The Golden Bough

By James George Frazer

The Golden Bough is “[a] world classic” with a lot of detail on spiritual traditions and ritual in early history. It “describes our ancestors’ primitive methods of worship, sex practices, strange rituals and festivals…a tangle of magic, taboo, and superstition.”

As Frazer wrote the original text, it expanded to two volumes, then ballooned to twelve (!) — before eventually being abridged to one more manageable one. Still, at 69 chapters and 800+ pages, even this official one-volume abridged edition is remarkable in scope.

Topics and chapters include: The Magical Control of the Weather, The Worship of Trees, The Sacred Marriage, Tabooed Acts, Temporary Kings, Isis and Osiris, Dionysus, Eating the God, Public Scapegoats, The Fire Festivals of Europe, The External Soul in Folk-Tales — and many more.

On the one hand, there’s a ton of cool material about ritual, magic, and culture; on the other the book’s aim of explaining the “evolution of man from savagery to civilization” seems rather problematic. But overall it seems like the fruits of deep inquiry and genuine attempts to address big thorny questions — a work of solid scholarship; undoubtedly influential.

It actually seems a bit different than I expected, focusing more on ritual and culture than “religion” as we know it today. But I’m glad to see this focus on areas of culture and spiritual practice I’m less familiar with — the book seems all the more fascinating for it.

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