To walk alongside

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Victor Kumar. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.016


To walk alongside

Myth, magic, and mind in The Golden Bough

Victor KUMAR, Johns Hopkins University

Can The Golden Bough be taken seriously in this day and age? Or, is it time to let go of this Tylorian survival that today stands largely uncited except as an example or error? In this article, I return to The Golden Bough with the idea that if it is in error, then the nature of this error also deserves attention. Using Lévi-Strauss’ approach to the analysis of myth, I investigate the tension between Frazer’s classical exegesis of the priesthood at Nemi and the scientific aspirations of his comparative study. These very different projects are each associated with narrative forms and are caught between enforcing the distinction between the truth of science and the error of magic and upholding their continuity (as common products of the human mind). Looking at Frazer and Lévi-Strauss, I seek to recover some fragment of the spirit of their inquiry and uncover the mind as their fundament. With their notion of mind in sight, I find inspiration for a new model of ethnography, one based not on understanding the mind of another but on attending to worlds that open when walking alongside them.

Keywords: The Golden Bough, mind, myth, science, ethnographic reading

Insensibly I was led on, step by step, into surveying, as from some specular height, some Pisgah of the mind, a great part of the human race; I was beguiled, as by some subtle enchanter, into inditing what I cannot but regard as a dark, a tragic chronicle of human error and folly, of fruitless endeavour, wasted time, and blighted hopes. (Frazer 1936: vi)

The time seems long since past for anthropology to take The Golden Bough (GB) seriously. Frazer’s magnum opus stands as a lonely memorial, a cautionary tale of a grand project blighted by its poor anthropological theory and methodology. All [234]passion for the work seems spent in the field of study it almost literally put on the English academic map more than a century ago.

The conceit of this article is that Frazer might be worth another look. The content and style of the text have been its own worst enemy, with foreboding snarls of imperial arrogance, logical incoherence, and almost unbearable pedantry. Yet, it is the very nature of these “errors” that intrigues me. Frazer has long been faulted for regarding magic as failed science, a critique based on his own failure to uphold scientific principles. However, just as magic can be seen as more than false science, the intellectual operations at play in the GB are not purely those of reason and objectivity. The text draws on myth and magic as well, most notably in its focus on the priesthood at Nemi. Determined to read ethnographically, I refuse to dismiss Frazer’s mode of thought as error until first taking the time to try to follow his text. An inability to appreciate Frazer should be eased neither by his status as one “of our own” nor by the textual character of his work. Doesn’t he deserve the same patience that might be extended toward interlocutors encountered in fieldwork? Rather than put myself in his shoes, I seek to walk alongside him and catch a glimpse of the worlds that open before him. To take up this task, I turn to the work of Lévi-Strauss and his structural analysis of myth. Lévi-Strauss’s approach encourages forms of analysis that take up the very tools of the object studied. To investigate a myth is also to inherit it critically, to transform it into a new circumstance. Ultimately, my observations lead back to my own relationship with the texts, their modes of thought, and my own self-formation within anthropology. Like so many human institutions, anthropology is an undertaking I find myself caught up in—an ongoing project whose means and scope I cannot fully understand.

The nature of error

When the first edition of the GB was published in 1890, few might have predicted that its nearly one thousand pages were but a prelude to a venture that would span nearly five decades. By 1915, the initial two volumes of the first edition had expanded to twelve, with each volume consisting of hundreds of pages. Even more impressive than the volume of Frazer’s writing is the mountain of source material beneath it, consulted in several languages. The bibliography of the third edition fills almost a hundred and fifty pages.

For more than fifty years, twelve or fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, Frazer read with steel pen in hand, copying out passages of anthropological interest into notebooks, or worked at compiling the notebooks into books. Only a relatively small amount of lecturing, walking and travel interrupted this lifetime of industry, in which Frazer literally read and wrote himself blind. (Hyman 1962: 190)

Alongside his expansive source material, perhaps an equally sizable bibliography could be made up of writing inspired by Frazer’s text. Such works would span the fields of literature, anthropology, the classics, philosophy, and no small amount of [235]poetry and popular prose.1 Needless to say that in terms of either effort or effect, the GB was no small task.

While the degree of Frazer’s effort is easy to show, it says little of his aims. What is the work of this text into which Frazer put so much of his life? Why did it become such a notable source of inspiration and scorn? Surprisingly, the question of how to read the GB (of what kind of work it is) tends to be passed over. Most prefer to draw attention to methodological and theoretical error in the text. Gluckman, for example, associates Frazer with an if-I-were-a-horse2 brand of reasoning, that is, ungrounded “a priori speculation” (1965: 4).3 Among Frazer’s many anthropological critics, Leach (1961, 1985) stands out for his persistence and aggression on matters of theory, methodology, and historical fact. “There was very little basis for Frazer’s great reputation . . . he was not an accurate scholar or an original thinker” (1961: 377). In the context of this article, it is the nature of these attacks that requires attention. Take, for instance, Leach’s reproach of analogic thinking in Frazer: “[Frazer’s notion of] ‘evidence’ has no relevance whatsoever . . . the ‘analogies’ from other parts of the world have no bearing on the matter. Politicians can argue in this fashion, but not professional scholars” (ibid.: 380). This qualifier, “professional,” carries the weight of a disciplinary boundary and with it endeavors to set anthropological modes of reasoning apart from more vulgar attempts at explaining human social life. To Leach, anthropology should be more than idle (or even informed) speculation. The discipline should instead be founded on scientific reasoning and objective methods. Leach must have felt compelled to confront the GB not because it was significantly worse than other anthropological forebears, but because of its extraordinary popularity. The public love for Frazer’s text was a not-so-private embarrassment for the professional social scientist who couldn’t but read Frazer, not for the anthropology he does, but for one they wished he had done.

Leach was far from the first to correct Frazer’s notion of science. Soon after the GB was published, Frazer’s contemporary Lang began a monograph-long critique saying, “We all know what we mean by science; science is ‘organised common sense.’ Her aim is the acquisition of reasoned and orderly knowledge” (1901: 1). By the 1950s and 1960s, such gentle attempts at rectification took on the harsher tone seen in Leach. By the 1980s and 1990s, fresh derision was no longer necessary.[236]

Wittgenstein’s famously derogatory remarks also revolved around the proper workings of science. He hands Frazer the moniker of “stupid scientist [dummen Wissenschaftler]” (1993: 155).

