Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Credit where it's due

Today I got into a "debate" with a friend over a facebook status. When I brought up the book The Golden Bough, her reply was that the book had been discredited.

We've heard that before with other books based on Italian pre christian Traditions, including Leland's books. Vergil's Aeneid is also largely discredited for being not much more than political propaganda. I admit I've taken that position too. However, while thinking about these writers and their process, particularly Vergil's, I had to wonder: Why was he traveling so much? Vergil died en route to home with a draft of the Aeneid manuscript. Why was he traveling? He was collecting the stories of the people. The battle involving the Etruscans might have reflected the action of the time (much the way 1980s hairstyles were apparently the rage in 1800s midwest usa as per Little House on the Prarie), but there was more to it then filling in ancient opponents and cheering yay for the founding of Rome.

Leland collected stories of the people.

Frazer collected stories of the people. In Twelve volumes! I haven't read all twelve volumes, only abridged versions.Have you read any version of it, or have you skipped it because it was "discredited."

While I don't agree with Frazer's idea that polytheism "evolves" into monotheism, I don't cast doubt on his field work. 

Who is doing the discrediting? Outsiders? Those who don't believe because they don't have first hand experience? While, as my friend recommended, Hutton's Stations of the Sun might "disprove" evidence of pre christian easter celebrations, he was only looking at northern europe. He didn't peek at The Mediterranean. He neglected Ovid's casual recording of the spring festivals in which temples of Venus were overflowing with women lamenting the loss of Adonis. He didn't go near Mesopotamia (even tho the bible does!) and the records of women who wailed over the loss of Tammuz, or the translations of the hymns sung at rituals before europe was born.

Are there any modern Frazer detractors? Or do they rest upon the detractors of 125 years ago? Perhaps I should have told her about the book Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia. Here we have a modern scholar, working on the same site that inspired Frazer's work, defending the man with his insights and his findings.

On page 149 we find examples of why his work was "discredited:"

References to the Aeneid as fact rather than fantasy
References to other writers, ie: Servius, whose sources cannot be verified.
Wissowa, a contemporary of Frazer, disagreed but never actually said why.

From the intro:

It is now almost a reflex to disparage Frazer's work. Recently there have appeared a few brave souls prepared to argue that this disparagement has been both unfair and unscholarly.... Even as he was writing the last volume of the Golden Bough, the unfavorable academic view of him was hardening. Frazer became "a kind of evil spirit whose influence must be kept away by constant ritual utterances: in face by what is sometimes called apotropaic magic." Frazer had a command of ancient literature and culture that we can only envy.  His great virtues were these: He thought Latin writers might know more about their religion than we do, and he had an overriding sense that religion- even Roman religion- had its own internal logic, and that trying to understand that logic was a necessary part of the study of ancient religion as a cultural phenomenon. 

The author doesn't necessarily agree with all of Frazer's theories, and thanks to modern archaeology and the accessibility of information (yay internet!) plus another hundred years of investigation by others, he has more to work with. I've blogged abotu this book before. It's a good read but it's expensive, so try to get it from your local university! I don't agree with everything this author (or Frazer for that matter) says either. But it's still something solid to spark your magical recollections.

Yay for archaeology: Golden Bough found in Italy ;)

I've been posting all year about rereading the Aeneid. I think I need to start it again with this new perspective. ;)


  1. I totally think that the Golden Bough is a must in any pagan or any serious student of mythology's folklore. Yet every work of history and anthropology contains interpretations; the Golden Bough contains much factual info as it was known when he wrote. He was writing at time when many in Britain especially bemoaned the fact that with the baby, they had thrown out the bathwater, and that industrial England had removed the wisdom of Pan from the countryside. So I think that although his conclusions, or some of them, can often be re-examined (as Margret Murrays have been) that does not mean his scholarship as a whole can be thrown out as meaningless. As for Italy and Virgil, no one can discount their great, PAGAN achievement, and the foundation of democracy and their role in the Medieval mind as well. After all, the Roman legislature was bicameral, consisting of Equites (Plebs, or more like the common house of reps) and Senate (the Senate, Patrician families)... Hmm.. Bicameral.. SOUND FAMILIAR???

    Great blog post by the way. Your blog is insightful and focuses on things other than magic, which is excellent. You should be in grad school :)

  2. Honestly, you can "discredit" nearly anything. Facts are as much opinions as anything, especially when it comes to history. When it comes to spirituality, you have to take everything, even things that haven't been debated by scholars, personally as opposed to accurately. I think a lot of Pagans try to shun aspects of various belief systems because they think that professing something as accurate that has a murky history makes their religion seem less reputable. Other religions don't worry about that; why should we?