Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sir James Frazer - The Golden Bough - "Sympathetic Magic"

Hello all! I've decided to jumpstart this blog with a small abstract about The Golden Bough. Forgive me if I don't cite any sources, as most of the information is pretty easy to find in countless analyses. (If you'd like your own copy, I found an electronic one on Project Gutenberg. I'm sure I'll be visiting this site in the future!) Prior to my receipt of the 2007 Irvine proseminar syllabus, I never heard of Sir James George Frazer or any of his work, yet after reading him over I've realized it has permeated into my consciousness through countless media over the last century. I'll go into detail about that later.

First, we should get to know the man behind the text. Frazer (b. 1854, d. 1941) was a Scottish social anthropologist and paramount member of the classical cultural evolution tradition during the Victorian era, which hegemonized the field of anthropology at the time. Like Edward Burnett Tylor, considered by some as the "father" of British anthropology, Frazer was interested in the mental progression of religion, from primitive magic to organized religion to science. Also like Tylor, Frazer relied heavily on an armchair approach to anthropology, rarely ever traveling outside of Cambridge. His most famous work, The Golden Bough, was a broad multi-volume analysis of myths, folklore and literature from various regions, understood in conjunction with more modern-day religions such as Christianity. Despite the heavily criticism over the proposition that Christianity had primitive origins as well as the lack of substantial field work to support Frazer's claims, The Golden Bough made a major impression on many schools of thought, even though its influence is probably more apparent in the literary field rather than the social sciences.

What exactly is "sympathetic magic," you might ask? Simply put, it is a form of magic based on imitation and correspondence. To describe sympathetic magic in detail, Frazer provides several examples from around the globe, although his interpretations are somewhat suspect. He mentions the Hindu practice of fashioning a figure out of clay or wax and promptly destroying it to incur harm upon another person. Sympathetic magic can also be used for more amiable purposes, such as the Chippeway practice of pricking the heart of an image of their object of desire. Other comparable examples of sympathetic magic in modern religion still exist in virtually every culture and religion, although the rationale behind the effort has probably changed dramatically. The practice of Vodou in West Africa and parts of the Caribbean offers an obvious one in the use of vodou dolls. The Roman Catholic practice of Communion, for example, where wine and wafers represent the "blood" and "body" of Jesus Christ, embodies more of a symbolic gesture today rather than the literal notion of consuming the anatomy of a prophet.

While many of Frazer's theories have been refuted by anthropologists past and present, his work on defining "sympathetic magic" still remains relevant today. The Golden Bough has also influenced countless Modernist literature, cited often by notable authors of the period such as T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and Ernest Hemingway. One could even argue that this work has had more impact on our understanding of the imaginary landscape rather than the actual world, but I'm not quite ready to make such a bold accusation. Or am I?

In today's practice of anthropology, is it possible to execute a project in the same mode as that of The Golden Bough? Many critics accuse Frazer of overinterpretation in order to meet the field's standards as an academic text. He also never travelled to many of the places he discussed, relying mostly on artifacts and secondary information brought to him. Can anyone cite any other attempts at armchair anthropology that have had some significance in the field in recent memory? Is it even possible that the armchair is more common than I think?

If I have left anything out, fellow contributors, please add to this entry.

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