What a narrow spiritual life on Frazer’s part! As a result: how impossible it was for him to conceive of a life different from that of the England of his time! Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically a present-day English parson with the same stupidity and dullness [Dummheit und Flauheit]. (1993: 125)

For Wittgenstein, Frazer’s theorization only makes savage practices “plausible to people who think as he does” (ibid.: 119), and making an idea plausible to a person is a far cry from providing a reasonable explanation. However, even as Wittgenstein might agree with Leach’s depiction of the GB as poor science, the two men are led to otherwise very different conclusions. Wittgenstein uses Frazer to mark the limits of explanation itself: specifically, its ability to reach the heart of any practice. The scientific compulsion to theorize practices (particularly ritual practices) is itself a way of misunderstanding them.4

Such critiques tell us little about what Frazer himself depicted as “science” and how he saw his own project as scientific. Here, I feel, I must quote Frazer at length:

The flaw—and it is a fatal one—of the system [of magic] lies not in its reasoning, but in its premises; in its conception of the nature of life, not in any irrelevancy of the conclusions which it draws from that conception. But to stigmatise these premises as ridiculous because we can easily detect their falseness, would be ungrateful as well as unphilosophical. We stand upon the foundation reared by the generations that have gone before, and we can but dimly realise the painful and prolonged efforts which it has cost humanity to struggle up to the point, no very exalted one after all, which we have reached. Our gratitude is due to the nameless and forgotten toilers, whose patient thought and active exertions have largely made us what we are. The amount of new knowledge which one age, certainly which one man, can add to the common store is small, and it argues stupidity or dishonesty, besides ingratitude, to ignore the heap while vaunting the few grains which it may have been our privilege to add to it. . . . Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the only recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways. Yet of the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original [237]and intuitive. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession of their race since the beginning of the world. But reflection and inquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we [238]thought most our own, and that their errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we may one day stand in need of ourselves: cum excusatione itaque veteres audiendi sunt. (GB 1–1: 211, 2–1: 449, 3–3: 421)5

Where Leach requires methodological distinction between the layman and the professional, Frazer sees an intellectual fellowship between science and magic. Both authors faced the same question: With different explanations for human behavior found in different times, places, and from different peoples, how can it be said that anthropology provides a more correct or even unique take on social life? Leach holds that anthropology can be distinguished by type (an identifiable difference in method and logic). Frazer was concerned more with differences of degree (with “successive testing of hypotheses”). The challenge is compounded by anthropology’s tendency to make use of “native” explanations as material for inquiry.

These differences could be seen to serve Britain’s colonial project by keeping enlightened civilization apart from ignorant savagery. The colonial backdrop has always been more fitting for an anthropologist like Tylor, who sees innate superiority where Frazer depicts only circumstance.6 But Frazer is much less interested in the tensions of empire than in the then widening rift between scholarship based on the classics (study of Greek and Roman works) and the modern fixation on scientific progress. Anthropology has long contained an impetus to theoretically distinguish itself not only from its primitive/colonial/postcolonial/marginal subjects but also from “the tradition of allegorical exegesis which had flourished [in European scholarship] since late antiquity” (Ossa-Richarson 2008: 340) but had fallen out of favor by Frazer’s time. La Barre emphasizes this point by calling Frazer the “last of the scholastics,” (1954: 353) a holdover of a bygone era of distinctly European thought. The GB’s ill discipline reached back toward England’s Greek and Latin past as much or more than it did toward the British colonialism of its time. Frazer signals his allegiance immediately, launching his intellectual expedition with the composite image of a savage practice apposite to the heart of civilized Rome.

Far from presenting a clear divide from science and superstition, Frazer goes out of his way to muddy the waters. The right combination of time and experience is the only alchemy by which the truth can be separated from the dross. In turn, we inherit the wealth of this experiential archive in what otherwise appear as “natural intuitions” about the world.7 For this reason, we must first extend gratitude to the “nameless and forgotten toilers” behind myth and magic—to take up and hone their imperfect tools. Perhaps this reclusive scholar, whose world revolved around the books in his Cambridge study, is not immune from the charge of going native. His affinity with primitive modes of inquiry may actually be part of the problem that anthropology traditionally has had with Frazer. Even Durkheim, who had a deep respect for the analytic purchase of native concepts, felt compelled to distinguish sociological from other methods.

Conversely, there is an argument to be made that Frazer’s gratitude is worth little because he has substituted his own flattened image for the genuine article—a “primitive” in place of the true primitive. In part, the ethnographic method elevated by Malinowski is meant to correct Frazer’s reliance on imagination and the admonition that his work is overliterary—that Frazer was all too willing to take liberties with his source material for the sake of his prose. Yet the problem of where the imagination ends and the real begins is absolutely at the heart of the GB and should not be shrugged off too quickly. Here, Wittgenstein’s remarks can be seen as taking up this very struggle and offering new directions. He finds Frazer to be very much the savage “who stabs the picture of his enemy apparently in order to kill him [and yet] really builds his hut out of wood and carves his arrow skillfully and not in effigy” (1993: 125). To say that one is real and one is imaginary presumes to know how to properly differentiate between them. Any agreement on how the true should be culled from the false is contingent on shared forms of life.8

This position can be related to Wittgenstein’s refusal to differentiate between the correct and incorrect means by which practices can be explained and why he expresses discontent with the ability of explanation to capture a practice at all.

Frazer’s account of the magical and religious views of mankind is unsatisfactory: it makes these views look like errors.

Was Augustine in error, then, when he called upon God on every page of the Confessions?

But—one might say—if he was not in error, surely the Buddhist holy man was—or anyone else—whose religion gives expression to completely different views. But none of them was in error, except when he set forth a theory.

The very idea of wanting to explain a practice—for example, the killing of the priest king—seems wrong to me. All that Frazer does is to [239]make them plausible to people who think as he does. It is very remarkable that in the final analysis all these practices are presented as, so to speak, pieces of stupidity.

But it will never be plausible to say that mankind does all that out of sheer stupidity. (Wittgenstein 1993: 119)

The GB succeeds in what might be called target-oriented translation. Frazer’s source material must be transformed in order to find a place for it in the Victorian mythological worldview. Again, the question is not whether Frazer’s explanation is correct but whether it is plausible to the reader. Wittgenstein cannot believe that the intense effort behind magical and religious practices could be motivated by sheer stupidity. What Frazer sees as the error of magic becomes for Wittgenstein only evidence of Frazer’s tragic inability to imagine other forms of life.9 He can only inherit this vast archive of human experience in terms of error.

But is it not also implausible that the extraordinary effort put into the GB and its vast influence beyond could come out of nothing but stupidity? Could we not extend such gratitude toward Frazer as he did toward magic? In fact, Frazer’s notion of gratitude provides means by which to enter the workings not only of primitive magic but of his own text as well. In fact, I can imagine using later corrections of Frazer to productively return to the text. Beattie, in chastising Frazer for his “mistaken view of magic as a kind of erroneous science,” suggests that magic “cannot be understood at all adequately if its expressive aspect is neglected” (1964: 71). Should the GB not be read in this way too, as expressive magic rather than erroneous science?

