Reading Hard: The Golden Bough

I’ve been neck-deep in preparatory reading, ahead of writing my next book. I hesitate to call it ‘research’ because I’m not exactly studying; this process isn’t about acquiring precise knowledge of any one thing. Instead I’ve been steeping myself in mythology and folklore from multiple historical sources – everything from Icelandic sagas to Yoruba folktales to the Mabinogion to the Bible – trying to pack my head full of potential reference points. This isn’t going to be a fantasy novel, but it is going to require a rich seam of diverse cultural narratives if I’m to have any hope of pulling it off.

One of the books I thought I’d skim through, and ended up reading cover to cover, is The Golden Bough by James Frazer, a seminal work of early comparative anthropology. My edition is a 1981 reissue of the original 1890 text, which I bought well over twenty years ago; Frazer’s work had been referenced during my own undergraduate studies in anthropology in the late 80s, and I thought that I should some day acquaint myself with it more fully. It became one of those books that I’ve packed up and moved from house to house and country to country, never quite knowing why, but with a nagging sense that I might one day find it useful.

It’s turned out to be a treasure trove of information and inspiration, albeit one that’s very hard to read from a modern perspective. Nominally an investigation into the succession rites of the priest-kings of a sacred grove in ancient Italy, The Golden Bough is where Frazer sets out his overarching theories about folklore and the development of religion, and notes the similarities between the practices and beliefs of widely disparate peoples. It’s as jam-packed as a Victorian curio cabinet with details of customs, beliefs and ritual practices from around the globe, and interesting (though not always accurate) connections, comparisons and parallels are drawn between them.

Unfortunately, however, Frazer’s otherwise sharply analytical mind fails entirely to scrutinise his own presumptions of social and cultural superiority. The assertion of a civilisational hierarchy, in which the educated European or Briton occupies the top tier, is never questioned. The terminology of “savages”, “rude peoples” and the “peasantry” to refer to the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America, as well as the rural working classes of Europe and Britain, is employed casually and unselfconsciously throughout.

And yet many of his insights, despite the hugely problematic context within which they’re presented, and the fact that much of his theoretical analysis has since been soundly disproved, remain powerfully evocative. Take this observation on the transition from the supernatural to the empirical:

But when, still later, the conception of the elemental forces as personal agents is giving way to the recognition of natural law; then magic, based as it implicitly is on the idea of a necessary and invariable sequence of cause and effect, independent of personal will, reappears from the obscurity and discredit into which it has fallen, and by investigating the causal sequences in nature, directly prepares the way for science. Alchemy leads up to chemistry.

Or this surprisingly sympathetic – and acute – commentary on the worldwide phenomenon of taboos, in which certain classes of people are segregated from the wider community:

Thus the rules of ceremonial purity observed by divine kings, chiefs, and priests, by homicides, women at child-birth, and so on, are in some respects alike … the common feature of all these persons is that they are dangerous and in danger, and the danger in which they stand and to which they expose others is what we should call spiritual or supernatural, that is, imaginary. The danger, however, is not less real because it is imaginary; imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid.

Indeed, Frazer’s rather wry conclusion that religion derives not from some initial revelation, but develops over time to explain already extant cultural practices, seems to me both audacious and unexpectedly modern:

The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason; to find a sound theory for an absurd practice.

Whether he applies this reasoning equally to religion as practiced by the academic elite of Trinity College, Oxford, is not addressed. But for all his errors of fact and arrogance, Frazer acknowledges the kinship between his own civilisational cohort and those whom he otherwise observes with condescension; and acknowledges too that the presumptions on which he now relies for his analysis may one day prove just as false as he considers their ancient beliefs to have been. It’s a moment of empathy and self-awareness that I frankly didn’t expect.

For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive … Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we may one day stand in need of ourselves.

It struck me that I – geneaologically, culturally and intellectually an equal descendant of both the “savages” and the elites, and a woman to boot – am precisely the sort of unknown, unfathomable inheritor from whom he foresaw that forbearance might one day be required. Across the centuries of bitter colonial history, it’s a strange moment of connection.

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  • I love stories.
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