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179 of 184 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The missing link between ancient paganism & modern religion
Frazer's classic "The Golden Bough" may justifiably be called the foundation that modern anthropology is based on. While it has been discredited in some areas since it's 1st publication, it has stood the test of time remarkably well. It's still the best book I know of to explain the origins of magical & religious thought to a new student of comparative...
Published on June 18, 1998

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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I'm reviewing the Kindle application
Some of the negative reviews of this book are very amusing. The book was published in 1879! Yes, perhaps in 130 years a few new facts have been uncovered in this area of study. Aristotle is 3000 years old and all of his hypotheses have been discredited. We don't read Aristotle for accuracy. We read him because he is the earliest example of western thought available to us...
Published on May 4, 2009 by Patrick King


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179 of 184 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The missing link between ancient paganism & modern religion, June 18, 1998
By A Customer
Frazer's classic "The Golden Bough" may justifiably be called the foundation that modern anthropology is based on. While it has been discredited in some areas since it's 1st publication, it has stood the test of time remarkably well. It's still the best book I know of to explain the origins of magical & religious thought to a new student of comparative religions. I would especially suggest it to anyone interested in mythology, supernatural magic or religion, especially any of the modern neo-pagan religions. More than one critic has said that it should be required reading for everyone.
Originally, Frazer sought to explain the strange custom at an Italian sacred grove near the city of Aricia. He wanted to know why it was custom there for a priest of Diana to continually guard a sacred tree with his life. Why was it required that this pagan priest murder anyone who dares to break a branch from the tree & why were so many willing to risk their lives to do so? What power did this broken branch have that made it a symbol of the priests own coming death? Why could the priest only be relieved of his position by being ritually murdered & who in their right mind would strive to take his place?
What Frazer discovered in his search for answers went well beyond what he expected to find. He very quickly found himself surrounded by ancient pagan beliefs & magic rituals that were as old as mankind & just as widespread. He slowly reveals to us, by way of hundreds of examples, that ancient or primitive man was bound up in a never ending web of taboos & restrictions that regulated his existence here on earth. Every move, spoken word or even thought could swing the powers of the divine for or against pagan man. Every action was bound by religious code & any mistake could invoke supernatural retribution. The entire world, it seemed, was a reflection of the mystic other world that pagan man worshipped & everything here was symbolic of something there.
While studying this idea Frazer covers many other perplexing questions about culture & belief that have affected our lives. For example, he explains the origins of many of our holidays. He reveals the original symbolism & meaning of the Christmas tree & mistletoe & tells us what they represent. He explains the pagan origins of Halloween & why it's necessary to placate the spirits who visit your home that night. He solves the question of why Easter isn't a fixed holiday but is instead linked to the Spring Equinox & just what colored eggs have to do with anything. In short he covers just about every known superstition or tradition & relates it back to it's pagan beliefs.
What emerges from this collection of superstition & folktales isn't a chaotic mess of mumbo-jumbo but is instead a fully expounded religious system. Frazer shows again & again that these traditional customs & continuations of ancient rites are the basis for a religious system pre-dating any of our own. We find that in this system man can not stand apart from nature or the world. Nor can he commit any action without it's usual equal but opposite reaction. Eventually, we learn of the powerful but frightening association between a king's fertility & his lands well-being. Lastly, we learn that it's not always "good to be king" & just what sort of horrible price one must pay to be "king for a day".
But more than all of this Frazer is commenting on our own times & our own beliefs. "The Golden Bough" isn't simply about ancient pagan religious ideas for their own sake. The book provides & explains these ideas so we can see how they are still in operation even today. Primitive pagan beliefs & symbolism are with us daily, besides the obvious Christmas tree & Easter eggs. Behind his exhaustive examples & explanations of mystic or secret magic rituals Frazer is actually commenting on our own Judeo-Christian religions. A careful reading between the lines reveals what Frazer was afraid to state bluntly in 1890. That idea is that all religions, even our own, are based on the same basic pagan ideas of "sympathetic" & "contagious" magic. Despite advancements in science & knowledge & even despite spiritual advancements in religion & philosophy, we're still trying to comprehend the divine with the same tools our ancestors used thousands of years ago.
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104 of 108 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For Myth and Anthropology, start here, December 6, 2003
By 
Margaret Magnus (Francestown, NH USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Golden Bough (Paperback)
This is Frazer's own abridgement of a mere 750 pages. The original work is 12 volumes. I've started in my lunch hour writing a few reviews here on Amazon of things which either really struck me deeply, or which I feel are underrated or overrated... or which I happen to have read recently and therefore are fresh in my mind. This one is of the deep-striking, perspective-altering kind.