The Golden Bough as science of the concrete

In Robert Fraser’s elegant reconstruction of its emergent shape, we witness in detail how the intellectual bricolage that formed the mythic structure of The Golden Bough was assembled over several decades. (Nicholson 1993: 955)

What does the GB express if not error? How does it make bizarre and savage practices plausible? Lévi-Strauss provides my path into these questions. This is not an approach I take haphazardly. In part, I do so because of the way Lévi-Strauss portrays science and myth (as well as truth and error) as variations of each other, mutually achievable under the proper transformations. He is not interested in whether or not a myth provides the correct explanation for a phenomenon or if it accurately reports historical events. His attention is fixed on the intellectual operations expressed in myth and the terms through which they work. Lévi-Strauss proposes that the operation of mythic thought is an intellectual form of bricolage. Like bricolage, myth will take for materials “whatever is at hand,” will draw on a “heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited,” and will use indirect or “devious means” to achieve its ends (Lévi-Strauss 1966: 16–17).[240]

The GB fits the mold of intellectual bricolage almost too well. Ever the armchair anthropologist, Frazer never designed or conducted ethnographic fieldwork.10 His sight was occupied with the travel logs and field reports of others. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that he came to anthropology as an established classicist. Almost all of his writing is framed in terms of its relation to a work in either the Greco-Roman or Hebrew religious traditions. The parables, myths, and stories he found there could easily be said to constitute a “heterogeneous repertoire,” one he deployed masterfully. Frazer’s colleague Harrison recollects, “At the mere sound of the magical words ‘Golden Bough’ we heard and understood” ([1925] 1965: 343). In fact, as Smith (1973) has shown, the central myth of the GB is an admixture of texts. Frazer cobbled the Nemi story together out of motifs from Virgil’s Aeneid, a scholion by Servius, Pausanias’s description of Aricia, and Strabo’s Geography. As long as we are willing to see Frazer as a craftsman of text, then the GB has the faculties of Lévi-Straussian myth, turning another’s ends into its own means.

The pertinent phrase taken from Boas is: “It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up, only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.” (Lévi-Strauss 1966: 21) For Lévi-Strauss, mythic processes are “continual deconstruction and reconstruction” that neither fabricate out of whole cloth nor authorize works under the rules set down in the mind of the subject. Three variations on the mythic bricoleur spring to mind: the tinkerer who uses parts taken from one thing and applies them to another; the craftsman whose repertoire of tools and techniques is independent of the project at hand; and the poet whose distinctive use of language reconfigures more ordinary forms of expression. These are not matters of applying a model to particular materials but start from the ways in which material can be worked.

Frazer, too, puts the material first, not unlike a science of the concrete:

Whereas the order on which magic reckons is merely an extension, by false analogy, of the order in which ideas present themselves to our minds, the order laid down by science is derived from patient and exact observation of the phenomena themselves. (GB 2–3: 459, 3–12: 306)

Unlike the science of engineers, which begins at the conceptual realm with a design then proceeds to realize its vision through this or that material, mythic thought makes concepts out of empirically gathered material. Yet the notion of “empirical categories” should give some pause when considering the GB as having mythic structure. For Lévi-Strauss, “mythic thought lies between percepts and concepts” and it is “impossible to separate percepts from the concrete situations in which they appeared” (1969: 18). Here the ability of text to serve as perceptual material lies in doubt because of the sign-like function of words. Is there something empirical, possibly even ethnographic, to an encounter with a text? It would be easy to answer no, to say that text affords only concepts. I would claim, however, that the [241]perception of a text could be tied to the concrete situation of reading, which is then abstracted to achieve a concept of meaning. To quote a text word for word is to provide something like an empirical account. To summarize its argument would be more an abstraction. Mythic reading, then. would work between the quoted text and its conceptual argument by doing something like paraphrasing and interpreting specific details within it.11

Frazer’s work with texts would seem to fit this mythic mode of reading quite well. In fact, his detractors best illustrate his tendency to rework the original context of his sources:

From a scientific point of view, Frazer’s “improvement” of his source material was quite disastrous. Doubtless he himself had every intention of making an honest transcription, but the inevitable vanity of the untraveled scholar gave certainty to his intuitions. (Leach 1961: 375)

As science of the engineer, the GB is poor practice; as science of the concrete, it is standard practice. Tinkerers do not hesitate to take a cog or a spring out of the context of one project and do this or that to fit it in another. They work in media res. Likewise, Frazer transforms mythic stories and first-hand accounts into conceptual tools. That he then works these concepts along certain principles of arrangement such that “we ourselves could think up all the possibilities” (Wittgenstein 1993: 127) is another way of saying the Frazerian myth has a structure.

The aim of The Golden Bough in its own terms

It is time, then, to return to the GB itself and elicit aspects of its structure. Let me begin with Frazer’s centerpiece, the problem of the rule of the Arician priesthood. Frazer sums it up succinctly:

Within the sanctuary at Nemi grew a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt entitled him to fight the priest in single combat, and if he slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis). (GB 1–1: 4, 2–1: 4, 3–1: 11)

The priesthood at Nemi elicits sublime shock in followers of Enlightenment principles. So close to Rome, this terrible and perhaps even universal truth juts through a veneer of rationality “like a primeval rock rising from a smooth shaven lawn” (GB 1–1: 3, 2–1: 3, 3–1: 10). Frazer sets up his problem by acknowledging that such “rudeness and barbarity” has “operated widely, perhaps universally, in human society, producing in varied circumstances a variety of institutions specifically different [242]but generically alike” (GB 1–1: 3, 2–1: 3, 3–1: 10). A romantic heart beats within the GB. The text does, after all, begin with and invocation of Turner’s landscape.

The evocation of this depth of feeling should not be confused with something like Sturm und Drang. Frazer’s primary focus was directed toward explaining the rule of the Arician priesthood, and he did so in conjunction with the spirit of both allegorical exegeses and rationalist science.12 The relevant paradigm is evolutionary: specifically, a theory of the evolution of ideas that involves more than just linear progress. Ideas nestle besides each other along a tangled bank. When challenged and overturned, they sink into darkness, where they lurk until revived. One need only scratch the surface of science to discover its primitive forebears and our own capacity for barbarity.

Upon this romantic project, Frazer lays the far more prosaic task of meticulously cataloging a wide range of customs, superstitions, and religious beliefs. He calls this his “comparative study.” The sections of the text that fall under the sway of comparison can be quite striking to the modern reader in the way they evoke an encyclopedia of primitive superstitions.13 What results is a prose style totally in opposition to that of mythic narratives. This comparative method produces text organized hierarchically with further abstraction at the level of the larger categories and particularization occurring as those categories get broken down into specific customs and concrete facts.14

As dull as it can be to read, Frazer recognized that this aspect of his work could be viewed on its own. The comparative study is akin to a database.

