The Illustrated Golden Bough, which the publishers refused to print: introduction the Golden Bough

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It is this matter of premises that is central to the wisdom to be gleaned from a study of Frazer’s work. It is impossible to read Frazer without realizing that all human beings have hidden mental agendas, that they act on the basis of unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable beliefs, and that beliefs are not and cannot be rational or logical. Indeed, most beliefs seem to be nonsensical, sometimes extremely so. One can see how Freud came to appreciate such subjects, since the elucidation of the dark unarticulated motivations of the subconscious mind is analogous to Frazer’s elucidation of the dark natural history of human belief, - both are bathed in Stygian gloom, shrouded in obscurity, ‘mysteries wrapped in enigmas’. Frazer and Freud, without knowing one another, were working together to turn a spotlight on the seething snakepits of those festering secrets of the human race, - human motivation and human belief.
In an obituary of Frazer, J. J. Fleure said: ‘Theories were provisional, human beliefs were provisional, there were no immutable principles of right and wrong; this was of the very essence of his teaching. His little book called Psyche’s Task adds another general feature of his doctrine, namely that, while superstition, which is false opinion, may have its evil side, it has, nevertheless, had very great influence on mankind in promoting respect for authority and abstention from many forms of violence.’
As we see false beliefs collapsing round us today, accompanied by an incredible rise in social violence, we may be forgiven for wondering whether ignorance is not safer, and false opinions do not at least have the virtue of being beliefs in something rather than in nothing. The resurgence of violent religious fanaticism by minorities all round the world is doubtless a desperate reaction to the moral vacuum of belief in which we live today. We make a mistake if we think the whole human race wishes to be enlightened: the need for a human being to assuage his existential fears will always be greater than his need to think logically or calmly. The fact is that people need their illusions, and if you threaten them with too much insight and Reason, they will kill you.

What humanity needs, of course, is to move beyond belief to something higher. Instead of arbitrarily adopted certitudes, often nonsensical, taken up out of fear, we need to try and practise philosophy. Albert Schweitzer with his ‘reverence for life’ gave us a sound philosophical basis for ethics, for instance. (See his wonderful books The Decay and Restoration of Civilisation and Civilisation and Ethics.) History has had many thinkers and teachers who have attempted to bring illuminating and inspiring notions to the fore, my personal favourite being Aristotle. If human beings were all capable of being Aristotles, then we would have a world full of people who thought fairly reasonably for themselves. However, the world is not full of Aristotles. It is full of people who believe rather than think. The brain is the least-used of all organs. But I do not mean to praise the intellectuals at the expense of the common man, since it takes an exceptional character to withstand the vanity of too much knowledge and get beyond it to reach wisdom. Personally, I prefer the company of an ordinary uneducated person any day to that of an intellectual, as one does not have to endure the vanity of his certitudes, only the airing of occasional prejudices.
As we seek that evanescent thing, wisdom, which threatens always to slip from our grasp, it is necessary to survey what has gone before: What did people believe before us? What myriads of teeming beliefs litter the trail of our species?
Therefore a survey of the natural history of human belief, which is what Frazer’s work is, has a value for us which cannot be underestimated. In making Frazer accessible to ordinary readers and providing illustrations (his books were unillustrated), I hope that the benefits of Frazer’s wisdom can be made available to that wide audience which he has always deserved. There can be no more fascinating pursuit than the study of ourselves, some might say. It is time now to bend over the twilit and ageless pool in the forest of human belief and study our features, to gasp like Narcissus at that sight of ourselves which the reflection reveals. For there we are, bedecked in a strange variety of changeable forms, sometimes with feathers, sometimes garlanded, with paint on our faces, sometimes suffering with anguish and fear, sometimes glowing with divine ecstatic triumph. This is the parade of human history seen from the inside: the successions of beliefs and rituals which have marked our path through time. Our past beliefs are the puppy dogs which follow along yapping at our heels as we progress to high plateaux, demanding that we look back and acknowledge them. If we deny them, they will bite our ankles.
The history of human belief is the history of our attempts to assuage our existential fears. We are all under sentence of death, so naturally we try and find some rationale for this. The perspective to be gained from considering what we have believed in the past enables us to have a clearer idea of what belief actually is. And if we wish to discern the meaning and order in a random universe, let us not be put off by the extraordinary apparent chaos of human belief: Chaos Theory has taught us by now that within apparent disorder there is a concealed order. Humanity’s beliefs may seem confusing and diverse, but they make sense in a weird sort of way: after all, we have believed these things at one time or another, so that fact alone is important, if not incredible.
Never has Frazer’s work been more relevant than now …

Robert Temple

January, 1996

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