Abridging Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough so that it could be readily accessible to Everyman was an exhausting task. It resembled my efforts to condense about twenty millions words by Joseph Needham into a single volume without footnotes which even a child could read, The Genius of China, recently reprinted in an expanded and revised edition, which has met with a considerable reception around the world for 21 years. I like to take on the impossible, and have done so repeatedly.

My work on The Golden Bough, however, brought with it a considerable sense of outrage on my part at the financial corruption and dishonesty which surrounded the venture. The book was commissioned by a packager which went bankrupt in ‘a curious sort of way’, but somehow or other the book not only was published, but appears still to be in print today, eleven years later. I don’t know who is getting my money. It seems to have sold well over 100,000 copies. The only problem is that I never received a penny in royalties, my contract was not honoured, and various publishers have profited while I have not. That was not what the contract said! In other words, I was shafted!

The British publisher was Batsford, and the American publisher was Simon & Schuster. As if the situation were not exasperating enough, I was informed on 12 March 1996 by the packager that Simon & Schuster refused to publish my Introduction and wanted me to write one which did not contain any opinions. They asked for a photo of Frazer, which I gladly supplied from my collection (my earlier attempt to include it in the book had been rejected). But the packager then went ahead and constructed an Introduction which they did not show to me, put my name on it, and it was duly published. It contained some of my words, but many other things which I never wrote, paraphrases of some of my points, plus some basic information about Frazer taken from an encyclopaedia. The only thing more irritating than being cheated of what one is due is to have something which one has not written published with one’s name on it, and not even know it is happening until after the fact. In the Introduction attributed to me, Frazer’s ‘evaluation of primitive modes of thought can at times seem rather harsh and some of his views are no longer compatible with current thinking’. I never said that! Nor do I believe it. It seems that what was really wanted by the publishers was not so much that my opinions be removed from my Introduction, but that they be changed. Instead of an Introduction with no opinions being published, an Introduction with changed opinions was published.

I have decided to put my original Introduction below so that anyone interested in what I really think about Frazer and The Golden Bough can read it. In 1996, an Introduction could be successfully censored and distorted without the author’s knowledge and consent. Now, however, the World Wide Web exists, and I can at least circulate what I really wanted to say, which before was impossible. I only wish I could also collect the money which I am owed.

Read the Introduction below or download it as a Word document here




The Golden Bough is one of those classics which barely anyone reads, but which everyone agrees to revere. Filling thirteen volumes, this lifetime labour of Sir James Frazer is simply too much for most people to cope with. The first person to try and do something about this was Frazer’s own wife, Lilly. In 1924 she published Leaves from the Golden Bough, intended as a children’s book with illustrations, omitting all theory and concentrating on folklore tales. The next year, Frazer himself published a single-volume abridgement of his own work, but it was still over 750 pages in small type. It is this work which I have in turn abridged here. In the course of working with Frazer’s material I discovered the curious historical coincidence that there might have been no Golden Bough without the enlightened financial patronage of Frazer over many years by Sir Robert Mond, FRS (1867-1938), who was the first cousin once removed of my own great-grandfather, and whose connection with Frazer I had never previously suspected.

Sir James Frazer died in 1941. His work had an influence on world culture far exceeding the number of readers of his books. He was the first person to elucidate the phenomenon of totemism and the first modern to take seriously the subject of taboo. Twenty-two years after the publication of the earliest version of The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud published Totem and Taboo. Folklore studies thus began to permeate modern psychology. At a much more enlightened and sophisticated level than that of the sex-obsessed Freud, Carl Jung carried concerns with tradition and the history of belief into psychology with dignity, emphasizing the value of all such material for an understanding of the individual psyche and for elucidating the collective archetypes which he believed to underlie all human experience.

The discoveries which Frazer made about the history and development of belief entered into the sweeping currents of cultural change whirling round the figures of Darwin, Huxley and the founding father of modern anthropology, Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917, author of Primitive Culture, 1871), who were his friends. French scholars were particularly appreciative of Frazer and compared him with Ernest Renan (1823-1892, author of the hugely provocative book The Life of Jesus, which upset the Catholic Church and all fundamentalist Christians). The discoveries of Frazer were spoken of in the same breath with the archaeological discoveries of Arthur Evans on Crete, where he discovered Minoan culture, and of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the supposedly mythical site of Troy and proved that it had really existed. Frazer was thus part of the revolution in Western thinking which freed Western minds from the dogmas of the Bible and enabled Westerners to see that the history of the world was not embodied in a single book, nor was the history of the world’s beliefs a simple dichotomy of Christian versus non-Christian. Frazer also set a good standard in two of his exemplary characteristics: a willingness to change his theories by publicly discarding hypotheses without egotistical hesitation when they were seen to be inadequate, and a total disregard for the petty-minded specializations so characteristic of the mental midgets who often pose as modern scholars.

Frazer took the grand view: he surveyed the whole of the world and the whole of history, and although he was constantly trying to extract meaning from the mass of his findings, he achieved greatness by not really having any particular axes to grind. He was essentially unprejudiced. He needed to be! What I like about reading Frazer is to detect his wry and restrained Scottish humour which flickers like a foxfire round his work, never intruding. How he retained his sense of humour in the face of his depressing findings about the stupidity, credulity, and idiocy of the human race, I’ll never understand.

It has to be said that if one sits down to read Frazer at great length, volume after volume, or even his so-called ‘abridgement’, one gets very depressed. One sees that human beings clearly will believe any old nonsense, and nothing is silly enough or idiotic enough that it will not attract some believers. It was Frazer’s work which made clear for the first time, I suppose, that matters of human belief are important not for their content but for their psychological significance. It is a peculiar arrogance of the human race that it persists in regarding itself as a rational species. All the evidence is to the contrary. But one might as well hold a conversation with a stone wall as try and convince a human being that he or she is essentially an irrational being. Our certainty of human rationality is our ultimate vanity. Of course, most attempts to erect so-called rational systems of thought and to act according to logic are just as futile, since the very concept of rationality is a fallacy when applied to us, and when we seriously attempt it we can get monstrous social aberrations. For instance, it was considered ‘logical’ for the Nazis to exterminate the Jews, - the most rational thing imaginable, - if one accepted certain insane premises.

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