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The Golden Bough : A Study in Comparative…

The Golden Bough : A Study in Comparative Religion (1890)

by James George Frazer

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I loved my journey with this book. It is a fascinating tale of ancient rites carried out by primitive minds. The only draw back of the book is the bland repetitive examples of the same charm and idea, but this book still gets my five stars. ( )
1 vote Mohamed80 | Jul 11, 2015 |
Remarkable in scope, arrogant and close to fascistic in its adoration of social hierarchy, still, a guide for the ages on the meaning of rites, rituals and folklore. ( )
1 vote CSRodgers | Aug 10, 2014 |
Reading the unabridged version was probably a mistake. The subject interests me, but I found this one hard to get through. It doesn't help that I had already read more moder books on the same subject and already knew most of it is widely discredited. In the end, I couldn't get through this. I suppose I will start over at some point in time, with the abridged version. ( )
  Merinde | Mar 31, 2013 |
The Foreword compares Frazer and Golden Bough in its impact to such revolutionary thinkers of the 19th Century as Darwin, Marx, and Freud. This seminal work of anthropology and comparative religion first published in 1890 was in fact a great influence on Freud and Jung as well as T.S. Eliot and Yeats and the modern Neopagan movement. Frazer's influence on Joseph Campbell is obvious--he's the original. Frazer tries to argue for the monomyth--the idea that religion and myth can be reduced to a few universal principles and symbols such as sacrifice, scapegoats, the soul and totem and taboo. Taking an ancient Roman custom involving the "King of the Wood" at Nemi as his launching pad, Frazer examined myths and folktales from every part of the world and drew connections to explain, as the subtitle on the cover of my copy put it, "the roots of religion and folklore." His argument seems to be that the origins of religion can be found in a crude science, an attempt to influence the world through sympathetic magic. Although he never attacked Christianity directly in this original edition, I could see how the idea of Jesus as entirely myth could come out of this book. Frazer's examination of vegetation deities, cycles of sowing and reaping and kingly sacrifice and his examination of the myths of Ishtar and Thammuz, Isis and Osiris, Aphrodite and Adonis and spring fertility rites is certainly suggestive.

I often found this book tedious, primarily because of Frazer's exhaustive examples--and the edition I read is the original two-volume work--before he, as the Foreword put it, "overburdened the book with volumes of illustrative examples which tended to hide the thread of his argument." (Twelve volumes in fact.) In his pile-on it reminded me of my recent read of the original edition of Darwin's Origin of Species. This was a time when science wasn't yet so technical and specialized as to be unduly esoteric to the layman. So as with Darwin, I think Frazer was aiming his book at both his scientific brethren as well as the layman--thus the exhaustive examples in an effort to prove his theories. However, unlike the case with Darwin, I believe Frazer's examples do more to hide--nay, bury--his argument rather than illustrate it, even in this original more compact edition. More and more I found myself skimming. There is an abridged edition from the author, but my understanding from reviews is that it excised a lot of the more controversial and interesting parts found in the expanded versions, such as a chapter on "The Crucifixion of Christ." Also as with Darwin, who didn't at the time have the advantages of our advances in genetics and geology, I suspect much of the anthropology in Golden Bough is outdated. Especially given that unlike Darwin, who famously conducted many observations in the field and experiments of his own, Frazer seemed to entirely rely on second-hand accounts, mostly by travelers and missionaries. Nor do I entirely buy Frazer's contention that modern peasant customs and folklore represented a continuity with a pagan past.

