Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Must we love the Golden Bough?

What is it about Pagans and The Golden Bough? It seems like every time I open a book written by a Pagan or Magician, there it is, casting an inescapable shadow over the text, like the monolith in 2001. Recently, in exploring a quotation that paraphrased some of Frazer’s “data”, and delving into some of his secondary sources, I found myself reflecting (and not for the first time) on why Frazer’s work, which contemporary anthropologists, Folklorists and Mythographers have been at great pains to distance themselves from, still remains popular in Pagan & occult texts. In a way its not surprising, given the influence that Frazer’s mammoth work has exerted on the twentieth century. Indeed, Robert Brockway, in Myth from the Ice Age to Mickey Mouse professes that:

“…it is no exaggeration to say that everyone interested in myth from the turn of the century to World War II was initially inspired or strongly influenced by reading The Golden Bough.” Robert Brockway, Myth from the Ice Age to Mickey Mouse (157)

Frazer’s work had a direct influence on Yeats and Margaret Murray, to name but two prominent names in the history of modern occultism, as well as Freud, Jung, Eliade, and Campbell.

Chas C. Clifton, in his contribution to Researching Paganisms laments the continued presence of Frazer (and others) in contemporary Pagan writing:

“Thinkers whom the contemporary academy regards as exhibits in the museum of ideas, such as the anthropologists Frazer and Bachofen, or Margaret Murray as historian of witchcraft, still loom large in contemporary Pagan writing, despite the critiques of academic Pagans. For example, the scanty bibliography of a rather vapid new work entitled Philosophy of Wicca lists Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Robert Graves’ White Goddess, and of course Margaret Murray, but not Ronald Hutton, Carlo Ginzberg, or any other deeply rooted contemporary historian. This author is not unique, unfortunately, and it is easy to conclude that an attitude of “don’t confuse me with new ideas” is at work.”(p93)

Whilst I’d agree, to some extent, with what Clifton is saying, I don’t think its quite as simple as the conclusion he offers.I don’t want to get into a sustained critique of Frazer – that’s been ably done by better people than I, although my principle problem with The Golden Bough is the way he blithely and uncritically lifts aspects of culture out of their social and historical contexts which give them meaning, as Ruth Benedict highlighted:

“Mating or death practices are illustrated by bits of behaviour selected indiscriminately from the most different cultures, and the discussion builds up a kind of mechanical Frankenstein’s monster with a right eye from Fiji, and a left from Europe, one leg from Tierra del Fuegom and one from Tahiti, and all the fingers and toes from still different regions. Such a figure corresponds to no reality past or present…” Patterns of Culture, 1934

Yet at the same time, I’d argue that this is precisely what makes Frazer’s work attractive to Pagans and Occultists – and that a great deal of occult writing is distinctly Frazerian in style (although often without his citations, which make it hard for a reader to chase up an author’s sources). Frazer is often criticised as being an “armchair anthropologist” – writing from the lofty position of an ivory tower, disengaged from having to deal with yer actual, living people. It strikes me that a lot of occult writing (in which I include my own work) uses a similar strategy, making sweeping generalisations (without Frazer’s acknowledgement of partiality) from the panoptic perspective of “occult truth”. What’s also attractive about Frazer is that he doesn’t burden the reader with what may be perceived as the unneccesary complications of modern anthropology – the discussions of theory; the all-too-often opaque language, the constant referencing of other theorists one is expected to be familiar with in order to get to grips with the author’s work. It’s easy to detach Frazer’s “data” from his own views, and treat it as self-evident evidence for one’s own argument.

A key theme underlying Frazer’s writing is that all “savage peoples” are pretty much the same. His impetus for writing The Golden Bough was to document savage people’s beliefs before they all died out in the triumphant march of civilisation, but not from the perspective that contemporary Pagans & Occultists tend to approach such cultures (be it respectful or romantic) – in order to learn from them or demonstrate out that they are “just like us, really” or for that matter, to establish a positive link between a myth in culture A, a “sacred specialist” in tribe B, and and a particular claim of self-identity – all strategies that have a tendency to cite The Golden Bough as evidential. Much of nineteenth-century anthropology is pragmatically oriented towards the concerns of colonial administrators – the people who need to understand the quaint beliefs of the primitive folk they are in charge of, in order to manage (and civilise them) more effectively. For Frazer and his colleagues, such as his mentor Tylor, the notion of sympathetically engaging with the conceptual framework of a different culture – one where people believed in magic, spirits, etc., was quite alien, and to them, an impossibility.

