Like the obsessive collector in Bruce Chatwin's Utz (1988), who becomes so transfixed by his assortment of Meissen porcelain that he can hardly bear to leave it alone, Sir James G. Frazer almost ended up being completely consumed by The Golden Bough (1890). The seed of the book took root during his study of Classical mythology, when he discovered the details of a grisly rite of priestly succession in an Italian grove. Initially just an intriguing detour, the trail Frazer began to uncover led him into an encyclopaedic comparison of the magical, religious and mythical practices of mankind through the ages. The project soon mutated into something diabolical: a potentially infinite book that sprouted more and more branches as it went along. The two volumes of the original 1890 edition became three in 1900, then swelled to 12 before being cut back down to a single book in 1922.
Did Frazer have any idea what he was getting into? You can imagine him now, a literary analogue to Captain Cook, clambering onto The Golden Bough like some vast metaphorical cruise ship, giving a brief warning to his readers before the anchor is raised. His odyssey, he tells us, 'will be long and laborious, but may possess something of the interest and charm of a voyage of discovery, in which we shall visit many strange foreign lands, with strange foreign peoples, and still stranger customs'. 'Strange' doesn't begin to describe the arcana he compiled and mounted so carefully in this vast literary museum of stuffed heads, human sacrifices, sorcerers, rain-makers, pagan altars, tree spirits, ceremonial fires, ritual voodoo. Straying all over the globe and across all time, Frazer's giant work is a handbook on everything from the homeopathic magic of a flesh diet and the mythical significance of mistletoe to where to go in West Africa if you have mislaid your soul.
This compendium of myths cast an enormous shadow over creative 20th-century literature. T. S. Eliot pronounced it as 'a work of no less importance for our time than the complementary work of Freud - throwing its light on the obscurities of the soul from a different angle', and planted infamous references to it in The Waste Land (1922). It also cast its spell on W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, among others. More recently the book even had an absurd cameo in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). But among anthropologists over the last century The Golden Bough has come in for something of a battering. In between the catalogues of vivid examples that form the greater part of his work, Frazer humbly advanced a few theories. Nearly all of them have since been dismissed. Even his facts, which he gathered from correspondence with missionaries in the field, have been called into question.
Frazer has been ridiculed as an armchair anthropologist who never left his desk during his global researches, waving imperturbably at his subject from a very comfortable distance. One of his main conclusions - that 'savage' peoples evolve in a linear fashion from magic to religion to science - now seems grotesquely imperial in its assumptions, as do his constant appeals to the vanity of his 'cultivated' reader. His hunger for plundered data seems colonial. His comparative approach, which merrily skipped over barriers of time and space to mark similarities and draw conclusions, has infuriated ethnographers who insist on the individuality of cultures and the impossibility of making broad cross-cultural comparisons. No doubt his most seemingly modern conjecture - that Jesus was no more than one of many 'victims of a barbarous superstition' - has also come under fire.
Revisiting The Golden Bough, though, none of this seems to matter. It's easy to poke fun at Frazer in the 21st century, as we view him, and the late Victorian society of which he was such a part, with almost as much distance as he did his 'savages'. But his monumental work of mythography still contains legions of truths that reverberate to this day. The idea that 'myth changes while custom remains constant; men continue to do what their fathers did before them, though the reasons on which their fathers acted have long been forgotten' haunts the book like a resonant ghost. We may increasingly view our own rites with irony and self-consciousness, but they remain very much woven into the texture of contemporary life. A century after Frazer the churches may empty husks, but the shops are still packed with Easter eggs, children still go wild on Halloween, and we still like to burn effigies on bonfire night and bloat ourselves at Christmas
It now seems somehow perfect that a book about myth, or distorted narrative, should turn out to be riddled with mistakes. In his book Exotica (1999) David Toop writes of 'exotic musics ... delineating a false map of the world, as if Sir James Frazer had written The Golden Bough as a dream text, a deliberate deception'. This may be going too far, but Frazer at least did always suspect that his project would have more affinities with art than with science. He wrote, consciously, for a general literary audience, and even tried to maintain the semblance of what, in a letter to his publisher, he called his 'plot'. He described his theories merely as 'convenient pegs on which to hang my collections of facts'. In the preface to a volume entitled Aftermath: A Supplement to 'The Golden Bough' (1936) he declared that 'now, as always, I hold all my theories very lightly, and am ever ready to modify or abandon them.'
Read as a work of fiction, The Golden Bough is a deeply unsettling journey, beginning with insidious bouts of flattery aimed squarely at the reader's ego before slowly dissolving into uncertainty. More and more of Frazer's frazzled deductions, by his own admission, come unstuck. The end offers some neat, but unsatisfactory solutions, before reaching an abrupt, wistful halt. Some 851 pages into the 1922 edition, having brought Christianity and the monarchy down to just another two among thousands of exotic beliefs, the author utters a final note of caution about taking his own shaky hypotheses too seriously: 'We must always remember that we are treading enchanted ground, and must beware of taking for solid realities the cloudy shapes that cross our path or hover and gibber at us through the gloom.' After a lifetime of research into collective illusions and mythologies, perhaps he equates them with his own natural, necessary tendency to stitch together some sort of belief system. Having pored for so long over so many others, he has little faith left in his own.