In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary.

Preface to The Golden Bough

This work, by Sir James George Frazer, is considered to be the start of modern anthropology. A study of comparative religion, folklore, and magic, the Golden Bough shows commonality between cultures separated by great distances. The basic theme circles around the question that the preface above begins to address: In what is now Italy, there was a sacred grove where a slave or criminal could go free by winning a duel fought with a bough. Though Frazer was largely an armchair scholar, with his furthest departure from England being a trip to Greece, this work is considered highly important. Still, large portions of it have been discredited, so why is it so influential?

This book was ground-breaking because it was the first not to be directly dismissive of "savage" ways. Instead of sweeping over aboriginal religion and folklore as being primitive, The Golden Bough examined them within the context of the society and the effects that they had upon the culture. Taboo, ritual, scapegoats, killing the sacred, superstition, and even the difference between the sacred and the profane (and its absence in primitive religion) are explored.

Taboo relates to what is and isn't permitted in a society. In many cases, something is taboo because an object, animal, or person's sacred nature might be damaging if anyone else comes in contact with it. The Japanese emperor, for example, had restrictions placed on what he could and could not do within his sacred nature. Because of this, often times those who were in a position that made them sacred attempted to find a replacement as fast as possible. Another example would be menstrual-related seclusion in a moonlodge or similar place -- the women were doing this to protect everyone else from their sacred/profane nature.

Common threads were an emphasis of Frazer's -- notably the idea of Corn-spirits that must be killed in order to ensure a good harvest, which is emphasized in Chapters 46-48, but repeated throughout. Sometimes this idea of a spirit within the Corn is modified to encourage speed in harvesting; multiple cultures will call the last man to bind the sheaf the Corn-mother. Another common thread, scapegoating, highlights one of the other risks of being a god-king. If you were supposed to protect the country from famine, and famine occurs, you might be killed because you were obviously witholding your sacred nature from your people.

An interesting point the text makes indirectly is that Christianity is not that different from these primitive cultures, most notably in the idea of killing a god-king. Chapter 24, concerned with the idea of killing divine kings, points out that the ancient gods, such as Zeus, had grave sites (Zeus' grave was in Crete). There was also the idea of "Eating the God" -- outlined largely in Chapter 50, this relates to the idea of the spirit of the grain being consumed by those who eat it as well as human sacrifice. Naturally, the discussion of scapegoats include some cultures where a person was killed so that the sins of all might be atoned for. Frazer points out these similarities, rather than differences to point out the commonalities of humanity.

The original two volumes were published in 1890, with additional volumes following. The two-volume section of the work is considered to be the core, and is self-contained. The opinion of the other volumes is mixed; like sequels to other books, some regard them as disorganized and poor additions to the original.

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