It has been my wish and intention to draw as sharply as possible the line of demarcation between my facts and the hypotheses by which I have attempted to colligate them. Hypotheses are necessary but often temporary bridges built to connect isolated facts. If my light bridges should sooner or later break down or be superseded by more solid structures, I hope that my book may still have its utility and its interest as a repertory of facts. (GB 2-1:xv, 3–1: xvii)[243]

The space between Frazer’s romanticism and his comparative study is weighed down with internal inconsistencies and analytical challenges, not the least of which is the relation between science and myth. When operating in the romantic mode, Frazer blurs the lines between magic and science as well as his work and his material. In the comparative study, however, there is talk of the sharp demarcation between hypothesis and fact. Where Frazer describes true science as a deliberate inquiry into the phenomena in themselves, his comparative method relies entirely on a resemblance between phenomena in the light of his own imagination.

Mythic structures and narrative forms

The GB performs two very different and even incompatible tasks. The first is the intellectual bricolage of myth. The second is the scientific mission of classification and comparison. The relation between the two is difficult to grasp, not least of all because Frazer makes alternate claims that one or the other is the true purpose behind the work.

Almost all anthropological critics assume the myth of the priesthood at Nemi is merely a framing device for the comparative project. While I am sympathetic to this view, it fails to account for the fact that the Nemi myth15 remains central throughout the three editions, possibly even growing in importance. If Frazer’s true aim was the comparative study, why not say something to that effect early on in the text? Why not say that the Nemi myth introduces the problem of magic before moving on to the study, or simply set the comparative project on its own rather than pegging it to this very specific historical question? Furthermore, and far more importantly, the depiction of the Nemi myth as a literary hook fails to understand how the comparative study uses elements of the myth to generate and organize its categories (e.g., “king of the wood” or “death of a god”). Several parts of the book open with a preface which grounds that part to some aspect of the Nemi myth. For example, Frazer begins The dying god by saying, “With this third part of the Golden Bough we take up the question, Why had the King of the Wood at Nemi regularly to perish by the hand of his successor?” (GB 3–4: v). Thus, his investigation on the dying god bisects inquiry into the King of the Wood at Nemi and a set of like customs compiled from other textual sources. Take away the Nemi myth and there is little basis for claiming that the dying god is a viable category for organizing other myths. Nemi is the conceptual cornerstone that directs the science.

Myth and science remain largely incompatible, however. Frazer acknowledges how these conflicting modes cause stress to the structure of the text and admits to addressing two very different kinds of questions:

When I originally conceived the idea of the work . . . my intention merely was to explain the strange rule of the priesthood or sacred kingship of Nemi and with it the legend of the Golden Bough. . . . The explanation was suggested to me by some similar rules formerly imposed on kings [244]in Southern India, and at first I thought that it might be adequately set forth within the compass of a small volume. But I soon found that in attempting to settle one question I had raised many more: wider and wider prospects opened out before me; and thus step by step I was lured on into far-spreading fields of primitive thought which had been but little explored by my predecessors. Thus the book grew on my hands, and soon the projected essay became in fact a ponderous treatise, or rather a series of separate dissertations loosely linked together by a slender thread of connexion with my original subject [the Nemi myth]. With each successive edition these dissertations have grown in number and swollen in bulk by the accretion of fresh materials, till the thread on which they are strung at last threatened to snap under their weight. Accordingly, following the hint of a friendly critic, I decided to resolve my overgrown book into its elements, and publish separately the various disquisitions of which it is composed. (GB 3–1: vii)

This history that the GB tells of itself hints at how the Nemi myth and the comparative study are held apart. Chronologically, mythic storytelling evolves into scientific comparison. This transformation has spatial dimensions too. The book grew, becoming “swollen in bulk.” Yet even as new questions threatened to break off and form their own works, they continued to fit together under the rubric of the Nemi myth. Thus, myth and science take up different scales: myth maintains the book as a whole, while science tends to be focused on smaller subsections and particular passages. This division of scale is one of the most prominent strategies for dealing with contradictions in the text.

Between the gross and the fine, Frazer uses “dissertations” or “disquisitions” as formal devices that link the mythic to the comparative scales. These dissertations make up both the smallest structural elements of the Nemi myth and the largest abstract categories of the comparative study.16 When laid out schematically with dissertation mediating between the classic Nemi myth and the primitive custom, a familiar triangular structure can be formed with dissertation in the position of mediator.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Structure bridging Nemi myth to primitive custom.

Taken in isolation, this triangular structure says little that even the casual reader might miss. Yet the structure reveals much more when reframed in terms of literary [245]style: the Nemi myth tells a story, the dissertations argue a point (a thesis), and primitive customs are collected as a database of recorded facts. A more coherent semantic triangle can then be constructed relating the narrative genres employed: story, thesis, and record.

The movement between these genres can be disorienting when, at times, Frazer moves quickly between a list of primitive customs of a certain type (record), to an extended recounting of a myth (story), to theorizing about the meaning of a large category of primitive customs (thesis). The deeper structure is clear in that the relation goes from the most aggregated to the most partitioned (story–thesis–-record) against a dichotomy in which an emergent abstraction (thesis) mediates the concrete elements in opposition (story and record).

Figure 2
Figure 2: Relations between genres and modes of study.

The relation between story and thesis (left arm of the triangle) connects a diachronic narrative with its synchronic elements through an analysis of myth. This manner of Frazer’s analysis draws heavily on the European traditions of allegorically reading Roman and Greek classics. The relation between thesis and record (right arm) uses a system of scientific classification to collect facts and sort them according to hypotheses. The base of the triangle relates historical predecessors with contemporary survivals that occur only by way of theory. The first ambition purported by the GB is to infer the base of this triangle.17

The structure inherent in these relations allows the different intellectual modes of myth and science to interact without subsuming one into the other. The myth becomes essential to Frazer’s expression of an analytic tension. In fact, the recognition [246]of the relation between the comparative method and mythic narrative as intellectual operations suggests other similarly configured semantic fields, such as that of natural philosophy (religion : science : magic) and social classification (ancient : civilized : primitive18) transforming each element in turn:

Genre Philosophy Society
Story religious rule ancient world
Thesis scientific theory civilized society
Record magical order primitive life

These semantic fields are certainly alike and interrelated but, I must admit, only marginally isomorphic. An exploration of these transformations and their dynamics is not within the scope of this article, except to say that their relations form a field of play that is as expansive as it is dense and involves social as well as intellectual concerns. I suggest these structures in order to address the GB as working to accommodate difference and not just a flawed attempt to describe similarity. Chief among its aims is the attempt to resolve two conflicting forms of explanation without fully rejecting either.

