includes removal and restoration of material on Christianity, which was judged by many Victorians to be scandalous. See Wikipedia for details. I wound up with the 1994 abridgment ("It restores the material on Christianity purged in the first abridgement.") because if you've watched The Simpsons, you can't be offended by Fraser's mild sacreligiousity.

I didn't get off easy, though. Even the single-volume "abridgment" is north of 800 pages of main text, small type, narrow margins, and paragraphs that span multiple pages. So I took it slow, roughly 25 pages/day over 32 days. Still, it was a slog. Yes, you can pull Williamson's insight out of it. A book this long, you can pull just about any thesis out of it.

Essentially: Fraser looks for grand themes uniting the religions, rites, customs, festivals, etc., worldwide and throughout history. He finds those grand themes, but this involves relating—literally—hundreds of tales from mythology, history, and anthropology. The activities involved are (variously) elaborate, foolish, disgusting, gory, wasteful, and (most importantly) nearly always pointless in accomplishing anything of benefit to the participants. This gets a little mind-numbing at times: I lost track of how many times he relates the ritual of Aztec human sacrifice. (They always manage to rip out your heart, though.)

You can get a slight amount of amusement from the Victorian-era prose. Fraser is workmanlike in relating most historical details, but occasionally bursts into Bulwer-Lytton-style flowery descriptions of some idyllic scene when it strikes his fancy. He's also refreshingly non-PC: savages are "savages", primitives are "primitives". But also: bumpkins are "bumpkins", clod-hoppers are … well, you get the idea.

More importantly, there are little signals throughout that Fraser is straining to make the anthropological facts fit into his overall thesis. The book is rife with speculative phrases like "it is not unreasonable to assume that", "it is quite possible that", "seems to be best explained by the hypothesis that". That ain't a confidence-builder, Jimmy.

While out walking the dog, I amused myself by wondering how some future Fraser would describe the present day.

Early 21st century inhabitants of New England were obviously devoted to pagan celebrations on the eve of All Hallows' Day. As shown in the so-called "comic strips" and "television specials" of that era, children with unusually large heads would worship the "Great Pumpkin". In sympathy with this cult, a tradition of leaving pumpkins on one's doorstep was established; the gourds would be left on stoops for weeks afterward, to be consumed, bit by bit, by squirrels and raccoons. There can be little doubt these creatures were considered to be disciples of the Great Pumpkin himself.

But I'm glad I read it.