The Golden Bough

The Oak Man

Four years ago my brother and sister-in-law gave me the book ‘The Golden Bough’ by James Frazer. I picked it up many times over the past few years, but because of its extremely comprehensive coverage on the customs and beliefs of different cultures, I ended up only skimming through the second half (which in itself comprises 400 pages!).

As a young man I felt a wistful romanticism in regard to ancient cultures—the tribes and ethnic groups whom I felt were much closer to nature than people in today’s society. It is not my intent in this blog to get into a deep comparison between modern society and ancient, tribal cultures. But as I read through the detailed descriptions in this book, my predominant emotion was sadness. Sir James Frazer echoes this sentiment at the end of the book, when he says: ‘We may well ask ourselves whether there is not some more general conclusion, some lesson, if possible, of hope and encouragement, to be drawn from the melancholy record of human error and folly which has engaged our attention in this book.’

Totem Pole

The feeling of sadness resulted from the observation of how people in the past, the world over, developed rigid belief systems and rituals that were handed down across generations, and, because they became so deeply entrenched, were almost impossible to let go of. This rigidity of mind, of being fixed and confined within a specific worldview, is distressing in itself. But more disturbing is how so many of the rituals required bloodshed and death, by way of animal and human sacrifices. The world will not turn, the crops not prosper, without a ritual death and resurrection, very often taken literally.


Of course the modern age is not without its assumed beliefs and values, which very often go unquestioned. And there is no shortage of superstition, credulity, and blind belief, not to mention slaughter and oppression. So in a sense, nothing has changed.

Modern society seems to have swung to an opposite extreme, where anything not immediately visible by way of ‘empirical analysis’ is rejected, discarded, banished. One of the reasons I love about living in Thailand is that ‘the world still teems with those motley beings’—the place is alive with spirits. In comparison, when I visit Europe or North America, I feel a barrenness and sterility—the land has been wiped clean of the mystical and mysterious. As a result people are often left abandoned, alone in their own worlds.

Another feeling I had while reading this book was a sense of marvel, amazement, and reverence, considering how the Buddha was able to both realize and spread the Dhamma 2,500 years ago in a society that was firmly set in long-standing religious beliefs and customs, many of which were based in wrong view. Animal sacrifices abounded, performed to appease the gods, and the brahman class was determined to maintain its superiority over other castes, by citing their divine rights and privileges.

Skeleton Costume

I was reminded of this passage in Ven. Phra Payutto’s chapter on the ‘Three Signs’:

The Buddha’s release from self-identification (despite the probability that he would get ensnared in more refined notions of self), his revelation that the world functions without a creator deity, and his discovery of the nonself and non-creative Unconditioned count as enormous advancements in human wisdom. This realization is the escape from the massive pitfall that has trapped human beings. Despite understanding the principles of impermanence and dukkha, the great philosophers before the Buddha were hampered by the belief in a self or soul. The principle of nonself is extremely difficult to see.

Although ‘The Golden Bough’ is somewhat difficult reading due to its density of information, James Frazer was an exceptional scholar and an excellent writer. Following are some passages which illustrate his passion for his work and provide some stimulating and challenging ideas:

‘For ages the army of spirits, once so near, has been receding farther and farther from us, banished by the magic wand of science from hearth and home, from ruined cell and ivied tower, from haunted glade and lonely mere, from the riven murky cloud that belches forth the lightning, and from those fairer clouds that pillow the silvery moon or fret with flakes of burning red the golden eve. The spirits are gone even from their last stronghold in the sky, whose blue arch no longer passes, except with children, for the screen that hides from mortal eyes the glories of the celestial world. Only in poets’ dreams or impassioned flights of oratory is it given to catch a glimpse of the last flutter of the standards of the retreating host, to hear the beat of their invisible wings, the sound of their mocking laughter, or the swell of angel music dying away in the distance. Far otherwise is it with the savage. To his imagination the world still teems with those motley beings whom a more sober philosophy has discarded. Fairies and goblins, ghosts and demons, still hover about him both waking and sleeping. They dog his footsteps, dazzle his senses, enter into him, harass and deceive and torment him in a thousand freakish and mischievous ways. The mishaps that befall him, the losses he sustains, the pains he has to endure, he commonly sets down, if not to the magic of his enemies, to the spite or anger or caprice of the spirits. Their constant presence wearies him, their sleepless malignity exasperates him; he longs with an unspeakable longing to be rid of them altogether, and from time to time, driven to bay, his patience utterly exhausted, he turns fiercely on his persecutors and makes a desperate effort to chase the whole pack of them from the land, to clear the air of their swarming multitudes, that he may breathe more freely and go on his way unmolested, at least for a time.’

Horned Mask

‘We are at the end of our enquiry, but as often happens in the search after truth, if we have answered one question, we have raised many more; if we have followed one track home, we have had to pass by others that opened off it and led, or seemed to lead, to far other goals than the sacred grove at Nemi. Some of these paths we have followed a little way; others, if fortune should be kind, the writer and the reader may one day pursue together. For the present we have journeyed far enough together, and it is time to part. Yet before we do so, we may well ask ourselves whether there is not some more general conclusion, some lesson, if possible, of hope and encouragement, to be drawn from the melancholy record of human error and folly which has engaged our attention in this book.

‘If then we consider, on the one hand, the essential similarity of man’s chief wants everywhere and at all times, and on the other hand, the wide difference between the means he has adopted to satisfy them in different ages, we shall perhaps be disposed to conclude that the movement of the higher thought, so far as we can trace it, has on the whole been from magic through religion to science. In magic man depends on his own strength to meet the difficulties and dangers that beset him on every side. He believes in a certain established order of nature on which he can surely count, and which he can manipulate for his own ends. When he discovers his mistake, when he recognises sadly that both the order of nature which he had assumed and the control which he had believed himself to exercise over it were purely imaginary, he ceases to rely on his own intelligence and his own unaided efforts, and throws himself humbly on the mercy of certain great invisible beings behind the veil of nature, to whom he now ascribes all those far-reaching powers which he once arrogated to himself. Thus in the acuter minds magic is gradually superseded by religion, which explains the succession of natural phenomena as regulated by the will, the passion, or the caprice of spiritual beings like man in kind, though vastly superior to him in power.

‘But as time goes on this explanation in its turn proves to be unsatisfactory. For it assumes that the succession of natural events is not determined by immutable laws, but is to some extent variable and irregular, and this assumption is not borne out by closer observation. On the contrary, the more we scrutinise that succession the more we are struck by the rigid uniformity, the punctual precision with which, wherever we can follow them, the operations of nature are carried on. Every great advance in knowledge has extended the sphere of order and correspondingly restricted the sphere of apparent disorder in the world, till now we are ready to anticipate that even in regions where chance and confusion appear still to reign, a fuller knowledge would everywhere reduce the seeming chaos to cosmos. Thus the keener minds, still pressing forward to a deeper solution of the mysteries of the universe, come to reject the religious theory of nature as inadequate, and to revert in a measure to the older standpoint of magic by postulating explicitly, what in magic had only been implicitly assumed, to wit, an inflexible regularity in the order of natural events, which, if carefully observed, enables us to foresee their course with certainty and to act accordingly. In short, religion, regarded as an explanation of nature, is displaced by science.’


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