Truth and error

But why is the tension between myth and science of interest at all? The issue was certainly important to Frazer, but it was also relevant to the generations of readers entranced by the text. The GB was an incredibly popular example to lay audiences of the possible coexistence of science and myth. What I suggest is that the structural relations between the natural philosophies (religion, science, magic) and the classifications of social orders (ancient, civilized, primitive) provided a framework for the reading public to come to grips with the rise of hegemonic rationalism.19 Fluent in perspective of the then present-day English parson, Frazer helped a disoriented [247]public to understand how myth might survive (and even function) in a world taking on increasingly scientific forms.

I am not alone in this claim. In describing how the GB “achieved classic status as one of the symbols of British middle-class culture”, Beard (1992: 212) also grounds reception of the text in social uncertainties unleashed by aspects of modernization. She fleshes out the text’s importance as a landmark of “free-thought” and the ways it cast the imperial attitude against “other central issues in the culture of Victorian Britain: the changing face of British traditions in the face of growing industrialization; the role and importance of the classical past” (ibid.: 219). What I would add to her analysis is the manner in which Frazer promised to improve society:

The slow, the never-ending approach to truth consists in perpetually forming and testing hypotheses, accepting those which at the time seem to fit the facts and rejecting the others. . . . Ridicule and blame are the just meed, not of those who devised these crude theories, but of those who obstinately adhered to them after better had been propounded. (GB 3-1: 246)

Society advances together not through stubborn adherence to the past or by blind faith in progress but by slow and steady effort. The GB’s extraordinary confidence in the difference between truth and error provides relief to readers hoping to emerge from the darkness of their own superstitions into the light of reason. The twelve volumes of the third edition, which rested on so many bookcases, signaled an intellectual achievement on the part of the owner (regardless of whether they had read past the preface). Its endless lists of superstitions labeled as error make the text into the perfect workbook for sharpening the conception and perception of truth. Thus, the GB hones perceptive intellect while it provides conceptual tools with which to deal with differences and contradictions in the surrounding world. My formulation of reading as intellectual exercise makes the text out to be the gym membership of early-twentieth-century Britain: purchased by many but employed by few, a realization of an era’s anxieties and aspirations.

The GB did not nest well in the then emergent institutions of social science, however. Frazer’s creative work with texts was, even at the time he was first writing, being supplanted by an “objective” approach with the fieldworker as scientific instrument mediating between the field as object and anthropological text as recording.20 Meanwhile, historians and classicists objected to almost everything Frazer had to say about the priesthood at Nemi. Criticism of his Nemi myth finds its apogee in Smith, who, drawing on Frazer’s own admissions along with his source texts, points out how the latter’s portrait of the priesthood at Nemi is an “imaginative reconstruction . . . without any textual or historical warrant” (1973: 348), and then goes on to unravel the connection between Virgil’s Golden Bough, the branch in the grove in Nemi, myths around mistletoe, and Balder the Beautiful— in other [248]words, the very spine of Frazer’s argument.21 Ironically, it is through his focus on Nemi that Smith ends up concluding that Frazer never really took the priesthood as the real question of his text. Smith seals his point with the following “confession” given by Frazer in the third edition:

Thus Balder the Beautiful in my hands is little more than a stalking-horse to carry two heavy pack-loads of facts. And what is true of Balder applies equally to the priest of Nemi himself, the nominal hero of the long tragedy of human folly and suffering which has unrolled itself before the readers of these volumes, and on which the curtain is now about to fall. He, too, for all the quaint garb he wears and the gravity with which he stalks across the stage, is merely a puppet, and it is time to unmask him before laying him up in the box. To drop metaphor, while nominally investigating a particular problem of ancient mythology, I have really been discussing questions of more general interest which concern the gradual evolution of human thought from savagery to civilization. . . . My contribution to the history of the human mind consists of little more than a rough and purely provisional classification of facts gathered almost entirely from printed sources. If there is one general conclusion which seems to emerge from the mass of particulars, I venture to think that it is the essential similarity in the working of the less developed human mind among all races, which corresponds to the essential similarity in their bodily frame revealed by comparative anatomy. (GB 3–10: v)

Certainly, if Frazer’s is the final say, then Smith has found his smoking gun. I, however, am not as quick to accept that a text is so transparent to its author. If the third edition really does mark the long-overdue departure22 from the Nemi myth as a serious question, then why did Frazer continue to underscore its prominence at the opening of the work? The straightforward answer suggested to Smith by Frazer himself is that the Golden Bough is a mere pretense to motivate his true aims and hook readers.

By discarding the austere form, without, I hope, sacrificing the solid substance, of a scientific treatise, I thought to cast my materials into a more artistic mould and so perhaps to attract readers, who might have been repelled by a more strictly logical and systematic arrangement of the facts. Thus I put the mysterious priest of Nemi, so to say, in the forefront of the picture, grouping the other sombre figures of the same sort behind him in the background, not certainly because I deemed them of less moment but because the picturesque natural surroundings of the priest of Nemi among the wooded hills of Italy, the very mystery which enshrouds him, and not least the haunting magic of Virgil’s verse, all [249]combine to shed a glamour on the tragic figure with the Golden Bough, which fits him to stand as the centre of a gloomy canvas. (GB 3–1: vii)

The underlying assumption is that artistic form does not carry the weight of scientific substance. Yet in this very passage, it is the artful phrase “to shed a glamour”23 that attests to the role of the Golden Bough in the text. The evocative phrasing does more than make dull content palatable, and with it Frazer deploys an entire mythology. The more I read Frazer, the more I am convinced that his mythic allusions pool where his conceptual work is the deepest.24 I do not accept his metaphor of the puppet as an accurate representation of his argument. Instead, I read these words as those of a tinkerer trying desperately to jury-rig his out-of-date vision of science to be compatible with newfangled models. The passage does nothing to change the substance of Frazer’s work, which most assuredly rests on the principles of truth-to-nature observation,25 with the Nemi myth serving as a touchstone for sussing out the ideal. That Nemi eventually develops into a token rather than ideal type does little to diminish the myth’s importance.

Smith’s reading follows the GB’s penchant for distinguishing the true from the false. Yet are we to class the various stated intentions of the text into true and false, or might we trace the transformations within the text as it seeks to accommodate various incompatibilities? The text demands that we must choose only one but also include all. Therein lies its greatest ambition.

Magical theory of mind

So, the time has come to admit that the GB has been my stalking-horse all along.

