The Golden Bough (Modern Library Nonfiction #90)

(This is the eleventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Shadow and Act.)

mlnf90It is somewhat difficult to obtain a decent print edition of the Third Edition of The Golden Bough without getting fleeced by some squirrely operator working out of a shady storage unit in the middle of nowhere. For nobody seems to read the whole enchilada anymore. This is hardly surprising in an age, abundantly cemented last week, when most people are more inclined to celebrate regressive stupidity, melting their minds in any self-immolating pastime rather than opening a book. But I was able to find an affordable edition with the help of a British antiquarian. I had no idea what I was in for, but some initial research suggested very strongly that I should not settle for the abridged edition that is much easier to acquire. Certainly the sheer time-sucking insanity of the Modern Library Reading Challenge, one of the many dependable bastions I have left in a bleak epoch, demands that I go the distance on all entries, even if it means becoming ensnared by a particular title for several weeks, often answering texts from pals checking in on me with fun little snippets from Estonian folklore quebraditaing somewhere within a “Fine. How are you?” Such is the life of a book-loving eccentric with a ridiculous self-imposed mandate that involves refusing to let terrible setbacks get in the way of happy rumination. We find hope and courage and new ideas and fierce fortitude in remembering that not a single authoritarian entity or pernicious individual can ever crush the possibilities contained within our minds, our hearts, and our souls.

The thirteen volume set landed at my feet with a promising thud after a month-long voyage by boat across the Atlantic Ocean, where it occupied my reading time for many months and proceeded to change my life. I realize that such a claim may sound trite in light of the devastating and life-altering results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but, if there’s anything we can learn from Stefan Zweig’s suicide, we must never forget the importance of patience, of working long and hard to fight and endure while steering humanity’s promising galleon back on the right course even as we look to culture’s power to sustain our spirits in the darkest times.1

James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough proved so galvanizing that I began to marvel more at trees and desired to spend more time beneath their magnificent branches. I began picking up the junk that other New Yorkers had so thoughtlessly deposited under their glorious leafy crowns. I began naming some of the trees I liked, saying “Hello, Balder!” (styled after the Norse god) to a beloved maple near the southwestern edge of Central Park. I started paying closer attention to the modest superstitious rituals that most of us take for granted, wanting to know why we feared black cats crossing our path (it started in the 1560s and originated with the idea that black cats were witches who had transformed their corporeal state) or worried ourselves into years of bad luck from walking under a ladder (it goes back to the Egyptians, who believed that walking under any pyramid would attenuate its mystical power). And, of course, I began to wonder if other superstitious rituals, such as voting for a vicious sociopathic demagogue to make a nation “great” again, originated from similar irrational fears. Despite being a secular humanist, I was stunned to discover that I had modest pagan proclivities and started to ask friends to engage in rather goofball offshoots of established rites in a somewhat libertine manner, much of which is unreportable. And if you think such a reaction is idiosyncratic (and it is), consider the strange takeaway that D.H. Lawrence memorialized in a December 8, 1915 letter:

I have been reading Frazer’s Golden Bough and Totemism and Exogamy. Now I am convinced of what I believed when I was about twenty — that there is another seat of consciousness than the brain and the nerve system: there is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness, which depends on the eye as its source or connector. There is the blood-consciousness, with the sexual connection, holding the same relation as the eye, in seeing, holds to the mental consciousness. One lives, knows, and has one’s being in blood, without any references to nerves and brain. This is one half of life, belonging to the darkness. And the tragedy of this our life, and of your life, is that the mental and nerve consciousness exerts a tyranny over the blood-consciousness, and that your will has gone completely over to the mental consciousness, and is engaged with the destruction of your blood-being or blood-consciousness, the final liberating of the one, which is only death in result.

When I finished Frazer’s final volume, I certainly wasn’t prepared to suggest that any part of my consciousness was tyrannizing the others because of some eternal human connection to myths and rites enacted to answer and make sense of the presently inexplicable. But Lawrence did have a point about the way humans are naturally drawn to unusual ceremonies and celebrations that go well beyond Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wearing the same shoes on game days, with the impulse often defying any steely rationalism we may use to make sense of our inherently animalistic nature, which any glance at a newspaper reveals to be quite frighteningly present.

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More importantly, The Golden Bough changed everything I thought I knew about storytelling and myth. It forced me to see commonalities within many cultures. To cite one of Frazer’s countless comparative examples, consider the way that humans have approached the bear hunt. After the Kamtchatkans had killed a bear and eaten its flesh, the host of the subsequent dinner party would bring the bear’s head before the assembled guests, wrap it in grass, and then conduct a panel of sorts where the host, serving as a moderator only slightly less ballistic than Bill O’Reilly, would ask the bear if he had been well-treated. Much like many wingnut “journalists” irresponsibly publishing claims in Slate today without robust evidence (and failing to tender corrections when pwned), the Kamctchatkan host would blame the Russians. The American Indians likewise implored the dead bear not to be angry for being hunted and would hang the bear’s head on a post, painting it red and blue rather than donning it with vegetation. They also addressed it, much in the manner that dog owners chat with their uncomprehending pets when nobody’s around. The Assiniboins also held feasts after a hunt and also mounted the bear’s head, shrouding it in strips of scarlet cloth, and respected the bear so much that they offered the head a pipe to smoke, not unlike the poor dog who sits outside Mets games with a pipe in his mouth. And looking beyond Frazer, one finds in Alanson Skinner’s Notes on the Eastern Cree and Northern Saulteaux a similar bear’s head ceremony that involved sharing a pipe before the participants took a bite from the bear’s flesh and, with the old Finnish custom of karhunpeijaiset, a bear’s head mounted upon a young tree, venerated and addressed as a relative or the son of a god. And according to the Russian ethnographer Vladimir Arsenyev (and I found this bit by sifting through James H. Grayson’s Myths and Legends from Korea), the Udegey people of the Russian Far East also had a bear ceremony and believed, “To throw the head away is a great sin….The cooked bear’s head is wrapped in its own skin with its fur outwards and tied up with a thin rope,” with a communal ceremony quite similar to the Finns.