Frazer’s work is also heavily symbolic, showing the influence of Herbert Spencer’s assertion that the reality of nature is radically inaccessible to the human intellect. All that we can know of the world are the “feelings” which it somehow generates in our perceptual apparatus – perception therefore has nothing in common with that which provokes it: “the sensations produced in us by environing things are but symbols of actions out of ourselves, the natures of which we cannot even conceive.” (Spencer, 1862). For Frazer, social life is a kind of institutionalised expression of symbolism – a representation of something else, and his mission is one of decipherment or interpretation. The Golden Bough is like a never-ending hall of mirrors, with symbol being linked to symbol by analogy; a continual deferral of meaning. A symbol is always explained in terms of other symbols, which bear no relation to any real-world referent. Frazer openly acknowledges that the explanations he offers will never be definitive, they will always be conjunctural, partial: “All our theories concerning him [primitive man] and his ways must therefore fall far short of certainty; the utmost we can aspire to in such matters is a reasonable degree of probability.” It brings to mind the old joke that if all the sociologists in the world were laid from end to end they would never reach a conclusion, and certainly plays well to the exponents of cultural relativism in contemporary occulture, often expressed, as did a correspondent last year to me in terms of – “all we can do is speculate.” A great deal of occult writing uses the analogical mode in a similar way to Frazer – Kenneth Grant being just one example, with his fantastic leaps between gematria, fiction, mythology, symbolism, and “initiated” occult commentary.

What’s strange about contemporary Pagan deployments of Frazer, is that he’s generally antithetical to magic, although again, its not quite that simple. In his preface to the second edition of The Golden Bough (1900) he presents his view that magic is is fundamentally distinct and opposite to religion and also, “I believe that in the evolution of thought, magic as representing a lower intellectual stratum, has probably everywhere preceded religion.” (my italics) He also stresses that both magic and science share a similar worldview “In both of them the succession of events is perfectly regular and certain, being determined by immutable laws, the operation of which can be forseen and calculated precisely, the element of chance and of accident are banished from the course of nature.” Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that European “civilisation” was superior to all other cultures – particularly “savage” ones – he thought that magic was misguided “savage science” and that all cultures progressed from a magical worldview to a religious, and ultimately rational, scientific mentality. I can see that Frazer’s diametric opposition between magic and religion plays well to Pagans & Occultists who are equally keen to keep a distinction between the domains, and equally, his assertion that magic and science share a similar worldview (although he does think that magic is fundamentally a misunderstanding of scientific laws, and that savage peoples do not entertain any ideas about how magic “works”).

I mentioned, at the beginning of this post, that I’d been chasing up some of Frazer’s sources – particularly the group of Russian anthropologists who’s accounts of shamanism, like Frazer, widely referenced and cited – particularly in texts that seek to establish the global antecendencies of shamanism. Again, whilst these authors are heavily cited in passing, if you actually read their reports you get quite a different picture of their views on shamanism. Imagine this scenario: a group of anthropologists breeze into your local Pagan community, and later publish their findings, along the lines of – “Well there’s people called witches. A lot of them are neurotic and hysterical and given to strange fancies, and some of them are, well, sexual perverts. They believe in magic and spirits, but no one can take that seriously so we have to conclude that any effects from their magic is basically trickery or fraud.” Somehow I can’t see that kind of analysis getting cited in contemporary occult texts, yet that’s pretty much the tone I read from anthropologists such as Vladimir Bogoraz.

So then, are we still enthralled by the dazzling patterns of light displayed on the monolith, or can we – whilst acknowledging its influence – look past it towards the dizzying complexities of the world around us? Do we celebrate difference and diversity or blot them out in favour of finding safety in superficial comparison? It’s too easy to be dismissive of Frazer, but equally, its too easy to continually recycle him. Pete Carroll’s apt phrase “I’m sick of occult ideas which pass from book to book without any intervening thought” springs to mind.