STALKING-HORSE. Sometimes a real horse, sometimes the figure of one cut out, and carried by the sportsman for the following purpose: It being found that wild fowl, which would take early alarm at the appearance of man, would remain quiet when they saw only a horse approaching, advantage was taken of it, for the shooter to conceal himself behind a real [250]or artificial horse, and thus to get within shot of his game.26 (Nares and Halliwell-Phillipps 1901: 830)

In an act of both allegiance and deception, a hunter walks beside a horse without trying to become one. So, too, have I tried to walk alongside Frazer, attending to those forms of life that would flee if I approached them on my own. This undertaking takes the form of ethnography,27 its snare providing an opening for the hunter as much as an enclosure for prey. In this way, I have tried to make use of Frazer and take him seriously while maintaining little to no interest in Frazerian anthropology.

As nicely as the stalking horse metaphor formulates an ethnographic approach, this insight hardly justifies the time I have committed to the obscure and particular questions found here. When I began this work, I had only the hope of better understanding the project of anthropology and situating myself within it. I have been drawn to this field since the moment I read about the kula in Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific. There was something in that phenomenon—some pattern that I recognized but still can’t describe—that worked on me for years to come. I was inspired by Malinowski, as he was by Frazer, Frazer by Virgil, Virgil by Homer, and so on. I find myself along a chain of inspiration—not a canon or intellectual tradition, but a frontier that disperses as much as it contains the footsteps of a traveler. This path invites continual movement of one’s own. It would seem that the anthropological archive is built up only to be shattered again, and that new works are built from the fragments. Fully expecting my own form of engagement, I came to Frazer by way of works that inspired me. I was surprised how quickly the text became so dull as to be almost unreadable. I persevered because I could not catch the spirit of a text that had been so inspirational to those who had inspired me, and I must admit that I still have not caught it. I may never.

Yet with this rangy and workmanlike stalking horse, I can claim to have caught sight of that most elusive of empirical categories: the human mind. From the first volume of the first edition to the publication of Aftermath forty-seven years later, the human mind remained the engine that drove the GB. Fraser, in his meticulous yet wide-ranging investigation of the text, holds that “for Frazer one principle was sacrosanct: magic, religion and science were all products of the individual human mind” (1990a: 124). While exploring the apparent contradictions of Frazer’s work, MacCormack comes to a similar conclusion. She describes a text that, “on the one hand, studies the workings of the human mind, and on the other, it is itself an exemplification of these workings” (1984: 155) while aware of the self-reference and its many difficulties.

With the notion of the human mind, Frazer holds fast, and holds together, the errors of religion, myth, and magic. He was certainly not the first or the last to do so. Tylor had already resolved that “myth is not to be looked on as mere error and folly, but as an interesting product of the human mind” (1881: 387). Faced with a rapidly growing anthropological archive of erroneous beliefs, thinkers like [251]Frazer and Tylor28 found in mind a homeopathic magic by which one person could be related to almost any other across time and place and from within completely different histories and circumstances. For Lévi-Strauss as well, mind became the soil from which myth draws its nutrients.

And if it is now asked to what final meaning these mutually significative meanings are referring—since in the last resort and in their totality they must refer to something—the only reply to emerge from this study is that myths signify the mind [l’esprit] that evolves them by making use of the world of which it is itself a part. (Lévi-Strauss 1969: 341)

The material collected by Frazer and Lévi-Strauss includes myths of all sorts. There are myths of corn and jaguars, myths of sun gods and of the origin of water, but no myths of the human mind. These they made themselves. Their myth of mind is distinctively anthropological, an intellectual operation that attunes the imagination of a discipline to the unity and diversity of humanity. Certainly other modern disciplines rely on a concept of mind, but only anthropology seems to work it alongside myth. Inversely, in the great archive of myth, mind marks an anthropological domain. In Frazer, mind secedes from spirit and soul—a point from which Wittgenstein forcefully recoils. Lévi-Strauss, writing in French, can make the same move more subtly. Only a change in capitalization separates mind (l’Esprit) from spirit (l’esprit).29 Thus, the texts reveal crucial aspects of the relation between mind and spirit (in their similarities and distinctions).

These claims may seem of little interest beyond a history of ideas. Do notions of the human mind have any place in current modes of anthropological inquiry? Superficially, the answer must be no. The broad classificatory schemes of Frazer and Lévi-Strauss and their modes of analysis have come to feel passé in a discipline always cresting the latest turn. However, even if “mind” itself has fallen out of fashion, it resurfaces fragmented and transformed. Concomitants like subjectivity, thought, concept, and consciousness remain intrinsic to a wide range of current anthropological projects, from the Marxist to the posthuman and the ontological, although each would likely disown the relation.

I disown it, too—for my part, more out of a refusal to feign familiarity than out of revulsion. I have never been good at writing by way of the subject, with its own strictly demarcated thoughts and point of view. The beauty and perhaps even joy I have found in Frazer has been, on the one hand, in the extraordinary significance and clarity he bestows on his notion of mind and, on the other, in how his metaphor of the stalking horse can make this very notion of mind irrelevant. Ethnographers need not dream of understanding someone else’s mind or seeing through [252]their eyes. We may concentrate instead on what worlds remain quiet as we walk alongside them or take it upon ourselves to carry their myths. I must reserve further discussion of the methodological and moral implications of this vision of ethnography for elsewhere. Here my aim has been to conserve Frazer’s provocation, not to strike out anew. He has led me this far, but we have come to a river he will not willingly ford. It is with some measure of gratitude, then, that we now part ways.

Editions of The Golden Bough

Frazer, James George. 1894. The Golden Bough: A study in comparative religion. First edition, two vols. London: Macmillan and Co.

———. 1900. The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. Second edition, three vols. London: Macmillan and Co.

———. (1911) 1920. The magic art and the evolution of kings. Vols. 1 and 2 of The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.

———. 1911. Taboo and perils of the soul. Vol. 3 of The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London: Macmillan and Co.

———. 1911. The dying god. Vol. 4 of The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London: Macmillan and Co.

———. 1914. Adonis Attis Osiris: Studies in the history of Oriental religion. Vols. 5 and 6 of The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London: Macmillan and Co.

———. 1912. Spirits of the corn and of the wild. Vols. 7 and 8 of The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London: Macmillan and Co.

———. 1913. The scapegoat. Vol. 9 of The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London: Macmillan and Co.

———. 1913. Balder the Beautiful: The fire-festivals of Europe and the doctrine of the external soul. Vols. 10 and 11 of The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London: Macmillan and Co.

———. (1915) 1935. Bibliography and general index. Vol. 12 of The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London: Macmillan and Co.


Asad, Talal. 2003. What might an anthropology of secularism look like? In Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity, 21–66. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Beard, Mary. 1992. “Frazer, Leach, and Virgil: The popularity (and unpopularity) of The Golden Bough.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 34 (2): 203–24.