Some may be put off by Frazer's characterization of peoples as "rude" and "savages." To his credit though, Frazer doesn't exempt Europe or Britain in his examples of primitive rituals and superstitions. Given that and the context of the times, I don't as some reviewers do see this book as essentially racist. Frazer notes, "when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him." This book reminded me, of all things, of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. That novel is famous as a denunciation of colonialism. But one of the things I took away from Achebe's book was that the Christian missionaries gained adherents because they freed their converts from frightening and oppressive superstitions that propagated slavery, infanticide and human sacrifice. As much as I can see the ugly side of the history of modern monotheistic creeds such as Christianity, I think we forget that much of the legacy of polytheistic pagan beliefs isn't as pretty as many of its New Age adherents would have it. This book--for all I suspected the accuracy of many details--was a salutary reminder of that with its tales of scapegoating, sacrifices and taboos. Ironically, Frazer's successors, such as Joseph Campbell, have formed a new myth of the "noble savage," of a pagan and pre-historic past as egalitarian and in harmony with nature. We seem to have few fans of civilization and reason these days. It's ironic that a book that tried to explain the spiritual scientifically might have contributed to that. Ultimately I'm glad I read it, and I'm keeping it on my shelves, at least for now, as a rather thorough reference book of beliefs and rites across cultures and ages--or at least as far as was known over a century ago. ( )
3 vote LisaMaria_C | Jul 30, 2012 |
This book is a classic in freethought literature, giving a detailed (and I do mean detailed) analysis of the various early relgions and how they evolved into the pagan gods. The author started out to give an explanation of one particular, limited phenomenon, the temple of Diana, and ranged far and wide. Although very little of the book deals with Christianity, it is very easy to begin to see patterns in the religious traditions he discusses that became part of Judeo-Christian tradition. ( )
4 vote quantum_flapdoodle | Apr 16, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (23 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Frazer, James Georgeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
De Bosis, LauroTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stocking, George W., Jr.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Longior undecimi nobis decimique libelli
Artatus labor est et breve rasit opus.
Plura legant vacui.

MARTIAL, xii. S.
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Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough?
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Frazer's own 1922 abridgment of his 12-volume work, originally published in two volumes but now usually published in one. Please don't combine with the multi-volume (8 to 15 volumes) sets, with any of its separate volumes, nor with either of the the "new" abridgments edited by Theodore Gaster (1959) or Robert Fraser (1998), nor with any edition titled Illustrated Golden Bough, of which there are at least two with different editors doing the abridgment, unless you know they are using the 1922 Frazer text. To add to the confusion, some editions claim to be "unabridged" because they are unabridged from Frazer's original 1890 two-volume publication, not the best-known multi-volume third edition (1906-1915).

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0684826305, Paperback)

Before Joseph Campbell became the world's most famous practitioner of comparative mythology, there was Sir James George Frazer. The Golden Bough was originally published in two volumes in 1890, but Frazer became so enamored of his topic that over the next few decades he expanded the work sixfold, then in 1922 cut it all down to a single thick edition suitable for mass distribution. The thesis on the origins of magic and religion that it elaborates "will be long and laborious," Frazer warns readers, "but may possess something of the charm of a voyage of discovery, in which we shall visit many strange lands, with strange foreign peoples, and still stranger customs." Chief among those customs--at least as the book is remembered in the popular imagination--is the sacrificial killing of god-kings to ensure bountiful harvests, which Frazer traces through several cultures, including in his elaborations the myths of Adonis, Osiris, and Balder.

While highly influential in its day, The Golden Bough has come under harsh critical scrutiny in subsequent decades, with many of its descriptions of regional folklore and legends deemed less than reliable. Furthermore, much of its tone is rooted in a philosophy of social Darwinism--sheer cultural imperialism, really--that finds its most explicit form in Frazer's rhetorical question: "If in the most backward state of human society now known to us we find magic thus conspicuously present and religion conspicuously absent, may we not reasonably conjecture that the civilised races of the world have also at some period of their history passed through a similar intellectual phase?" (The truly civilized races, he goes on to say later, though not particularly loudly, are the ones whose minds evolve beyond religious belief to embrace the rational structures of scientific thought.) Frazer was much too genteel to state plainly that "primitive" races believe in magic because they are too stupid and backwards to know any better; instead he remarks that "a savage hardly conceives the distinction commonly drawn by more advanced peoples between the natural and the supernatural." And he certainly was not about to make explicit the logical extension of his theories--"that Christian legend, dogma, and ritual" (to quote Robert Graves's summation of Frazer in The White Goddess) "are the refinement of a great body of primitive and barbarous beliefs." Whatever modern readers have come to think of the book, however, its historical significance and the eloquence with which Frazer attempts to develop what one might call a unifying theory of anthropology cannot be denied. --Ron Hogan

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:30 -0400)

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A survey of myth, magic and religion through the whole spectrum of world and time.

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