top of page


5. Frazer


Turning now to Sir James Frazer, he was the author of the (in its final form) 13 volume The Golden Bough, an extended exploration of the evolution of human mind and culture.[1] He also wrote other books of research. His work has the soberness, the painstakingness and the copious footnotes of the dedicated scholar. Sometimes he pulls together his material to form broad theories as to what happened in the past, on eg divine and sacrificial kingship, the dying and resurrecting god, and spirits of vegetation. However his main activity as the project of The Golden Bough developed was as an extensive reporter and collator of customs, traditions, folklore and mythology. He stated of his theories that “I hold them all very lightly and have used them chiefly as convenient pegs on which to hang my collections of facts” (Frazer 1913b, ix).[2] I was therefore surprised to discover that Professor Hutton, on the basis of disagreeing with Frazer's theories, attempts the kind of wholesale demolition job that we find in The Stations of the Sun. This may be the approach that is taken in the current world of academe, but on any reasonable view Frazer’s work represents an outstanding scholastic achievement.


Attempts have been made to belittle The Golden Bough by saying that it is all about Frazer’s (criticized) theory about the sacred grove at Nemi and the golden bough of Virgil, or about promoting the British Empire or opposing Christianity. But the book, as it developed, is far too broad and expansive to be summarized in any of these simplistic ways.[3] There is an element of truth to it in the case of the theory about the Nemi grove, as an instance of a widespread myth of a priest-king who must periodically die as part of a fertility rite, the literal deaths of such kings later being replaced by substitute kings and mock kings. The first edition of the book (two volumes) was genuinely intended to explain this. In a broad way, the sacrifice of kings and divine powers permeated the work. The connection with Nemi was to be established in relation to the killing of Baldur the Beautiful, as a representative of the mistletoe-bearing oak, at the conclusion of the work. But Frazer became aware that the theory was vulnerable to criticism. Indeed in the preface to the first edition he had already stated that “I cannot but feel that in some places I may have pushed it too far”. In the preface to the third edition he states that “I fully acknowledge the slenderness of the foundations on which it rests”, but that its collapse “would hardly shake my general conclusions as to the evolution of primitive religion and society” (Frazer 1911b 1: ix).


The book was not a single utterance but a rolling programme and by the time of the third edition (12 volumes), followed by the additional volume “Aftermath” (1936), it was “a series of separate dissertations loosely linked together by a slender thread of connection with my original subject”. The thread on which the dissertations were strung “threatened to snap under their weight” (preface to the third edition). Large quantities of material on magic, animism and “primitive” religion across the world were added in the third edition, and these, rather than Nemi, are its real unifying themes. The golden bough was kept as a headline identity for the book, though the theory about it had become a minor matter within the work as a whole, as well as being expressed tentatively.[4] Whatever Frazer might have come to believe about the theory, the great success of the book would have made it difficult for him to disavow the theory and rename the book.


So the theory was retained, though it had become just “the starting-point of the enquiry” (Frazer 1911b 1: viii). In “Aftermath” at page vi he explains that “When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Bough….I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood. But insensibly I was led on…into surveying…a great part of the human race”. On the relation of the theory to Baldur the Beautiful he wrote “Though I am now less than ever disposed to lay weight on the analogy between the Italian priest and the Norse god” (Frazer 1913b, preface, v). He also thought it unlikely that Baldur was “a mythical personification of the mistletoe-bearing oak” (Frazer 1913b, 315). I suspect that, in considering the value of The Golden Bough now, Frazer would have been content for the theory about Nemi to be put aside.


In mentioning his ”general conclusions as to the evolution of primitive religion and society” Frazer was referring to the following factors. There was his view of human history that “the higher thought” has been from magic through religion to science (Frazer 1913b, 11: 304). He also thought that, in terms of folk traditions, there were wide-ranging influences from ancient times and pagan belief systems into the present. For instance, he felt that “the popular superstitions and customs of the peasantry” are “the most trustworthy evidence we possess as to the primitive religion of the Aryans” (Frazer 1890, preface). And he felt that comparisons could reasonably be drawn between beliefs and customs in different parts of the world (on this see below). But, contrary to the views of some commentators, he did not argue that all beliefs and customs derive from a single source, and he did not make an unvarying rule about how societies develop.  


This paper will focus on two areas of disagreement where Hutton takes issue with Frazer. Later it will address disagreements between the researchers on the issue of customs relating to spirits of the corn, and specifically of the last sheaf to be reaped. But firstly it will address the way the two scholars deal with the issue of whether the festival of All Saints Day on November 1st had a pre-Christian history as a festival of the dead. As with the Jack-in-the-Green, this issue exemplifies Professor Hutton’s tendency to turn what might be viable as a theory into a clear fact. The issue is slightly complicated and requires an examination of the details of what Hutton and Frazer say.




[1] I refer here to the third edition of the work. Earlier editions had far fewer volumes.


[2] Anyone who read The Golden Bough attentively would notice what an enormous amount of non-theorising information about customs, beliefs etc. there is in it. Unfortunately many who have dismissed the book have not noticed this obvious matter. An example is folklorist Bob Trubshaw, who states that during the 70s and 80s the whole edifice built up on Frazer’s foundations was steadily dismantled by academics. “Nothing of consequence was left” (from “Paganism in British Folk Traditions”). An amazing failure to note what is actually in the book, but he may have been following similar utterances by academics, eg “The Bough has been broken and all that it cradled has fallen”  (Smith 1993, 239).


[3] Frazer has been regarded as a supporter of imperialism, eg Mary Beard refers to “the book’s reassuring projection of British imperialism” (Beard 1992, 211). In reality, Frazer was a critic of imperialism, not an admirer of it, see Frazer 1927, 9. As regards Christianity, Frazer’s material is considered to be evidence for anti-Christian zealotry on his part, eg Hutton states “There is no doubt that one of the purposes of The Golden Bough was to discredit Christianity. The most important argument of the whole work was that ancient peoples had believed in a dying and reviving god” (Hutton 1999b, 114). It was an important element in the work. However, in terms of specific deities, Frazer was moderate in putting forward candidates for this role by comparison with predecessors such as Godfrey Higgins, Thomas Doane, and Gerald Massey. They proposed a greater range of such deities, see eg Doane’s Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions (1882) and Higgins’ Anacalypsis (1833).  


[4] See eg the preface to volume 4 “The Dying God”, with expressions like “If I am right” and “if there is any measure of truth in this theory” (Frazer 1911a, v-vi). However I disagree with J.Z.Smith, who thought that, because Frazer knew he was on shaky ground, he deliberately “chose to make his central work a joke” (Smith 1993, 239). Frazer was not the sort of scholar to make a joke of his work. He just moved a long way beyond a theory that he had, even at the start, only put forward with reservations. I also disagree with Mary Beard, who wrote that “There is no other direct link to keep the whole book together. Whatever the problems, Frazer was forced to lay stress on Nemi” (Beard 1992, 211). In the third edition Frazer did not lay stress on Nemi. For instance, in the preface to volume 10 the priest of Nemi is referred to as “the nominal hero” of the work and “merely a puppet” (Frazer 1913b, vi).The unifying factors in the third edition are magic, animism and certain types of religion, not Nemi. Ms. Beard makes a common mistake when she writes of The Golden Bough as if it were a single unchanging project.

bottom of page