The Golden Bough

The Oak Man

Four years ago my broth­er and sis­ter-in-law gave me the book ‘The Gold­en Bough’ by James Fraz­er. I picked it up many times over the past few years, but because of its extreme­ly com­pre­hen­sive cov­er­age on the cus­toms and beliefs of dif­fer­ent cul­tures, I end­ed up only skim­ming through the sec­ond half (which in itself com­pris­es 400 pages!).

As a young man I felt a wist­ful roman­ti­cism in regard to ancient cultures—the tribes and eth­nic groups whom I felt were much clos­er to nature than peo­ple in today’s soci­ety. It is not my intent in this blog to get into a deep com­par­i­son between mod­ern soci­ety and ancient, trib­al cul­tures. But as I read through the detailed descrip­tions in this book, my pre­dom­i­nant emo­tion was sad­ness. Sir James Fraz­er echoes this sen­ti­ment at the end of the book, when he says: ‘We may well ask our­selves whether there is not some more gen­er­al con­clu­sion, some les­son, if pos­si­ble, of hope and encour­age­ment, to be drawn from the melan­choly record of human error and fol­ly which has engaged our atten­tion in this book.’

Totem Pole

The feel­ing of sad­ness result­ed from the obser­va­tion of how peo­ple in the past, the world over, devel­oped rigid belief sys­tems and rit­u­als that were hand­ed down across gen­er­a­tions, and, because they became so deeply entrenched, were almost impos­si­ble to let go of. This rigid­i­ty of mind, of being fixed and con­fined with­in a spe­cif­ic world­view, is dis­tress­ing in itself. But more dis­turb­ing is how so many of the rit­u­als required blood­shed and death, by way of ani­mal and human sac­ri­fices. The world will not turn, the crops not pros­per, with­out a rit­u­al death and res­ur­rec­tion, very often tak­en literally.


Of course the mod­ern age is not with­out its assumed beliefs and val­ues, which very often go unques­tioned. And there is no short­age of super­sti­tion, creduli­ty, and blind belief, not to men­tion slaugh­ter and oppres­sion. So in a sense, noth­ing has changed.

Mod­ern soci­ety seems to have swung to an oppo­site extreme, where any­thing not imme­di­ate­ly vis­i­ble by way of ‘empir­i­cal analy­sis’ is reject­ed, dis­card­ed, ban­ished. One of the rea­sons I love about liv­ing in Thai­land is that ‘the world still teems with those mot­ley beings’—the place is alive with spir­its. In com­par­i­son, when I vis­it Europe or North Amer­i­ca, I feel a bar­ren­ness and sterility—the land has been wiped clean of the mys­ti­cal and mys­te­ri­ous. As a result peo­ple are often left aban­doned, alone in their own worlds.

Anoth­er feel­ing I had while read­ing this book was a sense of mar­vel, amaze­ment, and rev­er­ence, con­sid­er­ing how the Bud­dha was able to both real­ize and spread the Dham­ma 2,500 years ago in a soci­ety that was firm­ly set in long-stand­ing reli­gious beliefs and cus­toms, many of which were based in wrong view. Ani­mal sac­ri­fices abound­ed, per­formed to appease the gods, and the brah­man class was deter­mined to main­tain its supe­ri­or­i­ty over oth­er castes, by cit­ing their divine rights and privileges.

Skeleton Costume

I was remind­ed of this pas­sage in Ven. Phra Payutto’s chap­ter on the ‘Three Signs’:

The Buddha’s release from self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (despite the prob­a­bil­i­ty that he would get ensnared in more refined notions of self), his rev­e­la­tion that the world func­tions with­out a cre­ator deity, and his dis­cov­ery of the non­self and non-cre­ative Uncon­di­tioned count as enor­mous advance­ments in human wis­dom. This real­iza­tion is the escape from the mas­sive pit­fall that has trapped human beings. Despite under­stand­ing the prin­ci­ples of imper­ma­nence and dukkha, the great philoso­phers before the Bud­dha were ham­pered by the belief in a self or soul. The prin­ci­ple of non­self is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to see.

Although ‘The Gold­en Bough’ is some­what dif­fi­cult read­ing due to its den­si­ty of infor­ma­tion, James Fraz­er was an excep­tion­al schol­ar and an excel­lent writer. Fol­low­ing are some pas­sages which illus­trate his pas­sion for his work and pro­vide some stim­u­lat­ing and chal­leng­ing ideas:

