The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion

Synopsis

First published in 1890, The Golden Bough is a seminal work of modern anthropology. A classic study of the beliefs and institutions of mankind that traces the development and confluence of thought from magic and ritual to modern scientific theory, it has been a source of great influence upon such diverse writers as T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and D.H. Lawrence. This edition restores many of the controversial passages expurgated in the 1922 edition that elucidate Frazer's bolder theories, and sets them within the framework of a valuable introduction and notes.

Excerpt

Few books have been bought by so many as The Golden Bough. Few have been perused so perfunctorily, or been so blithely misunderstood. It is one of the great classics of the world, a foundation stone of the modern sensibility, and yet we do not know it. We do not like to read our great books, yet they read us, every day of our lives. It is not we who have made the literature of the twentieth century. It is the literature that has made us. If we wish to know ourselves better, it is to the literature that we must turn.

Our grandparents, in some ways more diligent readers than ourselves, had a different problem. For them, from the very beginning, Frazer's book possessed a shady reputation. 'If it's anything like what you make it out to be, it's neither a safe nor a proper book to have knocking about here.' So the head librarian to the young Sean O'Casey, who in a moment of adolescent curiosity had requested it in Dublin. In its time The Golden Bough was the sort of book to read beneath the bed-sheets by the light of a torch. When the first edition appeared in 1890, a little frisson seems to have gone round the literary world. People sent one another letters, phrased in an urgent whisper. The speed and extremity of this reaction is even now not surprising. For The Golden Bough is a dangerous book which retains its ability to disconcert. As then, so now, it is a work whose essence lies in its challenge to received cultural attitudes. Authors who place such a challenge are seldom likely to find uncritical favour amongst any readership. If the status quo is conservative, they are called liberals. If it fancies itself as liberal, they are called reactionaries. The effect of such gratuitous labelling is, however, often to tempt readers less easily gulled to read the forbidden text.

One of Frazer's subjects in this book is that strange phenomenon, well known to Victorian society but named after an obscure Tongalese custom, called a taboo. Frazer was interested in this subject, amongst other reasons, because he was aware that books are often taboo, just as words and even thoughts sometimes are, He was also well aware that in certain companies religion is a tabooed subject, either amongst those who take their religion for granted or else those who dismiss it too lightly. Frazer was neither. Instead he was a man deeply fascinated by religion . . .

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