The Golden Bough - James George Frazer - Preface To Podcast
The title of James George Frazer’s fascinating, daring, and voluminous book, The Golden Bough, was inspired by and borrowed from the work of a man whose genius—albeit in a different domain—nearly eclipsed his own. Frazer, born in Scotland to a respectable family in the year 1854, had in his youth the splendid opportunity to gaze upon the masterful works of his esteemed countryman, Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Turner, having just died in 1851, continued in the afterlife to receive the type of national worship and universal acclaim of which, within and beyond the borders of Great Britain, he was so richly deserving. He was, and yet remains, the greatest artist to whom that fertile, little island floating in the North Sea has given birth, and trembles not when brought before the judgment of the world’s great artists. In every way, he holds his own. Indeed, an entire podcast could be dedicated to him. Among his various works, though, one of his best-loved was unveiled in 1834. It bore the title, The Golden Bough.
An unabashed classicist, JMW Turner took as his subject a delightful passage found in Virgil’s Aeneid. From an excerpt nestled in the great Latin poet’s sixth book, he imagined the refugee hero Aeneas’ encounter with the Sibyl of Cumae. Prior to meeting this Apollonian prophetess, by whom, depending on the day, a frightful omen might be uttered, or a propitious fortune affirmed, Aeneas was forced to flee the destruction of his native land. For ten years, Troy, the renowned and fortified city of his birth, had been enmeshed in a state of near constant war—a decade besieged by a European power upon which, give or take a few, the majority of Olympus’ capricious gods had deemed it fitting to smile.
Aeneas, en route to Italy, and before his detention on the African shore by the mad Punic queen, was bereaved of his father. Anchises, rescued from Troy’s crumbling walls on his son’s noble back, was now dead. Hopeful to visit him in the dark underworld to which he’d since been conveyed, Aeneas sought the council of the Cumaean Sibyl. There, on the banks of Lake Avernus, into which one plunges as a means of passage to the nether realm below, Aeneas asked of her by what means he might ensure the safety of his infernal conduct. Conscious of the dangers by which, more often than not, so perilous a journey is attended, she advised him to equip himself with a single divine token: a golden bough. This gilded piece of bark would be his sole protection.
John Dryden, the English poet of the seventeenth-century by whom Virgil’s crowning work was most eloquently translated, described the Sibyl’s response:
“In the neighb’ring grove There stands a tree; the queen of Stygian Jove Claims it her own; thick woods and gloomy night Conceal the happy plant from human sight. One bough it bears; but wondrous to behold! The ductile rind and leaves of radiant gold: This from the vulgar branches must be torn, And to fair Persephone the present borne, Ere leave be giv’n to tempt the nether skies.”
And, so, not without proper Sibylline sanction, Aeneas entered the neighboring grove. He stepped forth into that verdant vale at whose center, like the Tree of Knowledge swaying at Eden’s guiltless heart, the golden bough stood temptingly outstretched. He detached it from the host tree out of which it grew, marveled at its radiance, stood in awe of its dazzling weight, and carried it with him toward the looming gates of Hell.
The image captivated not only Turner, but Frazer. The latter spent the early part of The Golden Bough, a work that came to be a thirteen-volume set, on the topic. Ultimately, with the scholarly assistance and discriminating good taste of his wife, Frazer was able to reduce his life’s work to a single, hefty volume—much more agreeable (not to mention accessible) to the lay readership for whom it was originally intended.
Year after year, it seemed—as one edition succeeded another—Frazer’s work grew unchecked. It had a startling tendency to multiply itself, as if shoots of the bamboo plant, or branches of the banyan tree. The first edition of The Golden Bough, published in 1890, had but two volumes. The second, published a decade hence, added another. The third, a lustrum later, quadrupled its count. By 1936, a final volume had been added, brining the lengthy tally to an unwieldy thirteen.
Unfortunately, between the third and fourth editions, Frazer had gone blind. It’s clear, though, that this unenviable deficit served not as a check on, but rather as an impulsion toward further creative output. Though rendered sightless, his energy suffered little. Like John Milton before him, he recruited from his circle of intimates a trustworthy amanuensis by whom his countless ideas could be put to paper. And, thus, he continued to write rather with his tongue than his hand, unhampered by the visual loss brought upon him by climate, occupation, health, and advancing age.
As a Scot, the spirit of David Hume lived in Frazer. One isn’t surprised, then, to learn that a healthy skepticism infuses his approach toward religion. Frazer was most interested in the roots of folklore, the peculiarities of myth, and the subtleties of comparative religion. By his examination of these antique creeds, he wanted to discover among the world’s various and seemingly irreconcilable faiths points of convergence and similarity. He was, for that reason, very little convinced by claims of uniqueness, as they pertained to revelation and divinity. He was unswayed by the boasts of competing faiths, each of which thinks itself radically different from its opponent. He sought, rather, to find those pious notions that are commonplace among all, and the somewhat banal realities by which miracles can be explained.
Life, death, resurrection, rebirth—do these not reflect cosmological events? Does not the sun die each night, only to spill across the horizon the morning after? The waxing and waning phases of the moon point to a similar cycle. Perhaps our precious gods merely imitate the stars, while our questions about religion look for explanations in the clouds.
The following is a reading from Frazer’s work, The Golden Bough. The passage here selected deals with the nativity of Jesus, and the startling resemblance that holy event shares with a phenomenon of far less religious weight, the Winter Solstice, or—if it’s to be expressed poetically—the nativity of the sun. I do hope you’ll enjoy.
From the Text:
“Thus it appears that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness”. The Nativity of Christ, then, is observed not at some divinely-sanctioned date, an hour of which the singing angels far away in heaven alone foreknew, but at a time of the year in strict conformity with the rather mundane renewal of the sun. The Winter Solstice was simply appropriated by the early Christian doctors for their convenience and use.