For ages the army of spir­its, once so near, has been reced­ing far­ther and far­ther from us, ban­ished by the mag­ic wand of sci­ence from hearth and home, from ruined cell and ivied tow­er, from haunt­ed glade and lone­ly mere, from the riv­en murky cloud that belch­es forth the light­ning, and from those fair­er clouds that pil­low the sil­very moon or fret with flakes of burn­ing red the gold­en eve. The spir­its are gone even from their last strong­hold in the sky, whose blue arch no longer pass­es, except with chil­dren, for the screen that hides from mor­tal eyes the glo­ries of the celes­tial world. Only in poets’ dreams or impas­sioned flights of ora­to­ry is it giv­en to catch a glimpse of the last flut­ter of the stan­dards of the retreat­ing host, to hear the beat of their invis­i­ble wings, the sound of their mock­ing laugh­ter, or the swell of angel music dying away in the dis­tance. Far oth­er­wise is it with the sav­age. To his imag­i­na­tion the world still teems with those mot­ley beings whom a more sober phi­los­o­phy has dis­card­ed. Fairies and gob­lins, ghosts and demons, still hov­er about him both wak­ing and sleep­ing. They dog his foot­steps, daz­zle his sens­es, enter into him, harass and deceive and tor­ment him in a thou­sand freak­ish and mis­chie­vous ways. The mishaps that befall him, the loss­es he sus­tains, the pains he has to endure, he com­mon­ly sets down, if not to the mag­ic of his ene­mies, to the spite or anger or caprice of the spir­its. Their con­stant pres­ence wea­ries him, their sleep­less malig­ni­ty exas­per­ates him; he longs with an unspeak­able long­ing to be rid of them alto­geth­er, and from time to time, dri­ven to bay, his patience utter­ly exhaust­ed, he turns fierce­ly on his per­se­cu­tors and makes a des­per­ate effort to chase the whole pack of them from the land, to clear the air of their swarm­ing mul­ti­tudes, that he may breathe more freely and go on his way unmo­lest­ed, at least for a time.’

Horned Mask

We are at the end of our enquiry, but as often hap­pens in the search after truth, if we have answered one ques­tion, we have raised many more; if we have fol­lowed one track home, we have had to pass by oth­ers that opened off it and led, or seemed to lead, to far oth­er goals than the sacred grove at Nemi. Some of these paths we have fol­lowed a lit­tle way; oth­ers, if for­tune should be kind, the writer and the read­er may one day pur­sue togeth­er. For the present we have jour­neyed far enough togeth­er, and it is time to part. Yet before we do so, we may well ask our­selves whether there is not some more gen­er­al con­clu­sion, some les­son, if pos­si­ble, of hope and encour­age­ment, to be drawn from the melan­choly record of human error and fol­ly which has engaged our atten­tion in this book.

If then we con­sid­er, on the one hand, the essen­tial sim­i­lar­i­ty of man’s chief wants every­where and at all times, and on the oth­er hand, the wide dif­fer­ence between the means he has adopt­ed to sat­is­fy them in dif­fer­ent ages, we shall per­haps be dis­posed to con­clude that the move­ment of the high­er thought, so far as we can trace it, has on the whole been from mag­ic through reli­gion to sci­ence. In mag­ic man depends on his own strength to meet the dif­fi­cul­ties and dan­gers that beset him on every side. He believes in a cer­tain estab­lished order of nature on which he can sure­ly count, and which he can manip­u­late for his own ends. When he dis­cov­ers his mis­take, when he recog­nis­es sad­ly that both the order of nature which he had assumed and the con­trol which he had believed him­self to exer­cise over it were pure­ly imag­i­nary, he ceas­es to rely on his own intel­li­gence and his own unaid­ed efforts, and throws him­self humbly on the mer­cy of cer­tain great invis­i­ble beings behind the veil of nature, to whom he now ascribes all those far-reach­ing pow­ers which he once arro­gat­ed to him­self. Thus in the acuter minds mag­ic is grad­u­al­ly super­seded by reli­gion, which explains the suc­ces­sion of nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na as reg­u­lat­ed by the will, the pas­sion, or the caprice of spir­i­tu­al beings like man in kind, though vast­ly supe­ri­or to him in power.

But as time goes on this expla­na­tion in its turn proves to be unsat­is­fac­to­ry. For it assumes that the suc­ces­sion of nat­ur­al events is not deter­mined by immutable laws, but is to some extent vari­able and irreg­u­lar, and this assump­tion is not borne out by clos­er obser­va­tion. On the con­trary, the more we scru­ti­nise that suc­ces­sion the more we are struck by the rigid uni­for­mi­ty, the punc­tu­al pre­ci­sion with which, wher­ev­er we can fol­low them, the oper­a­tions of nature are car­ried on. Every great advance in knowl­edge has extend­ed the sphere of order and cor­re­spond­ing­ly restrict­ed the sphere of appar­ent dis­or­der in the world, till now we are ready to antic­i­pate that even in regions where chance and con­fu­sion appear still to reign, a fuller knowl­edge would every­where reduce the seem­ing chaos to cos­mos. Thus the keen­er minds, still press­ing for­ward to a deep­er solu­tion of the mys­ter­ies of the uni­verse, come to reject the reli­gious the­o­ry of nature as inad­e­quate, and to revert in a mea­sure to the old­er stand­point of mag­ic by pos­tu­lat­ing explic­it­ly, what in mag­ic had only been implic­it­ly assumed, to wit, an inflex­i­ble reg­u­lar­i­ty in the order of nat­ur­al events, which, if care­ful­ly observed, enables us to fore­see their course with cer­tain­ty and to act accord­ing­ly. In short, reli­gion, regard­ed as an expla­na­tion of nature, is dis­placed by science.’


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