Monday, July 9, 2012

Review of The Golden Bough

Jewish date:  19 Tammuz 5772 (Parashath Pineḥạṣ).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of Augustine Zhao Rong and companions (Roman Catholicism),  Martyrdom of the Bab (Bahá’í Faith), Day of Unn the Wise person (Heathenism), Caprotinia (Roman Religion), Feast Day of St. MojoDick Nixon (Church of the SubGenius).

Review of The Golden Bough:

Sir James Frazer was a respected anthropologist, and in The Golden Bough he sets out to explain the logic in much magical and religious thinking.  The style is reminiscent of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  There are a lot of points to make, and for each one Frazer gives multiple examples from around the planet.  He strives to be objective and treat the material he discusses without making moral judgements.  (And this is quite an achievement, considering much of what he discusses.)

There are two basic principles on which magic purportedly works.  The first, sympathetic or homeopathic magic, is that like affects like, whether realistically or symbolically.  For example, consider the clichéd simulacrum (“Voodoo doll”).  Someone makes a figure resembling his/her enemy, and any torment inflicted on the doll is supposed to happen to the enemy, too.  The second principle is that of contagious magic, that is that anything which was ever part of or in contact with a person or object continues to affect that person of object.  Returning to our example, the Voodoo doll should work better if it contains the enemy’s hair or nail clippings.  Frazier explains this very extensively and argues it to be the reason for many unusual practices.

Religion as depicted by Frazer is primarily tribal religions and folk religions, not the formal Abrahamic religions of Western civilization.  Thus much of what he discusses is absent or downplayed in Christianity, the presumed religion of most of his readers.  In formal Abrahamic religions, religion traditionally is at least overtly normally conceived as service of (usually) one god, the god having the power and humans being at His mercy.  But in the religions Frazer concentrates on, worshippers can exercise a great deal of influence on their gods.  For example, consider fertility cults.  The point of their practices is to cause the gods to bestow fertility on the crops, animals, and people.  A formal Abrahamist would consider this a blurring of religion and magic.  Furthermore, followers of Abrahamic religions tend to make large distinctions between deities and created entities.  Even Christians, who in their standard theology hold that Jesus of Nazareth was a god or an aspect of a god, shy away from the idea of depicting Jesus as too human.  (E.g., note the negative reaction many had to The Last Temptation of Christ.)  In the religions Frazer discusses, the natural world and anything in it can be deities.  In particular, a human may become the embodiment of a god.  This notion is still current in Nepal in the institution of the kumari, a girl who is believed to embody the goddess Durga until she reaches puberty.  However, while kumaris go on to become ordinary women and live ordinary lives, Frazer’s human gods tend to have less desirable ends.

Remember how your humble blogger once discussed Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which included the notion of a sacrificial king who ruled for a while and then was killed?  This is where that idea comes from.  The human king and the god he embodies are linked, as are the king and his kingdom.  (Rule of contagion.)  If the king starts to weaken, so does the god.  Naturally, the god weakening would be bad for the kingdom, so it is better to kill the king while he is still strong than to allow him to ever grow weak.  Thus one ends up with a series of murdered kings so that the kingdom may prosper.  Like Graves and Margaret Murray, Frazer holds by the development of substitute victims for the sacred king and his symbolic rebirth.  This is apparently the source for Anton Szandor LaVey’s bizarre claim that religions other than Satanism kill their gods.  Like Graves, Frazer links this sacred king cycle with the yearly cycle of the seasons.  (This should not be surprising.  The Golden Bough was published between The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches, and it was published 26 years before The White Goddess.)

How correct is Frazer in his claims?  Having a background in statistics, I find myself asking how normal what he claims really is.  Are their people whose magic purportedly work on other principles?  How common really are such notions as the sacred king, animism, fertility cults, and nature gods?  And do people who hold by these notions really conceptualize them in the same way that Frazer claims they do?  Clearly not everything he claims is correct.  Frazer argues that human society progresses in thinking from magic to religion to science.  However, this is unlikely, even as a general rule.  Religion is still very common among humanity, and while openly secular people are more common now than ever, religion shows no sign of going away.  It even has become more openly popular in currently and formerly officially atheist countries, such as the former Soviet Union and China.  Magic never went away either.  It is not merely away from the West, such as parts of Africa, that magic thrives.  Even in the West, there are still psychics, astrologers, alchemists, purveyors of all sorts of pseudoscientific medicines based on magical ideas (such as homeopathy), mediums, and diviners.  And then there are modern occult and magical organizations and movements, such as the Golden Dawn, Ordo Templis Orientalis, Wicca, and other modern Neopagan religions.  Frazer’s claims also seem conspicuously absent from (more recent) archaeological and historical works I have read, suggesting that his ideas in the long term did not gain acceptance.

What is the significance of The Golden Bough to Neopaganism?  While Frazer did not advocate any magical or religious belief or practice he wrote about, he provided a lot of material for those interested in magic and pagan revivals.  Thus Neopagans have taken over the whole theory of magic wholesale, and many of the festivals Frazer discusses have been adopted.  In Wiccan rituals one can find temporary embodiment of a god in a human being, the whole sacred king cycle, deification of nature, and ritual sex.  Expect these ideas to recur in future installments of this series.