This is a real book of irony. It’s considered essential reading for anyone interested in the anthropological perspective of magic, religion and folklore, which extends to Pagans. It’s been used over and over as a reference by those practising witchcraft or reconstructing earth-based religions (as well as the writers behind the original “Wicker Man” movie). And yet, Frazer makes it pretty clear from the first chapter that the whole purpose of the text is to treat magic (and by extension, religion) as a kind of “false science,” a primitive substitute for the real thing (what is not so explicit, but fairly clear to the modern reader, is that the ultimate message of the book is to demonstrate that Christianity is just as “false” as any other religious or magical system).
And yet, it is still a tremendously compelling work for those for whom magic and religion (especially paganism) are real and present in our daily lives. Strangely enough, this book actually helped to re-affirm my beliefs and the importance I place on ritual, rather than shatter them.
One reason for this is Frazer’s passion for his subject. He may have believed that superstition is nonsense, yet he clearly had a deep appreciation for the mythology, folklore and religious rites of the many, many cultures included in his exhaustive study. His enthusiasm is contagious; while the book is rather stodgy in terms of how many little anecdotes it includes to demonstrate a point, I couldn’t help but find them fascinating.
Another reason is that this work demonstrates something that resounds with many Pagans – that all religions have the same basic principals at heart, making the magickal and religious experience universal to all people of all cultures. Motifs such as sympathetic magic, the death and rebirth of the king/god, vegetation spirits, and the relationship between the sacred and taboo are all explored in great depth spanning cultures from all over the globe and from every time period, from classical mythology to Pacific tribes to European village customs. The links that Frazer forges between these cultures are intriguing and convincing.
As an academic work, many of the ideas in The Golden Bough have since been discredited, and the modern reader cannot help but question some of the frankly unbelievable accounts of certain tribal practices (I suspect 19th century academics weren’t subject to as much scrutiny as to their sources or as much peer review as they are today). Nevertheless, if approached with both an open mind, and a grain of salt, The Golden Bough is not only an inspiring read – it is enjoyable and highly thought-provoking. In my opinion, definitely a must-read for any Pagan, even if it was never intended to be read as reference material for reconstructing pagan practices.