Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Golden Bough, Part One: The Science of Magic

I put off reading The Golden Bough for a long time. I had some idea how important it was to the composition of Finnegans Wake, but I think was intimidated by the monstrous size of the complete 12-volume edition. What if I read the abridged version, only to discover that it wasn’t enough, and my work wouldn’t be complete without slogging miserably through the rest of it? Having finally taken the plunge, I can confirm that the abridged version is quite sufficient (I’m sure that’s all Joyce read anyway), and it’s absolutely indispensable to understanding the Wake. In fact, it’s so packed with important ideas that even though I read it a full year ago, it’s only after rereading it now that I feel able to write something coherent about it. I posted something this time last year about the importance of Easter to the Wake story, so I hope it will become clear just how fitting it is to return to it now.

In fact, The Golden Bough is a fascinating read, not least thanks to Frazer’s decision to structure the book as a kind of murder mystery, in which he takes the role of detective, uncovering the motives behind an ancient and bloody Latin ritual. The King of the Wood of Nemi was an escaped slave who lived in a sacred forest near Rome. He earned his title by killing the previous occupant in single combat and thus lived in constant danger of being killed himself. Frazer attempts to explain this strange practice (as well as many other, more relevant religious traditions, not least those of Christianity and Judaism) by comparing it with a vast catalogue of magical and religious minutiae, constructing an overview of religious development, from the first stirrings of supernatural belief to the world religions of today.

The foundation of Frazer’s theory lies in the nature of primitive magic (Frazer used the kind of terminology that you’d expect from a 19th-Century anthropologist; for simplicity I’ll follow him as far as “primitive”, but stop short of “savage”). He calls it “sympathetic magic”, which comes in two varieties: imitative – to create the desired result by, you know, imitating it – and contagious – to affect something at a distance by acting on something formerly in contact with it. These two laws are often combined, but the most important is imitation, of which Frazer provides countless examples, from European peasants throwing water to make it rain, to the Brazilian Indian who, to increase the size of his “generative organ”, strikes it with a banana-shaped aquatic fruit.

But there’s more to magic than hitting your penis with stuff. It stands to reason that anyone who depends, as early agricultural communities did, on the cycles of nature for survival, will expend a great deal of effort developing ways to keep their crops growing on schedule. This is the first stage in Frazer’s history, in which first farmers, and later specialised magicians, invented magical rituals to ensure the sprouting of plants in the spring.

Following the principles of sympathetic magic, these rituals could include couples having sex in the fields or marrying trees to each other, but at some point they coalesced around the idea of spiritual possession. Early communities, Frazer tells us, believed that all things, animate and inanimate alike, had “souls”, and that magicians could become possessed by the souls of plants to encourage them to grow. Because of that, breaking bread takes on a profound significance: at every meal you are literally eating the body of God.

At a certain point, the plant that is the object of worship stops being seen as the body of the spirit, and becomes merely a lifeless vessel which the spirit can enter and exit at will. This is the first step in the conception of gods, and it represents a crucial advance in a culture’s ability to contemplate abstractions. Now the spirit can be equally worshipped in any form, perhaps as an animal associated with the crops (like a wren in the trees, or a goat in the fields) or, more importantly, in the body of a man-god. The magician or the king himself becomes the vessel of the life-giving power of nature, and thus becomes a god in human form.

But as Spiderman can tell you, with great power comes great responsibility. Each year, nature blooms with life in spring and withers in autumn. In accordance with the rule of imitation, the man-god’s life must follow the same cycle. Thus in countless religious traditions, the concept develops of a god who dies in the body of one man in order to be renewed in the body of another, either after a fixed term or when the incumbent begins to show signs of aging (apparently Shaka, king of the Zulus, was obsessed with procuring hair oil to hide his grey – draw your Gaddafi comparisons here). We can observe the influence of ideas like this in Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker’s confrontation with the young Cad with a Pipe.

Tomorrow we’ll see how the sacrifice of human gods led to the creation of anthropomorphic, heavenly deities like the ones we recognise from ancient myths.
Part Two

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