Beattie, John. 1964. Other cultures. New York: Free Press of Glencoe

Clifford, James. 1983. “On ethnographic authority.” Representations 2: 118–46.

Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone.

Downie, R. Angus. 1970. Frazer and the Golden Bough. London: Gollancz.[253]

Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evan. 1965. Theories of primitive religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fraser, Robert. 1990a. The making of the Golden Bough: The origins and growth of an argument. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

———, ed. 1990b. Sir James Frazer and the literary imagination: Essays in affinity and influence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Frazer, James George. 1936. Aftermath: A supplement to The Golden Bough. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Gluckman, Max. 1965. Politics, law, and ritual in tribal society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Harrison, Jane Ellen. (1925) 1965. Reminiscences of a student’s life. Arion 4 (2): 312-346.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. 1962. The tangled bank: Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud as imaginative writers. New York: Atheneum.

La Barre, Weston. 1954. The human animal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lang, Andrew. 1901. Magic and religion. London: Longmans Green and Co.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961. “Golden Bough or gilded twig?” Daedalus 90 (2): 371–99.

———. 1985. “Reflections on a visit to Nemi: Did Frazer get it wrong?” Anthropology Today 1 (2): 2–3.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1964. Le cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon.

———. 1966. The savage mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

———. 1969. The raw and the cooked. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacCormack, Sabine. 1984. “Magic and the human mind: A reconsideration of Frazer’s Golden Bough.” Arethusa 17 (2): 151–76.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge.

Nares, Robert and James Halliwell-Phillipps. 1901. A glossary, or collection of words, phrases, names, and allusions to customs, proverbs, etc., which have been thought to require illustration, in the works of English authors, particularly Shakespeare, and his contemporaries, Volume II, K–Z. London: Gibbings and Co.

Nicholson, Colin. 1993. “The making of The Golden Bough: The origins and growth of an argument by Robert Fraser; Sir James Frazer and the literary imagination by Robert Fraser.” The Modern Language Review 88 (4): 954–56.

Ossa-Richardson, Anthony. 2008. “From Servius to Frazer: The Golden Bough and its transformations.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 15 (3): 339–68.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1973. “When the bough breaks.” History of Religions 12 (4): 342–71.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. “Out of context: The persuasive fictions of anthropology.” Current Anthropology 28 (3): 251–81.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. 1881. Anthropology: An introduction to the study of man and civilization. London: Macmillan and Co.[254]

Vickery, John B. 1957. “The Golden Bough and modern poetry.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15 (3): 271–88.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1993. “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough.” In Philosophical occasions 1912–1951. Edited by Alfred Nordmann and James C. Klagg, 118–55. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Marcher avec l’autre: Mythe, magie et pensée dans Le Rameau d’or

Résumé : Est-ce que Le Rameau d’or peut encore être pris au sérieux aujourd’hui? Ou bien est-il temps d’oublier définitivement cette relique Tylorienne qui n’est rarement citée aujourd’hui autrement qu’à titre d’exemple, ou d’exemple d’erreur? Dans cet article, je revisite Le Rameau d’or dans l’idée que s’il s’agit d’une erreur, alors cette erreur mérite notre attention. En utilisant l’approche du mythe élaborée par Lévi-Strauss, j’examine la tension entre l’exégèse classique de la condition de prêtre à Nemi proposée par Frazer et les aspirations scientifiques de son étude comparative. Ces deux projets, très différents sont chacun associés à des formes narratives distinctes et tendent simultanément à renforcer la distinction entre le caractère véridique de la science et celui, erroné, de la magie, et à les inscrire dans une continuité (en tant que produits de la pensée humaine). En pensant Frazer avec Lévi-Strauss, j’espère recouvrer certains fragments oubliés de l’esprit de leur enquête et découvrir la pensée qui fonde cette œuvre. Gardant en tête leur conception de la pensée (mind), je cherche une inspiration pour un nouveau modèle pour l’ethnographie, une approche qui ne cherche pas à comprendre la pensée des autres mais qui prête attention aux mondes qui apparaissent lorsqu’on marche avec eux.

Victor KUMAR is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University. His dissertation concerns the use and experience of acupuncture in the United States.

Victor Kumar
Department of Anthropology
466 Mergenthaler Hall
3400 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218


1. For scholarship aimed at understanding the text’s influence, see Vickery (1957), Fraser (1990a, 1990b), and Beard (1992).

2. Perhaps distancing himself from the overt disrespect implied by the charge, Gluckman attributes it to Radcliffe-Brown: “Professor A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955), called it the “if-I-were-a-horse” argument. This refers to a story of a Middle West farmer whose horse strayed out of its paddock. The farmer went into the middle of the paddock, chewed some grass, and asked himself: ‘Now if I were a horse, where would I go?’” (1965: 4). Given that the charge is later repeated by Evans-Pritchard (1965) against Tylor, it would seem to have a certain cachet within the institutions of British anthropology at that time.

3. Gluckman admits that “it is undoubtedly caricature to apply this [notion] to the very learned and intelligent books of early anthropologists” (ibid.: 2), but makes no other attempt to compensate for his distortion.

4. For Wittgenstein, there is no denying that ideas coexist with practices. To this extent Frazer’s ideas provide just another way into the views and practices of magic (albeit a particularly dull way). What is ultimately unsatisfactory, indeed erroneous, is that practices could be wholly given in the ideas associated with them. Wittgenstein’s argument attempts to pull the rug out from under not just the GB but an entire anthropological (not to mention sociological and philosophical) project of explanation.

5. In order to cite quotations across multiple editions of the GB, I implement the following citation convention: (GB Edition–Volume: Page). Thus, (GB 1–1: 211, 2–1: 449) means the quote appears in the first edition, first volume, page 211 as well as the second edition, first volume, page 449.

6. Tylor sees the civilized as “more intelligent, more systematic, more perfectly arranged or organized, to answer their purposes” (1881: 15) than the primitive. For Frazer, the association between savagery and stupidity is in the eye of the beholder. To him, the civilized only appear more rational and intelligent because they rest on a storehouse of hard-earned experience and knowledge inherited in the form of natural intuitions.

7. Or perhaps “second nature.”

8. Put another way, the effectiveness of stabbing an effigy is given in those forms of life shared between the perpetrator and victim by way of the effigy.

9. Not only is Frazer distant from the forms of life in which magic operates, but he also refuses to acknowledge that they exist. From this point of view, Frazer is absolutely incapable of “going native.”

10. Most accounts of Frazer as a man describe him as the stereotype of the unworldly professor, buried in books and absorbed in the nuances of written accounts: Downie (1970) and Beard (1992), for instance. Frazer’s tendency toward a life in text even leads Strathern (1987) to consider his relationship to postmodern playfulness and what has come to be called the linguistic turn.