The book feels to me somehow to be the most central work on mythology, ritual or anthropology that I have read. The reason for this, I think, is that Frazer had a clear vision of some central Fact which he needed to convey. The book is therefore very well organized, doesn't lose its focus amid the masses of data -- and I mean masses of data -- which he brings to bear. And this Fact which he conveys is not really about something external to man -- even something external which man has created; it is about something internal and fundamental to man. Its fundamental point concerns a changeless Fact about the nature of things, more than any myriad of facts -- however amazing -- which have resulted from historical circumstance.

After 100 or so pages, I was thinking, "All right already, I get the point about sympathetic magic and a dead guy in a tree. When's the next topic?" But he just kept going on, and about 300 pages into the book, I felt a sort of chill in the base of my spine... maybe I hadn't gotten it about the dead guy in the tree... and then Frazer just keeps going on and on and on for another 450 pages.

The sheer volume of data, and the effectiveness with which it is organized somehow sunk through. Had I read a yet more abridged volume, I might not have been left with this stunned sense of the unbelievable pervasiveness and power of this one central Myth which runs through all humanity.

There's a lot more one could write about that Myth and the evolution of religions and consequently societies, but I suppose I'll leave that to Frazer. However, for those who have been struck by the Myth or the Dream, I would say that this is the place to start... more than Freud, Jung or Campbell... all of which should be read at some point. I feel like what Frazer presents is fact more than a perspective or theory, which is why I wish I had read it prior to Freud or Jung. I read Joseph Campbell over and over more than Frazer, but his scholarly works are not as easy to penetrate or as unified as are Frazer's.
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62 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The real deal, July 4, 2007
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I'll skip reviewing the content and speak to book's edition. This is the one that was abridged by the author from a multi-volume, earlier edition. In later years, the tome was watered down and censored due to authorial speculation on the nature of Jesus. All the controversial ideas are present in this particular edition, so it is safe to purchase it and not feel cheated.
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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The prehistoric basis of religion, May 28, 2010
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In The Golden Bough, James George Frazer, an expert social anthropologist, explains the ancient origins of the world's myths, rituals, and religions. He shows the similarities between many cultures' strange superstitions, such as animal and human sacrifice, fertility ritual, community cleansing rituals, and others.

He begins with the question of why, at Nemi in prehistoric Greek times, a warrior priest known as the King of the Wood kept his position by fighting for his life, which could be threatened at any time by his successor and murderer. By attempting to explain this ancient tradition, Frazer examines similarities between religious beliefs and shows how the belief in magic and the worship of nature was gradually transformed into the worship of religious kings and gods.

Controversially, many elements of Christianity are included, such as Christ's crucifixion and the fact that many Christian holidays coincide with the dates of prehistoric pagan rituals. For the diligent skeptic of Frazer's ideas, I would advise reading the full, multi-volume edition, which includes the archeological evidence for the theories.

This book is ESSENTIAL for the studies of mythology, religion, or anthropology.
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49 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a century later and still going strong, October 26, 2005
This review is from: The Golden Bough (Paperback)
This book is veritable attic full of folklore and ritual. But, like an attic, it is sometimes dusty and overstuffed. First published in 1922 and hardly out of print since, the author states it began as a study of a curious practice in a grove near Nemi, Italy in classical times of the killing of a local divine wood king/priest by his successor. His studies lead him to research one thing after another, which eventually became a multi-volume treatise on many of the ritual and folk practices of the world, especially in regards to gods of trees, vegetation and grain, and other resurrection myths.

At times it is a difficult read as the author does not have the current sense of treating other cultures as different, rather than "lesser", than ours, but despite repeated references to "savages" he presents practices and customs rather fairly and non-judgementally. It's only fault lies in it's length, perhaps, though this may be attributed to modern short attention spans, though it does seem to provide so many examples of a practice that I often thought five examples would have sufficed where he used twenty or more.

A curious thing, when I read this any shred of belief I might have had left in the Christ mythos was shattered with the detailed descriptions of other gods of resurrection. Undoubtedly without meaning to, Frazer presents such a clear picture of the rites and myths concerning Adonis, Attis, Osiris, among others, that you realize how little of the Christ myth (if anything) is original. This, of course, is not to disparage Christian believers, as my gods come as much out of myth as theirs, and so it is just as valid, but even when one has been a pagan as long as I have, there still remains some shred, I think, of a person that wonders if the original religion of our childhood might not be valid.

