The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough
The Golden Bough  
Golden bough.jpg
J. M. W. Turner's painting of the Golden Bough incident in the Aeneid
Author(s) James George Frazer
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publication date 1890

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion, written by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941). It first was published in two volumes in 1890; the third edition, published 1906–15, comprised twelve volumes. It was aimed at a broad literate audience raised on tales as told in such publications as Thomas Bulfinch's The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes (1855). It offered a modernist approach to discussing religion, treating it dispassionately[1] as a cultural phenomenon rather than from a theological perspective. The impact of The Golden Bough on contemporary European literature was substantial.


Subject matter

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief to scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices which have influenced the 20th century.[2] Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king. Specifically, that man progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.[3]

This thesis was concocted around the anthropologist Victor Turner, or Turner's picture of The Golden Bough, a sacred grove where there grew a certain tree that grew day and night; a transfigured landscape in a dream-like vision of the little wood-land lake of Nemi -- "Diana's Mirror" where religious ceremonies and the "fulfillment of vows" of priests and kings were held.[4]

This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world's mythologies.

The Judgement of Paris - an Etruscan bronze-handled mirror of the fourth or third century BC that relates the often misunderstood myth as interpreted by Frazer, showing the three goddesses giving their apple or pomegranate to the new king who must kill the old king - Campana Collection, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Sully

The germ for Frazer's thesis was the pre-Roman priest-king at the fane of Nemi, who was murdered ritually by his successor:

"When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Bough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood." (Aftermath p vi)

The book's title was taken from an incident in the Aeneid, illustrated by the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner: Aeneas and the Sibyl present the golden bough to the gatekeeper of Hades in order to gain admission.


The book scandalized the British public upon its first publication, because it included the Christian story of Jesus in its comparative study, thus inviting an agnostic reading of the Lamb of God as a relic of a pagan religion. Frazer removed his analysis of the Crucifixion to a speculative appendix for the third edition, and it was entirely missing from the single-volume abridged edition.

Its influence on the emerging discipline of anthropology was pervasive and undeniable. For example, Bronisław Malinowski, stricken with tuberculosis shortly after receiving his doctorate in physics and mathematics, read Frazer's work in the original English to distract himself from his illness. "No sooner had I read this great work than I became immersed in it and enslaved by it. I realized then that anthropology, as presented by Sir James Frazer, is a great science, worthy of as much devotion as any of her elder and more exact studies and I became bound to the service of Frazerian anthropology."[5]

Despite whatever controversy the work may have generated, and its critical reception amongst other scholars, The Golden Bough had a tremendous effect on the literature of the period. Robert Graves adapted Frazer's concept of the dying king who is sacrificed for the good of the kingdom to the romantic idea of the poet's necessary suffering for the sake of his Muse-Goddess in his Frazer-esque book on poetry, rituals, and myths The White Goddess, which was published in 1948. William Butler Yeats makes reference to it in his poem "Sailing to Byzantium". H. P. Lovecraft mentions the book in his short story "The Call of Cthulhu". T. S. Eliot acknowledged indebtedness to Frazer in his first note to his poem The Waste Land. William Carlos Williams references it as well in Book Two, part two, of his extended poem in five books Paterson. Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, Ezra Pound, William Gaddis, Mary Renault, Joseph Campbell, Roger Zelazny, Naomi Mitchison (in her The Corn King and the Spring Queen), and Camille Paglia are but a few authors deeply influenced by The Golden Bough. Its literary impact has given it continued life, even as its direct influence in anthropology has waned.

Critical analysis

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein returned time and again to The Golden Bough, often enough that his commentaries have been compiled as Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough, edited by Rush Rhees, originally published in 1967, with the English edition following in 1971.[6] He writes, "Frazer is much more savage than most of these savages."[7] Weston LaBarre made the observation that Frazer was "the last of the scholastics", and wrote The Golden Bough "as an extended footnote to a line in Virgil he felt he did not understand."[8]

Some modern criticism sets Frazer in the broader context of the history of ideas, for example, Robert Ackerman in his The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists. The myth and ritual school includes scholars Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray, F. M. Cornford, and A.B. Cook, who were connecting the new discipline of myth theory and anthropology with traditional literary classics at the end of the nineteenth century. This school was an important influence on a great deal of Modernist literature.

Publishing history


  • First edition, 2 vols., 1890. (Vol. I - II)
  • Second edition, 3 vols., 1900. (Vol. I - II - III)
  • Third edition, 12 vols., 1906-15. (Vol. V, VI, XII)
    • Volume 1 (1906): The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (Part 1)
    • Volume 2 (1911): The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (Part 2)
    • Volume 3 (1911): Taboo and the Perils of the Soul
    • Volume 4 (1911): The Dying God
    • Volume 5 (1914): Adonis, Attis, Osiris (Part 1)
    • Volume 6 (1914): Adonis, Attis, Osiris (Part 2)
    • Volume 7 (1912): Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild (Part 1)
    • Volume 8 (1912): Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild (Part 2)
    • Volume 9 (1913): The Scapegoat
    • Volume 10 (1913): Balder the Beautiful (Part 1)
    • Volume 11 (1913): Balder the Beautiful (Part 2)
    • Volume 12 (1915): Bibliography and General Index


  • Aftermath: A Supplement to the Golden Bough (1937)

Abridged editions

  • Abridged edition, 1 vol., 1922. This edition abridges Frazer's references to Christianity.
  • Abridged edition, edited by Robert Fraser for Oxford University Press, 1994. It restores the material on Christianity purged in the first abridgement. ISBN 0-19-282934-3

See also



  1. ^ Chapter 4., Magic and Religion: 'The dispassionate observer, whose studies have led him to plumb its depths, can hardly regard it otherwise than as a standing menace to civilisation.'
  2. ^ Hamel, Frazer, ed. "The Golden Bough." London: Wordsworth, 1993.
  3. ^ Hamel, Frazer, ed. "The Golden Bough." London: Wordsworth, 1993.
  4. ^ Frazer, Sir James. "The Golden Bough." London: Wordsworth, 1993.
  5. ^ Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology, p. 314, cited in L. L. Langness, The Study of Culture (Corte Madera: Chandler & Sharp, 1974), p. 75
  6. ^
  7. ^ Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough, p. 131
  8. ^ The Human Animal (Chicago, 1954), cited in Langness, The Study of Culture, pp. 24f

Further reading

  • Ackerman, Robert. The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists (Theorists of Myth) 2002. ISBN 0-415-93963-1.
  • Csapo, Eric. Theories of Mythology (Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp 36–43, 44–67. ISBN-631-23248-6.
  • Fraser, Robert. The Making of The Golden Bough: The Origins and Growth of an Argument (Macmillan, 1990; re-issued Palgrave 2001).
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. "When the Bough Breaks," in Map is not territory, pp 208-239 (The University of Chicago Press, 1978).

External links

Text copies of the 1922 edition:

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