11. As for the question of whether a text can be taken ethnographically, there are those who would side with Malinowski’s conviction that the sources of ethnography “are not embodied in fixed, material documents, but in the behaviour and in the memory of living men” (1922: 3). But there are also those who would claim ethnography as a way of attending to experience, and this admits the idea that a text is an experience as well as a fixed, material document.

12. I am here reformulating Ossa-Richardson’s claim that the GB stands at the intersection of romanticism, positivism, and allegorical exegesis (2008: 340).

13. For a taste of this style, we can look across the table of contents of the third edition. Under part V: “Spirits of the corn and the wild,” we find chapters such as: “The corn-mother and the corn-maiden in northern Europe,” “The corn-mother in many lands,” “The corn-spirit as an animal,” “Ancient deities of vegetation as animals,” and “Types of animal sacrament.” Under chapter 8: “The corn-spirit as an animal,” the sections read: “The corn-spirit as a wolf or a dog,” “The corn-spirit as a cock,” “The corn-spirit as a hare,” “The corn-spirit as a cat,” “The corn-spirit as a goat,” “The corn-spirit as a bull, cow, or ox,” “The corn-spirit as a horse or mare,” “The corn-spirit as a bird,” “The corn-spirit as a fox,” “The corn-spirit as a pig.” Under section 11: “The corn-spirit as a pig,” one finds the follow subsections: “The corn-spirit as a boar rushing through the corn,” “The corn-spirit as a boar or sow at reaping,” “The corn-spirit as a sow at threshing,” “The corn-spirit as a pig at sowing,” “The corn-spirit embodied in the Yule or Christmas Boar of Scandinavia and Esthonia.”

14. This arrangement could also be described as a branching arboreal form of organization.

15. I use the term “Nemi myth” to designate the ways in which Frazer portrays the rule of succession of priesthood at Nemi. Frazer’s account of Nemi and the Arician priesthood differs (sometimes drastically) from those of other historical or archeological sources.

16. For example. the dying god is both an element of the Nemi myth and a general category for classifying primitive customs (involving kings killed when their strength fails, kings killed at the end of a fixed term, and so forth).

17. The ambition I refer to is repeated throughout the editions and reads as follows:

It is the very rudeness and barbarity of the custom [of the Priesthood at Nemi] which allow us a hope of explaining it. For recent researches into the early history of man have revealed the essential similarity with which, under many superficial differences, the human mind has elaborated its first crude philosophy of life. Accordingly if we can show that a barbarous custom, like that of the priesthood of Nemi, has existed elsewhere; if we can detect the motives which led to its institution; if we can prove that these motives have operated widely, perhaps universally, in human society, producing in varied circumstances a variety of institutions specifically different but generically alike; if we can show, lastly, that these very motives, with some of their derivative institutions, were actually at work in classical antiquity; then we may fairly infer that at a remoter age the same motives gave birth to the priesthood of Nemi. Such an inference, in default of direct evidence as to how the priesthood did actually arise, can never amount to demonstration. But it will be more or less probable according to the degree of completeness with which it fulfils the conditions indicated above. The object of this book is, by meeting these conditions, to offer a fairly probable explanation of the priesthood of Nemi. (GB 1–1: 3, 2–1: 3, 3–1: 10)

18. The term I use here is “primitive,” though “savage” might be more in keeping with Frazer. The trouble with these terms is how their valences have shifted and stabilized over the last century in ways that make Frazer’s word choice dangerously outmoded. “Primitive” here is meant to capture his sense that the “savage” is no more inferior to the “civilized” then a house’s foundation is to its walls. They exist at relatively different points in the evolutionary process.

19. I deal with this idea much too briefly here. The terminological difficulties involved in this claim alone would be difficult to sort. A family of related notions such as secularism, liberalism, enlightenment, or modernism can be combined in various ways to describe the social trends to which I am referring. Of these, Frazer seems to prefer the term “rationalism.”

Yet we should deceive ourselves if we imagined that the belief in witchcraft is even now dead in the mass of the people; on the contrary there is ample evidence to shew that it only hibernates under the chilling influence of rationalism, and that it would start into active life if that influence were ever seriously relaxed. The truth seems to be that to this day the peasant remains a pagan and savage at heart; his civilization is merely a thin veneer which the hard knocks of life soon abrade, exposing the solid core of paganism and savagery below. (GB 3–10: ix)

Of particular relevance is how Asad (2003) argues that myth comes to the fore as a classificatory label only with the rise of rationalistic discourse.

20. Clifford describes how “the fieldworker-theorist replaced an older partition between the ‘man on the spot’ (in Frazer’s words) and the sociologist or anthropologist in the metropole” (Clifford 1983: 121).

21. Smith sums up: “As already recognized by his earliest critics, each conjecture put forth by Frazer which directly bears on the problem of the priesthood of Nemi was without foundation” (ibid.: 370).

22. This departure is, for Smith, not without its return. Smith sees Frazer returning to the importance of the Nemi myth in the abridged edition (1922) and then discarding it again in Aftermath (1936).

23. “Glamour” literally being the Scots for magic, enchantment, or spell.

24. In the epigraph to this article, for example, we find Frazer expressing the object of his intellectual quest as a “Pisgah of the mind.” He goes on to suggest that the GB might best “serve as a warning, as a sort of Ariadne’s thread, to help the forlorn wayfarer to shun some of the snares and pitfalls into which his fellows have fallen before him in the labyrinth of life” (1936: iv).

25. Daston and Galison (2007) have described a mid-nineteenth-century shift in epistemic virtues away from what they term “truth-to-nature” observations toward those of “mechanical objectivity.” The scholar of truth-to-nature strives to identify ideal types by examining and comparing the multitude of concrete instances found in the world and then intuiting the abstract forms at play. Mechanical objectivity aims instead for transparently produced representations of one particular object as epitomized in the mechanics of photography. The way Frazer likens his method to “comparative anatomy” bears witness to the same trends uncovered by Daston and Galison.

26. This definition taken from a glossary was published 1901 and is roughly contemporaneous with Frazer’s work on the GB.

27. In my case, it is an ethnographic reading.

28. Among these I count Bastian and Lévy-Bruhl. Bastian’s concept of psychological universals (Elementargedanken) and Lévy-Bruhl’s primitive mentality address similar concerns to those of mind in Frazer.

29. In the Carib myth on the origin of disease and fish poison (M162), we hear about “Les Esprits de la forêt” (Lévi-Strauss 1964: 284), but it should be clear from the capitalization that spirits of the forest is a more fitting translation than minds of the forest. Yet Lévi-Strauss’s use of “l’esprit humain” is more like the human mind than the human spirit.