In any case, this is a long and interesting read. I originally picked it up after encountering numerous references in other pagan texts over the years to "Frazer's theory of the Divine King", etc., and finally wanted to read the work for myself. I don't regret it, and I don't think you will either, if you approach this book with patience when you have some time to devote to it.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I'm reviewing the Kindle application, May 4, 2009
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This review is from: The Golden Bough (Kindle Edition)
Some of the negative reviews of this book are very amusing. The book was published in 1879! Yes, perhaps in 130 years a few new facts have been uncovered in this area of study. Aristotle is 3000 years old and all of his hypotheses have been discredited. We don't read Aristotle for accuracy. We read him because he is the earliest example of western thought available to us. Frazer is the earliest attempt to document social customs, and as such he is still an important factor. Obviously, if you're reading The Golden Bough as an addendum to the work of Mathers, Crowley, Fortune, Blavatsky, or Gardner, The Golden Bough is the font from which their symbolism was drawn and it is the right place to start.

I particularly enjoyed the reviewer who created the parody Frazer interpretation of the Superbowl. You might more accurately say that the Superbowl is played in January because that is the time when General Motors has the greatest difficulty selling the trucks they rolled out in the previous September. Yes, there are fertility rites & feats of strength in the Superbowl, but the Superbowl is really only about selling products.

That said, for the price ($0.00) this abridgment of The Golden Bough is excellent. On the other hand, it's exhaustive table of contents is not active, so if you're researching with it, it is not so easy to move around. Anyone using this Kindle edition to access specific chapters may want to splurge $5 and get one of the others with a linking TOC and the full author's annotations. If, like me these days, you're just re-reading it for the pleasure of his language and intelligence, the price is right and the pleasure is great!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Indispensable resource, July 2, 2003
By 
D. Pickett (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Golden Bough (Paperback)
Although it is trendy to slam The Golden Bough for its author's assumptions, nothing can take away the magnitude of the scholarship or the impact of the text. It was the first time any work of religious anthropology had made any sort of cultural impact, and its signifigance to artists of the Jazz Age and later decades is tantamount. Picasso's work is filled with images from The Golden Bough, and all of Hemingway's obsession with bulls and bullfights is explained by reading Frazer.
The work itself is an exhaustive reference for thousands of relgious ceremonies around the world, and their interrelated symbolism and meaning. Flying directly in the face of the historical philosophies of parallel, isolated cultural development in vogue in the 19th century, the book shows that human spiritual belief orbits around the same ideas, needs and urges across the planet and through the ages. The symbolism of worship in Iron Age Norway is the same as Middle Ages Mirconesia, with all the interconnectedness this implies.
It is very easy to work around the author's 19th century cultural assumptions and glean the information. Reading The Golden Bough, along with Joseph Campbell, will give a very good baseline for any historical religious study. Frazer's work also dovetails beautifully with Jung's study of archetypal symbols. The combination of the two wil go a long way towards sorting out the symbolism in any 20th Century literature.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Idea, July 12, 2008
Frazer's weighty, scholarly, 12 volume work about the beginnings of magic and religion is one of those works that have left a huge, huge, huge, and also really big footprint in our understandings of anthropology, psychology, history, Jungian studies, Freudian studies, film, visual art, and religion. I like to think of the Victorian/Edwardian Frazer as an Ur Joseph Campbell.

But how many lay readers are going to dig into his 12 volumes?

Thus, a brilliant idea. Editor Robert Temple gives us a severely edited, glossy-papered Frazer with a strong focus on the concept of sympathetic magic. And the pictures. They travel in ways that Frazer's prose wants to travel. The images range from archeological artifacts to 19th century oils, to contemporary photographs, to woodcuts. They are rich, multi-faceted, beautiful. They fill me with awe and make my mind jump about.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Magic, religion, and Science, November 28, 2004
By 
This review is from: The Golden Bough (Paperback)
James G. Frazer wrote an excellent book on the origins of magic and religion called the Golden Bough.

The book describes a possible scientific model of how magic without deities evolves into religion and myth with deities. The basic theory that Frazer tries to prove is that there is something about human nature that preserves magical rituals over eons beyond the beliefs used to justify the magical ritual.

According to him, the beliefs and myths that justify the ritual are completely replaceable. The names of the gods and heroes change often with no change in the ritual. Even the fundamental story lines changing completely over the course of time, leaving the ritual intact.

The origin of ritual is magic, not religion. According to Frazer, magic
is a belief in supernatural without any gods or God. According to Frazer,
magic is badly researched physics. Religion involves more personalities, meaning
deities. There is not sharp boundary between the two, so one shades into the
other. One can believe in magic without believing in any spirits. However,
spirits can be hypothesized to explain the magic. Spirits become deities, which
are more powerful spirits. The deity hypothesis is the origin of religion, according to Frazer.

The rituals themselves are often generated by a fundamental belief in two types of belief that are hardwired into the human brain: sympathetic magic and contagious magic. He finds evidence for this in the myths and religious practices of people all over the world which according to him are not separated by any sharp boundary. The rationals and excuses people give to a ritual turns into myths and religion, not the other way around.

