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I have a condensed copy of James Frazer's The Golden Bough lying on the floor of my room (the 1922 edition), and I'm trying to decide if I should read it.

Is reading this 800+ page "condensed" book worth my time? Is it relevant in today's discussions? And finally, it would be great if I could get a paragraph summery of what the book accomplishes/contributes to the study of religion/myth.

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    It really depends on what you mean. Current scholarly understanding of mythology has leaped so far beyond Frazer, that to use him in any paper beyond the rudimentary undergraduate paper would be considered poor scholarship. Many, if not most, of his interpretations were actually outdated upon publishing. I would think that means it's not worth your time, but again, it's relevant in a cultural way. Do you want me to turn this into a full-fledged answer, or is that acceptable? – C. M. Weimer Jul 7 '15 at 6:25
  • @C.M.Weimer if you turn it into an answer, then I can accept it and give you credit/reputation – user62 Jul 7 '15 at 22:22
  • OK, will get to that soon! – C. M. Weimer Jul 10 '15 at 2:27
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It should be noted that nearly all scholars from the nineteenth century are outdated in some major way. In fact, even scholarship from as late as the 70s need serious reworking due to new data as well as new understandings. Thus the march of progress.

Despite this, there is some good in Frazer. Beyond being entertainment and a wealth of literary inspiration, the basic school in which it is centered, the Cambridge ritualist school, still produces a viable interpretation of ancient myth. Problem is, history, archaeology, and comparative methods have moved far beyond what Frazer was even capable of offering. Barbara Kowalzig's Singing for the Gods is a great new (well, 2007) book showing how to do it right these days.

But as for Frazer's book in particular, he is perhaps most outdated by his excessive speculation and assumptions. It is one thing to formulate a hypothesis about an origin of a particular myth or folkloric tale, quite another to ignore many differences between cobbled 'parallels' and make what are quite fanciful reconstructions of "savage humanity" from them, generalizing without controlling for locally-produced or contextually-driven origins. It's not sound scholarship to assume your version first and then assume divergent versions diverge from your assumed version. Frazer is guilty of this to the extreme.

On top of that, he adds details where necessary to fit his theory. Even the central thesis, as many over the years have noticed, is quite an imaginative interpretation of a very innocent events. The question he originally attempted was good enough, essentially "What's up with the priesthood of Diana of Nemi?" What he ended up with—priest-kings, scapegoats, and complex, magical rituals—is missing from the scene, which, of course, must be why he generally dropped it.

All this and we're ignoring the major shift in anthropology which realized long ago that the "progress from savagery to civilization" is a false progress (the "stages" are a great example of bad generalization based on one flawed sample), that primordial mythology of "savage beings" is imaginary, a tall tale of the Victorian world.

As for entertainment, it undoubtedly is, and its influence is legendary, but no, do not read it for an understanding the complex history of quite nearly anything he says. He has flashes of insight, but you'd be better off looking elsewhere.

If you want to look at some criticism of Frazer, I'd recommend these articles:

Beard, M. 1978. "Judgments on James Frazer." Daedalus 107.4: 151–164. -- 1992. "Frazer, Leach, and Virgil Comparative Studies in Society and History 34.2: 203–224.

Leach, E. 1961. "Golden Bough or Gilded Twig?" Daedalus 90: 371–399. -- 1965. "On the 'Founding Fathers.' " Encounter 25: 24–36. -- 1985. "Reflections on a Visit to Nemi" Anthropology Today 2–3.

Smith, J. Z. 1973. "When the Bough Breaks." History of Religions 12.4: 342–371 (also found in his book, Map Is Not Territory).

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I can answer partly in theory and partly based on my own experience.

Generally speaking, Frazer's work, including this book, is regarded as outdated both in terms of theory (much of which has not been borne out) as well as in many of the facts that it reports. (Even at the time, much of the information came from questionnaires that he sent out (e.g., to missionaries), rather than from proper anthropological reports, and so was of questionable reliability.) As a result, scholars today generally don't rely on him in making conclusions. Nevertheless, his work is still a valuable, stimulating resource, especially when one is formulating one's own theories.

It is also important to understand Frazer because he influenced so many others who write about myth (e.g., Jane Harrison, Robert Graves), so it is important to be able to detect Frazer's influence when reading their writings.

Before reading even some of Frazer, however, it is important to learn about his background and theories, and their legacy, in order to be able to interpret what he is saying. Unfortunately, in the abridged edition that you are talking about (assuming it is the same Touchstone 1996 edition that I have) there is no introduction by another scholar that could serve this purpose. So the best resource for this purpose is J.G. Frazer: His Life and Work by Robert Ackerman; if you can afford it, Ackerman's other book, The Myth and Ritual School: J.G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists is also good in this regard.

As far as whether it is worth reading the whole abridged version (much less the whole 3rd unabridged edition of 12 volumes + vol 13 supplement), this of course would be best if you have the time to do it. In my own case, I did not read it from cover to cover, but consult it (including the full unabridged version) regularly as needed, and over the years I have read probably two-thirds of it by sections, not in order. I don't think I've suffered much from not reading it in order cover-to-cover, but finishing the rest is certainly on my bucket list.

  • Great answer. The Golden Bough could almost could be said to comprise a modern "mythology about mythology". Frazer's influence also extends into the literary sphere, so one needs to have some familiarity when approaching work such as "The Wasteland". – DukeZhou Dec 3 '16 at 20:52

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