In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day,
and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand
he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant
he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man
for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his
stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary.
Preface to The Golden Bough
This work, by Sir James George Frazer, is considered to be the start of modern anthropology. A study of
comparative religion, folklore, and magic, the Golden Bough shows
commonality between cultures separated by great distances. The basic
theme circles around the question that the preface above begins to
address: In what is now Italy, there was a sacred grove where a
slave or criminal could go free by winning a duel fought with a
Frazer was largely an armchair scholar, with his furthest departure from England being a trip to
Greece, this work is considered highly important.
Still, large portions of it have been discredited, so why is it so influential?
This book was ground-breaking because it was the first not to be directly dismissive of "savage" ways. Instead of sweeping over
aboriginal religion and folklore as being primitive, The Golden Bough examined them within the context of the society and the effects
that they had upon the culture. Taboo, ritual, scapegoats, killing the sacred, superstition, and even the
difference between the sacred and the profane (and its absence in primitive religion) are explored.
Taboo relates to what is and isn't permitted in a society. In many
cases, something is taboo because an object, animal, or person's
sacred nature might be damaging if anyone else comes in contact with
it. The Japanese emperor, for example, had restrictions placed on
what he could and could not do within his sacred nature. Because of
this, often times those who were in a position that made them sacred
attempted to find a replacement as fast as possible. Another example
would be menstrual-related seclusion in a moonlodge or similar place
-- the women were doing this to protect everyone else from their
Common threads were an emphasis of Frazer's -- notably the idea of Corn-spirits that
must be killed in order to ensure a good harvest,
which is emphasized in Chapters 46-48, but repeated throughout.
Sometimes this idea of a spirit within the Corn is modified to
encourage speed in harvesting; multiple cultures will call the last
man to bind the sheaf the Corn-mother.
Another common thread, scapegoating,
highlights one of the other risks of being a god-king. If
you were supposed to protect the country from famine, and famine
occurs, you might be killed because you were obviously witholding your
sacred nature from your people.
interesting point the text makes indirectly is that Christianity is
not that different from these primitive cultures, most notably in the
idea of killing a god-king. Chapter 24, concerned with the idea of
killing divine kings, points out that the ancient gods, such as Zeus,
had grave sites (Zeus' grave was in Crete). There was also the
idea of "Eating the God" -- outlined largely in Chapter 50, this relates
to the idea of the spirit of the grain being consumed by those who eat it
as well as human sacrifice.
Naturally, the discussion of scapegoats include some cultures where a
person was killed so that the sins of all might be atoned for.
Frazer points out these similarities, rather than differences to point out the commonalities of humanity.
The original two volumes were published in 1890, with additional volumes
following. The two-volume section of the work is considered to be the core, and is
The opinion of the other volumes is mixed; like
sequels to other books,
some regard them as disorganized and poor additions to the original.