The Golden Bough – Religion, Magic, and Science

The Golden Bough is a fascinating book by Sir James Frazer that parallels distinct religious and scientific concerns. In it we see Mr. Frazer believes individuals have risen from believing in magic, by advancing to religious faith, before finally moving to scientific thought. He discourses how ancient civilizations practiced in both scientific in religious aspects. Mortal sacrifice, for instance, was a method to demonstrate gratitude to the gods.

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Religion is one of the main contentions of James Frazer’s work, and it has developed throughout the history of mankind. Starting with a story about magic, people have tried to understand things that are going on in this world, before they shifted to religion. And now, religion has been replaced by science, leading to a new age of understanding the world.

According to Frazer, science is the newest pace in the human supplementary understanding process. It concluded this as it illustrated things that seemed unexplainable before science. Since the key idea of the book is that science and religion are similar in certain ways, science is a thought process our species has developed and will continue to develop for years to come.

He defined magic as a system for regulating world events by other than normal processes.  Frazer claims that these magical experiences are innate in people and are intrinsic to all cultures.  He contends magic is analogous to science and refers to it as “the bastard sister of science”.  Similar to science, specific regulations govern magic. Unlike religion, where we call to a greater being to rule the world, magic infers nature is inflexible. The wizard presumes that “the performance of the proper ceremony, guided by the spell, will predictably get the desired result”. Similarly, the wizard remains dependent upon the laws of nature. “If he claims a sovereignty over nature, it is a constitutional sovereignty limited in its range and implemented in an exact conformity with ancient usage”.  Frazer says magic is not the pure path in which the world works.  Once it becomes true, then “it is no longer magic but science”.

 

We can divide magic into two facets: The Law of Similarity and the Law of Contact.  The Law of Similarity is the belief that life forms like, and that the result of something is like its origin.  The magician that works under this scheme of belief thinks they can make any result that they desire by emulating it. Homeopathic Magic formed under this scheme is referred to as charms.  An example of a charm could be of a wizard destroying a photograph or model of an adversary in order to destroy the physical person.

Law of Contact is the belief that phenomena connected to one another will continue to affect one another even after they split from each other.  A magician functioning under this structure expects that whatever they do to an object will keep affecting an individual to who the object was linked, even after the connection is severed. They call charms performed using this technique Contagious Magic. The view that acquiring a fingernail or a fragment of hair from someone gives you command over that individual is an example of this type of magic.

 

 

Contagious Magic and Homeopathic Magic are often used side by side. Frazer explains the difference between these two sorts of magic, stating that we can label both Contagious Magic and Homeopathic Magic as Sympathetic Magic.  Frazer adopted the term Sympathetic Magic because he maintains both sorts of magic presume elements work on each from a distance through a secret sympathy or imperceptible atmospheric condition.

There are 2 kinds of practices under Sympathetic Magic, taboo and positive magic.  Frazer identifies them as:

“Positive magic or sorcery says, “Do this in order that so and so may happen”. Negative magic or taboo says, “Do not do this, so and so should happen.” Sorcery or positive is to produce a desirable result; Taboo or negative magic is to avoid an undesirable result”.

 

 

He believed that science and magic were indistinguishable in that they shared an emphasis on experimentation and common sense; his insistence on this relationship is so comprehensive that virtually any refuted scientific hypothesis technically makes up magic under his system. In opposition to both science and magic, he characterized religion in terms of faith in individual, divine forces and attempts to mitigate them.

Frazer recognized that both magic or religion could prevail or return. He saw that magic occasionally returns and develops into science, just like when experimentation developed into chemistry during the renaissance. He showed apprehension about the possibility of a prevailing acceptance of magic to embolden the people, displaying fears of and prejudices against working-class people in his opinion.

James George Frazer

“Small minds cannot grasp great ideas; to their narrow comprehension, their purblind vision, nothing seems really great and important but themselves.”

James George Frazer was born on January 1, 1854 in Glasgow, Scotland and died on May 7, 1941 in Cambridge, England. He wed Elizabeth (Lilly) Grove, a novelist from Alsace, in 1896. Frazer and Lilly died on the same day, within a few hours of each other, and were laid to rest at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge.

He was a Scottish social anthropologist and folklorist prominent in the beginning phases of the contemporary studies of mythology and comparative theology. Frazer postulated that a person’s beliefs advanced through 3 phases: primitive magic, superseded by religion, superseded by science. His most remarkable piece is The Golden Bough, which records and describes the correlations between magical and religious ideologies worldwide.

 

James George Frazer

 

Frazer was educated at Springfield Academy and Larchfield Academy in Helensburgh, before attending the University of Glasgow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he finished with honors in classics. After Trinity, he studied law at the Middle Temple, although he never worked as an attorney. Field investigations could not verify his perception of the yearly sacrifice of the Year-King. Yet, The Golden Bough, his examination of ancient cults, rituals, and superstitions, including their relationships to early Christianity, were continuously studied by mythographers for many years because of the extensive amount of information it contains. He was the first writer to illustrate the connections between legends and customs in such a comprehensive fashion.

Frazer first became interested in the study of social anthropology after reading E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871) and more so after being encouraged by his associate, William Robertson Smith, the biblical scholar known for comparing segments of the Old Testament with ancient Hebrew legend. He became an expert in the study of religion and mythology. His principal information sources were ancient histories and surveys completed by missionaries and royal officers.

Scholars frequently describe Frazer as an agnostic because of his disparagement of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, in The Golden Bough. His later works and non-published writings imply a contradictory relationship with Neoplatonism and Hermeticism. Around 1930 Frazer became partially blind. Elizabeth later converted Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” into a book of children’s stories entitled “The Leaves from the Golden Bough.”

Selected works

  • Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogenies, and Other Pieces (1935)
  • Devil’s Advocate (1928)
  • Man, God, and Immortality (1927)
  • Taboo and the Perils of the Soul (1911)
  • The Gorgon’s Head and other Literary Pieces (1927)
  • The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, 3 volumes (1913–24)
  • The Golden Bough, 3rd edition: 12 volumes (1906–15; 1936)
  • Totemism and Exogamy (1910)
  • Psyche’s Task (1909)
  • The Golden Bough, 2nd edition: expanded to 6 volumes (1900)
  • Description of Greece, by Pausanias (translation and commentary) (1897–) 6 volumes.
  • The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1st edition (1890) 

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