James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
- Jay Richardson
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
Though largely debunked as anthropology, the legacy of James Frazer's The Golden Bough remains incalculable. Tracing humanity's belief in magic through religion to scientific rationality, across a staggering array of ancient and developing cultures, this fiercely ambitious, heavyweight tome had a seismic impact on Western thought when first published. Never mind that the Cambridge don never witnessed any of the tribal rituals he wrote so eloquently about, cobbling his theories – principally those of primitive worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king – together from second-hand traveller and missionary accounts.
And no matter that after expanding his book to a massive 12 volumes, the subsequent abridged version excised his controversial implication of Jesus' fictitiousness. This was literary dynamite, profoundly influencing many of the great modernist writers, including Yeats, Joyce, Lawrence, Pound and Plath. Freud and Jung argued at length about it. TS Eliot cited it as a major inspiration for The Wasteland, though Frazer himself couldn't see it. And the impression it made on George Lucas' mythological mentor Joseph Campbell was such that the book arguably laid the groundwork for Star Wars.
Born in Glasgow in 1854, at age 15 Frazer enrolled at the university to study classical literature. After graduating, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he lived almost uninterrupted till his death. His masterpiece, The Golden Bough, has been in and out of critical fashion but always in print, seminal to the growth of anthropology as a science and the social study of myth. Taking a mere 17-word, classical Greek story of successive warrior-priests slain by a divine branch at the woodland lake of Nemi in Italy, Frazer concocted a monumental prose-poem and entire history of human belief. His imaginative matrix of cultural connectivity rather than any great investigative rigour has ensured his posterity.
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