He gives thousands of examples of examples of rituals and the stories that he thinks started as excuses for rituals. An important example of a ritual is human sacrifice in its various forms. He follows the mythology of many cultures and shows how the mythology behind the ritual has changes with time, and how the ritual retains its main form even when the person is replaced by animals or animals are replaced with people or people with spirits or spirits with deities. The rituals remain the same throughout these changes. He gives lots of examples of rituals that start from magic rather than religion. For example, he discusses food taboos (such as kosher laws), the songs children sing (step on a crack, break your mother's back) in terms of sympathetic magic.

The book is more descriptive than explanatory, having hundreds of examples for every ritual. The examples are fascinating. The theory is interesting, and perhaps has a lot of truth in it. The model presented has been shown to be very plausible for specific archeological and historical events, such as the Mystery religion of Eleuisis, in ancient Greece.

He presents a purely secular, perhaps even atheist, model that resembles the theory of evolution for ideas instead of organisms. The theory has similarities to the theory of meme evolution, presented decades later by biologist Richard Dawkins. Although mysticism is discussed, Frazier is not a mystic. Frazer is very eloquent while being scientific, so that it can be read as either a technical monograph or a type of epic myth itself. I highly recommend the book.

Frazer's book has some major weaknesses in it, even though this reviewer still recommends it for its strengths. There was no bibliography, at least in the copy that I read. He comes out with these amazing stories about ritual which made the reviewer eager to explore in greater detail. With no references, there was no way to do explore further. The model he presents may not really apply to all the myths and rituals described. He overemphasizes human sacrifice, making it seem sometimes that it is a universal ritual when it is not. Some his myth associated rituals probably have a solid historical foundation that has nothing to do with ritual. Sometimes, the connection between fact and theory is not compelling and may not convince many readers. Many other reviewers consider Frazer's model as discredited, although this reviewer does not. This reviewer recommends reading it with a spoonful of salt ready.

The most important weakness is lack of organization. Often, Frazer goes into a long list of rituals and other examples without connecting it to the original theory. Some sections like fact dumps in places. However, lots of what he says makes sense after rereading the book more than once.

Some readers may be offended by his cultural bias. Contrary to what other reviewers have said, Frazer shows no bias toward the monotheistic religions. He puts Baldur on the same level as Jesus. In fact, a Creationist can correctly complain that it has an atheist bias. Frazer's theory is solidly unreligious, and unmagical as a theory can get. Frazer emphasizes that religion eventually develops a morality and aesthetic around it, and that eventually the more inhumane aspects of religion go away leaving something very beautiful. Yet, his compliments toward primitive people being very smart sometimes appear condescending. He shows complete disbelief in magic and magical ways of thinking, even while acknowledging that they will never go away.

The psychologist Jung thought that Frazer's theory was too brutal to be accepted as an accurate theory of human nature. However, the brutality described by Frazer is not encouraged by the book. Rituals of great beauty and morality are also described. Some particular types of human sacrifice described are so ugly, they mask all the nice rituals described. More nice, uplifting rituals would have been helpful. They are out there. Frazer ignored them.

The reviewer highly recommends this book. The reviewer also thinks that Frazer's theory has been discredited prematurely. It should be reexamined with new scientific and analytical tools that have been developed since Frazer's time.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Golden Bough is essential reading for any thinking person, August 6, 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Golden Bough (Paperback)
The Golden Bough is a classic in the truest sense of the word. Well-written, compendious in its scholarship, profound in its influence, shocking in its implications, Frazer has penned one of mankind's great unread books. With the works of Darwin and Hubble, Frazer's hefty tome quietly demolishes traditional notions of the world and our place within it. His introductory study of magic in primitive societies, many sadly vanished in the intervening century, is fascinating reading for anyone interested in Wicca, the New Age, or the Occult. Frazer's scope then expands voluminously, to include such topics as totemism, divine kingship, tree worship, and, most significantly, dying and reviving gods. Without ever mentioning Jesus specifically, Frazer places him squarely in the midst of a long procession of resurrected Middle Eastern gods that include Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus, and Attis, demonstrating amply that the Christ myth is a fairly typical example of the primitive religio! us beliefs characteristic of that locale and period. While hardly a quick read (Frazer's dignified style does require some self-acclimatization after the passage of nine undignified decades), The Golden Bough rewards both the careful sequential reading and the occasional random foray. Frazer's many thousands of examples of odd and provocative customs remain fascinating even as scholarly interpretation of their significance evolves. All in all, a book of which no genuine intellectual, and certainly no born-again Christian, can afford to be ignorant.
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The Golden Bough
The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (Paperback - September 19, 2006)
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