  1. Gyrus
    Posted January 15th 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Great post. There’s a lot of issues here that I’m fascinated by, largely because I seem to straddle the fence a lot here (or more accurately, I have some good, sharp wire cutters 😉 ).

    I’ve never drawn on Frazer much. The abridged copy of The Golden Bough has always sat on my shelves almost as a totemic item for a pagan-oriented writer. But I’ve definitely been drawn to similar works, and shared that attitude in research.

    One take I have on the cultural moment that Frazer occupied is that (among other things) it often looks to me like the winding down of the period when a highly intelligent and industrious person could get a reasonable grasp on the entirety of their culture’s learning. I guess the period when one person could actually read all the books in their culture ended much earlier, before the Renaissance maybe. But we’re all aware of these stupendous late 19th century works that try to do a “global synthesis”. Of course, it was Imperial confidence as much as a broad scholarly knowledge that allowed such sweeping views—and as we know now, the entirety of that culture’s learning had vast gaps and distortions. But I think this is one element of the appeal of Frazer. It’s not just “don’t confused me with new ideas”, it’s also: “I know there’s some problems with this, but ah for the days when you could hope to comprehend ‘the world’…”

    I also think, looking at how my own learning has unfolded, that the “Frazerian” approach of taking a bit from here, and bit from there, and forming a “theory” or bolstering an “identity”, is a valid phase. Like many people I received next to zero context for spirituality or religion in my upbringing (not even the negative context of considered atheism). When you break from your upbringing and are confronted with this crazy mass of information about spirituality through the ages—often via the lens of troubling spontaneous experiences—it’s a healthy thing to have a bash at making your own sense of it all. Of course, the image you construct fragments over time as you learn more complexities to reality—but that synthesis is a good “initiation”, to find your feet. (Though of course, you need to come out the other side of any initiation, and leave it behind.) I guess the images that anthropology constructed as colonialism decayed had a similar initiatory role for our culture, as we grappled with the fact that “savages” are like us—and before we realized that they’re different, too, from us and each other.

    Patrick Harpur is probably the most interesting exponent of the “synthesizing” approach today. When I interviewed him, I asked about this issue. I found it interesting that he feels it’s important to find the common structures across different traditions, even though he’s a confirmed supporter of “soul” as opposed to “spirit”. In James Hillman’s Neoplatonic terms, this means an interest in the multiplicity and mess of things as opposed to transcendent unifying viewpoints. You travel in the valleys as opposed to ascending the peaks. But there’s a strong element of “ascending the peaks” in the Frazer school of thought, taking a transcendent overview of human spiritual culture. Patrick admitted the contradiction, saying he thinks it’s also important to look for our “common humanity”. I guess this is a post-Frazer position, not saying “all savages are the same”, but “there are things that tie us all together”.

    I’m suspicious of any kind of easy, insipid take on this, of course. But there seem to be two edges to the transcendent view. On the one hand, it can serve the aggressive globalizing ambitions of Empire, or the desire to avoid the complexities that Empire has created; on the other, as in some schools of Sufism, there’s a genuine and important impulse to find common spiritual ground across the species. I guess we need to watch out for the latter impulse getting tangled with the former.

  2. Phil Hine
    Posted January 18th 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I also think, looking at how my own learning has unfolded, that the “Frazerian” approach of taking a bit from here, and bit from there, and forming a “theory” or bolstering an “identity”, is a valid phase.

    Yes, that’s something I can certainly see in my own early writing – particularly some of my early “shamanic” pieces. Now that I think of it, you could say that Frazer had a big hand in the “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to mining “magical traditions” which is nowadays primarily associated with Chaos Magic. I’ve kind of softened on my earlier antipathy to cross-cultural analyses of late, as I’ve shifted away from a “hardcore” social constructivist perspective, and I’ll be returning to the wider question of comparativism in due course. What I did find interesting is that although a lot of people who draw on, or seem to uncritically accept that kind of “join-the-dots-to-arrive-at-the-truth” approach are less open to partiality than Frazer himself was. it brings to mind the “Liber 777” approach to correspondences (and other things). I should have mentioned, I suppose, that Frazer was a major influence on the Perennialist school of thought, which of course had a huge influence on contemporary occulture. Possibly one for another time.