Theory of Magic

Anthropology of Magic II: Frazer and the Golden Bough

Sir James George Frazer by Henry Macbeth-Raeburn [Public domain].

In our previous blog post of this series, we had a look at the influence of evolutionary theory on anthropology. In this blogpost, we will continue with this topic, but this time from the perspective of James George Frazer (1854-1941), author of the famous The Golden Bough (1890-1915), a gigantic twelve volume corpus of “primitive” beliefs and traditions.

Although Frazer was a disciple of Tylor, he had a very different approach to the material he studied. While Tylor derived his theories, at least partially, from his own fieldwork, Frazer did not feel it was necessary to actually conduct fieldwork – a story is told of how Frazer, as a child, fled from one of the “Wild Men of Borneo” at a fair. Frazer began his academic career in Classics at Cambridge, which is reflected in his use and analysis of a number of Greek and Roman myths and rituals in his books, initiating the tradition of modern interpretations of Greek and Roman traditions. Even many years later, some anthropologists and scholars would use these religious traditions to back their own theories (Sigmund Freud was one of such scholars, later examples include Edmund Leach and James Redfield). Frazer’s work had a major impact on later work – Edward Evans-Pritchard, Edmund Leach, and Ludwig Wittgenstein read Frazer’s work and were influenced by it. The comparative approach to religious traditions is one of his biggest impacts on their interpretations.

The “Wild men of Borneo” Waino and Plutanor. Disability History Museum (October 25, 2007). From the collections at Syracuse University.

Besides the influence of Tylor, Frazer was inspired by his encounter with the biblical scholar William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), author of The Religion of the Semites (1889). In this book, Smith laid the ground for a comparative study of religion in his attempt to reconstruct the religion of early Near Eastern peoples, through comparing the evidence from ancient Mesopotamia, Israel and Arabia with other totemic traditions at Arabia. Frazer continued in these attempts to reconstruct missing pieces in traditions through a comparative study.

At the beginning of The Golden Bough, Frazer explains his motive for writing the book – he wants to find an explanation for the rule that regulated succession of the priesthood in the temple of Diana Nemorensis in Aricia, southeast of Rome. At first he thought it would be an easy task, but it resulted in a work of many volumes. What is the story that occupied him for so many years? Frazer tells the story beautifully: “In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary.” Seizing the “golden bough”, a yellow branch of the tree in the sacred precinct of Diana, ensured that the old king-priest, associated with the divine first priest, Virbius, is replaced by a new one. It is only at the end of the book, when Frazer gives the answer; we shall follow his example and give it at the end of this article as well.

What then does Frazer discuss in the rest of his book? Essentially, using comparative work, he presents his three stage theory of the evolution of religious beliefs, reminiscent of Tylor’s ideas on the obsolescence of religion, but systematized into fixed evolutionary stages. First comes the stage of magic, which will is later replaced by religion, and finally comes the age of science. Magic will be our main concern here.

“In short, magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.” Again, in discussing magic, Frazer bases his observations on Tylor’s notion of “association of ideas” and “connections” between things and beings that do not really exist – Frazer calls this “sympathetic magic” (as Tylor did before him). Frazer, however, does not stop there and analyzes and systematizes the concept of magic further. He observes that the connections made according to the “Law of Similarity” (reflected in imitative magic) and “Law of Contact or Contagion” (reflected in contagious magic). In practice, these laws often work together.

A witch placing a scorpion into a pot in order to make a potion. Etching by F. Landerer after M. Schmidt., though Wikimedia Commons.

The magician is only implicitly aware of the logic of his actions – he does not have an explicit theory explaining his behavior: “for him, magic is always an art, and never a science”. In imitative (or homeopathic, as he also calls it) magic, a connection is made on the basis of similarity. An example of this is when a person creates an effigy of his enemy and subsequently destroys it – according to this “implicit” logic, the result should be the harming of the enemy in real life.

In contagious magic, on the other hand, a connection is made through direct contact, such as the use of a person’s hairs in rituals. An example can be the belief of the Huzuls (an ethnic group of western Ukraine and Romania), that if a mouse makes a nest using a man’s hair, the man will suffer from headache – the hair retains a connection to the man even though they are no longer on his head. Frazer gives many concrete examples of combination of imitative and contagious magic combined, one of which is a Malay curse: “Take parings of nails, hair, eyebrows, spittle, and so forth of your intended victim, enough to represent every part of his person, and then make them up into his likeness with wax from a deserted bees’ comb. Scorch the figure slowly by hold it over a lamp every night for seven nights, and say: ‘It is not wax that I am scorching, it is the liver, heart, and spleen of So-and-so that I scorch.’ After the seventh time burn the figure, and your victim will die.” Frazer states that this ritual combines the principles of both homeopathy and contagious magic “since the image which is made in the likeness of an enemy [homeopathic] contains things which once were in contact with him, namely, his nails, hair, and spittle [contagious].”

Magic, according to Frazer, is constant and universal, just like science, independent on the will of the gods. Religion, in contrast to magic, depends on the will of gods, which have to be appealed to through prayer: spells command the divine powers as if they were natural forces, whereas prayers respectfully ask the divine powers for help. The personal contact between man and gods elevates religion above the simplicity of magic. The priest-king, conducting this communication, is the main figure of this stage, in contrast to the magician-king of the earliest stage. Ultimately, though, there will be no need for such beliefs, as the place of magic and religion will be taken by rational science and conduct. Frazer repeats Tylor’s idea that magic and religion are a fallacious earlier stage of science, and even claims that magic is identical to science in its constancy and uniformity.

We have shown how influential Frazer’s theories were. However, what should be aware of in using his theories? Much of the criticism of Tylor that was presented in the last post applies to Frazer as well; the evolutionary concept is problematic, because it does not explain why people are still religious and still used magic in the later religious stage and even in the scientific stage. Furthermore, Frazer completely ignores social aspects of the beliefs and rituals and, perhaps the biggest criticism, are his “wild” comparisons of incompatible ethnographic materials, that are often not properly cited.

Virbius brought back to life by Diana and Asclepius, by Vieira Lusitano [Public domain] – through Wikimedia commons.

Now comes the time to explain the golden bough – how does Frazer explain the bloody story of Virbius? Frazer compares the god Virbius with the Norse god Balder and claims both are, essentially, tree spirits. Balder was an immortal god. He could only be killed by an arrow made of mistletoe – and, indeed, this is how he died. The spirit of Viribus and of Balder reside in a tree branch – in Virbius’s case in the golden bough and in the case of Balder in the mistletoe. The power of Virbius and Balder was taken away when their own souls, which resided in the branches, were turned against their bodies. In conclusion, Frazer claims that this myth had a real-life origin, in the ritual killing of a king to magically transfer and increase the power of the next one. Frazer concludes his Golden Bough with these fitting words: “Le roi est mort, vive le roi!” (“The king is dead, long live the king!”)

References and further reading

Douglas, Mary. “Judgments on James Frazer.” Daedalus 107.4 (1978): 151–164. URL

Evans-Pritchard, Edward. A History of Anthropological Thought. London: Faber and Faber, 1948, esp. pp. 132–152.

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925. URL

Leach, Edmund R. “Frazer and Malinowski: On the Founding Fathers.” Encounter 25.5 (1965): 24–36. URL

Lienhardt, Godfrey. “Frazer’s anthropology: Science and Sensibility.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 24.1 (1993): 1–12. URL

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York – Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Smith, William R. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927. URL

Segal, Robert A. “In Defense of the Comparative Method.” Numen 48.3 (2001): 339–373. URL

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough. Retford, Notts.: Brynmill Press, 1979.

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