Friday, June 3, 2016

Are you looking for the motherload? This is the motherload.




The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion – James George Frazer (1890)


            There are very few books that truly qualify as seminal works.  These are books where the content is so original, insightful, and fresh that they create whole worlds of study and exploration in their wake.  Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (1859) is one.  Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687) is another.  In the former, Charles Darwin proposed such well-reasoned and evidenced ideas that 150 years later they still scare the crap out of people whose world-view is barely above a fanciful children’s fable, even though most of the world has accepted Darwin’s conclusions.  The latter book shattered hundreds of years worth of stagnant thought about the nature of our Universe and allowed the development of our modern sciences and society, providing the mathematical tools to greatly expand humanity’s ability to understand and explain the physical nature of our existence.  James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) is of an equal importance, but in the world of comparative religion/mythology and anthropology.  This one book is the main reason that that these fields of study exist.  Without The Golden Bough our modern world would be a very different place. 
            Because of its deep primacy as a source text, The Golden Bough is a book I have seen and read referenced more times than I can imagine as I have read through the works of Joseph Campbell, Robert Anton Wilson, and the like.  In fact, any work of comparative mythology draws from the Golden Bough, if only to try and refute it.  Frazer originally published a one volume edition of this work, only to expand it to two volumes in a second printing a few years later.  For the third printing, Frazer went ahead and included as much of his anthropological and ethnographic research as he could, expanding the whole work to twelve volumes, creating the mother-load for any and all folklorists, mythologists, and comparative religion researchers to draw from.
The book was an immediate success, in part because it scandalized so many “learned” people in England due to its inclusion of the Christian church’s myths and rites and the parallels and origins of these rites that Frazer saw reflected worldwide in nearly every culture he researched.  Even though Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, and Judaism is a codification of Semitic nomad culture’s folklore and beliefs, the “true believers” cannot accept that their holy church is anything other than a brand new revelation, with no parallels or precursors in human history.  This led to The Golden Bough becoming the kind of book that one read and shared in secret, for the power of the church to destroy those it deemed heretics was still strong at the end of the 19th century.  The devout cannot handle their belief system being called a “myth” for they believe their myths are factual truths.  This has been the truth as long as humans have deluded themselves into believing the lies religions feed them.  However, taking a step back and seeing how one’s beliefs share a common intellectual and “spiritual” thread with beliefs from around the world should in fact do the opposite, at least in an open mind.  It is nothing if not amazing how similar the paths of mythological thought and beliefs are for all people.  We are all one human race after all, regardless of the level of sophistication our culture may be at.
This book starts out as an exploration of a specific myth which relates the story of the King of the Wood, who was tasked with protecting a grove of trees sacred to the goddess Diana near the town of Nemi.  The folklore states that this King of the Wood was chosen to serve for a set amount of time, after which he was sacrificed to the goddess and a new King chosen.  This evolved over the decades and centuries to a situation where the King of the Wood had to fight off challengers to his position at a set time every year or two.  Frazer explores the origins of this myth and then realizes that throughout the cultures of the world similar rites have developed, and that they all draw from even more ancient myths and beliefs, all the way back to a pre-agricultural nomadic human existence.  Primitive man, and indeed many currently tribal peoples, worshipped the animals and vegetables as gods in their own right.  Over the centuries the idea that everything on Earth had its own spiritual existence evolved to where every similar thing was ruled by a specific god external to the object being worshipped.  All corn was ruled by the corn goddess.  All deer existed due to the whims of the deer god.  All of these gods had to be appeased.  Because of this, specific rites relating to life, death, and rebirth were crafted and utilized.  These rituals gave order to the cosmos, allowing man to think he could control the weather, the crop yields, or the bounty of wildlife purposefully through his actions and prayers (magic).  They were all self-consistent.  Eventually, after millennia, the idea developed that the gods were wholly separate from the matter of reality, and that their whims could not be directly controlled by human ritual and magic, but instead the gods must be supplicated and appeased so that they may bestow their favor upon the most worthy.  Once this became the norm humanity created a specific class of human that could intervene with the gods on behalf of the rest of us.  This became the shaman/priest class, and it was them that began codifying their culture’s belief systems.  This is the start of religion as opposed to magic.  Magic was understandable by all, and usable by all.  Religion is not usable by all, and definitely not understood by all, for the very shaman priests designated to aid instead made it more difficult for the individual to have a full picture of their own personal myths.  The “truth” had to be explained by the priest class.  This exists to this very day in all the churches of the world.
          For example, the idea of sacrifice, whether human, animal or plant, arose as a direct response to seeing the world’s vegetation and animals seemingly die every winter and be reborn every spring.  Death brings life.  All life survives by killing.  This was self-evident to primitive man.  Even before the use of agriculture humanity sacrificed to the spirits of nature for a return of the bounty of spring.  Once humanity developed agriculture, the seasonal sacrifices became ever more crucial to ensure that next year there would be rains and a proper harvest.  The rituals of sacrifice from around the world and throughout history share such common features that it is plainly obvious they share a common ground in the human mind.  After sacrificing virgins, first-born sons, captives, and animals, humanity started sacrificing the children of their kings, and their kings themselves.  What would please a god more than the soul of a lofty individual after all?  Frazer goes into great detail about all of this and it is amazing to see the parallels to the sacrifice of Jesus in the Bible.  For most, the sacrifice was the personification of their god.  Many cultures ate of the being they sacrificed in a ritual communion much like Christians eat what they are taught to believe is the actual blood and flesh of Jesus Christ every Sunday at communion.  Nearly all ancient civilizations had religions that spoke of a redeemer god, who died and was resurrected, who was the son of a virgin and who by his sacrifice saved humanity.  Old ritual magic is transformed over time into codified religion, and most of the followers have no idea this is the case. 
          I have wanted to read this book for nearly twenty years, but I was intimidated.  Only after exploring the world of folklore and mythology have I been able to fully absorb what Mr. Frazer is writing about.  One of my goals is purchasing the full twelve volume set of The Golden Bough for my own personal library. For many people who benefit from keeping masses of us ignorant and devout, this book is still very dangerous.  It challenges their right to lord their beliefs over us, and to force us to comply.  There is so much insight and information in The Golden Bough that I know I will enjoy revisiting this book in the future.  Sometimes supposedly seminal works are disappointing, but not this time.  What an amazing piece of intellectual work this is.

(To download or read this book in .PDF format, click here: 
www.templeofearth.com/books/goldenbough.pdf )

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