I could go on (and indeed Frazer often rambles for pages), but there’s an undeniable awe in learning that something so specific about bears (head mounted, party organized, head covered, bear respected), much less anything else, arose independently in so many different parts of the world. It proves very conclusively, and perhaps this is especially essential for us to understand as we reconcile a vast and seemingly incurable national division, that humans share more in common with each other than we’re willing to confess and that the seemingly unique rituals that we believe define “us” are quite likely shared many times over in other parts of the nation, much less the world.

The reason it took me so long to read The Golden Bough was not because of its many thousand pages (aside from some sloggish parts in the Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild volumes, the books are surprisingly readable2), but because my imagination would become so captivated by some tale of trees esteemed above human life or a crazed orgiastic release (see Saturnalia) that I would lose many hours in the library seeing how much of this was still practiced. It has been more than a century since Frazer published the Third Edition, but his remarkable observations about shared rituals still invite us to dream and believe and to perceive that, Frazer’s regrettable references to “savages” and “primitives” notwithstanding, we are not so different from each other.

Frazer’s explanation for these common qualities — epitomized by the famous J.M.W. Turner painting (pictured above) sharing the same name title as Frazer’s capacious opus — rests in the sylvan lake of Nemi and an ancient tale in which a priest-king defended a singular tree. The priest-king, who was an incarnation of a god wedded to the world, could only be overpowered by a fight to the death and, if he was slain, he would be replaced by his victor, with the cycle perpetuating ad infinitum. Frazer believed that nearly every story in human history could be traced back to this unifying myth, with most of the tales triggered by our imagination arising out of what he called “sympathetic magic,” whereby humans often imitate what they cannot understand. So if this meant building effigies or participating in elaborate and often unusual rituals that explain why the sun scorched the crops to an unsustainable crisp in the last harvest or helped more animals to multiply for grand feasts next season, magical thinking provided both the bond and the panacea well before Robert B. Thomas came up with the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

There are two components to sympathetic magic: the first is Contagion, or physical contact, which involved a transfer of “essence” by physical contact (among other things, this would account for why humans have been especially careful about bear’s heads, as described above); the second was Similarity, whereby “the magicians infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

One of The Golden Bough‘s most fascinating volumes, The Scapegoat, reveals how a human belief in “essence” may be the root of our most irrational fears. Contagion often led to humans trying to transfer their disease and miseries to other people, if not reinforcing their own biases about people or groups that they disliked. I am indebted to the terrific podcast Imaginary Worlds for steering me to the work of Carol Nemeroff, whose psychological considerations of Frazer’s findings are are especially constructive in understanding disgust. Nemeroff and her colleagues conducted a series of studies in which they placed a sterilized dead roach in a glass of juice and asked subjects to eat fudge that resembled dog feces. The natural reactions (recoiling at the roach and the shit-shaped fudge) showed that sympathetic magic is still very much a mainstay of our culture.

Indeed, sympathetic magic drives most of our cherished rituals today. In one of his most controversial (but nevertheless true) observations, Frazer observes in Adonis Attis Osiris that, although the Gospels never cited a hard date for Jesus Christ’s birthday bash, Christians have adhered to their churchgoing rituals with the same practiced regularity one sees in fundamentalist homophobics holding up cardboard signs that misquote the Bible to reinforce their hate. The original celebration date of Christ’s alleged birth was January 6th. But because heathens celebrated the birthday of the Sun on December 25th, and this was often a draw for the Christians because the heathens were more fun, the Church agreed to set December 25th as the official day. If Christmas did not exist, it would be necessary for humankind to invent it. For such useful observations, The Golden Bough is incredibly handy to have in one’s library, if only to remind us that most of our beliefs, the recurring rituals we are expected to adhere to, are predicated upon some ancient explanation that we failed to shake from the Magic 8-Ball of our daily existence. So Colin Kaepernick really doesn’t need to stand for the national anthem. While this conformist rite is admittedly improved from the Nazi-like Bellamy salute, standing for The Star-Spangled Banner is little more than a quaint superstition that one is pressured to participate in to “belong.”

Frazer’s scholarship, while impressive, is sometimes inexact in the effort to find a Theory of Everything. Midway through putting together the Third Edition, Frazer was challenged by Dr. Edward Westermarck, who pointed out that fire festivals did not originate from fire reinforcing the sun’s light and heat, but rather a need to celebrate purification. Frazer did correct his views in Balder the Beautiful, but it does leave one contemplating whether sympathetic magic served as Frazer’s knee-jerk goto point in his noble quest to reconcile several folkloric strands.

Still, one cannot disavow the conclusion that much of our behavior is not only similarly ceremonial across cultures, which would indeed suggest a common source. Frazer managed one last volume, the Aftermath, in 1937, just four years before his death. While this volume is little more than a collection of B-sides, it does have leave one wondering what Frazer would have made of Nuremburg rallies or even our current default mode of walking like zombies in the streets, heads down, eyes bulging at the prospect of another chapter in a Snapchat story. The gods and the sympathetic magic may be a tad more secular these days, but we still remain seduced. Myths and stories and rituals are as old as the Chauvet Cave paintings. One cannot imagine being human without them.

Next Up: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek!

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