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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

from magic to religion

Time to type in a quick blog-post. I'm pushing the pace a bit so I can get to a current copywriting task that has a close deadline. Although very few deadlines in life are "real", as an independent contractor it's well to meet them if possible.

Still, over morning coffee (and I'm still on my second mug) I like to type in some research notes. Today it was from Frazer's classic The Golden Bough, chapters 44 and 45, about "Demeter and Persephone" and "The Corn-mother and the Corn-maiden in Northern Europe", respectively.

Obscure, you say? Maybe. Personally I'm finding Frazer's book, first published in 1922, even more fascinating on this read-through than I did when I first read (most of) it in 1978-79 on my trip to Europe with Tim. I remember back then picking up the hefty paperback with a sense almost of obligation, as something I should read, but usually finding myself more drawn in than I expected. The Golden Bough bogs down only in amassing examples of Frazer's various points, which amassing he did in order to show the truly worldwide scope of his theory, as well as to offer maximum support for an argument that he expected to be resisted by the reader.

For Frazer looked into a great many of the strange, even baffling, customs, rites, and superstitions of the world, on every inhabited continent, and saw order and purpose. We receive traditions, our culture, and act out things as it were automatically, in the same way that our body performs things by habit. Thus, in the same way that we put up and decorate Christmas trees and hide Easter eggs and dress our kids in costumes to go trick-or-treating, other people dance around maypoles or call the last sheaf of harvested wheat the Old Woman or give up their children to be roasted alive in a bronze bull.

Frazer's project, which took him decades, had him tracking the gradual evolution of magic into religion--for he contends that magic is the more ancient view of the world, what he regards as a primitive form of science. In his view, an animistic view of the world, in which every object had its own life and soul, not unlike the way we regard the world as young children, evolves into a world in which invisible but anonymous spirits animate things, able to flit from one to another, until eventually these spirits become identified as individuals--as gods, with names and biographies. Ultimately, in Frazer's rationalistic eyes, this view becomes superseded by a scientific outlook, in which the forces of nature are seen in their most objective and also effective way. No doubt in deference to his readers, he pays lip service to the validity of Christian belief, but it seems unlikely that Frazer, having examined so much world mythology, and having described so many beliefs and rites that are essentially the same as the Christian myth, personally bought into any religion as more valid than the others.

Reading The Golden Bough is still an eye-opener for me. Our whole rationalistic, scientific worldview is like a thin shim of ice on an ocean of beliefs and feelings that are alien to it. I'm relatively unsuperstitious, but it's still there within me, a vague fear sometimes of not doing things a certain way, of not following the "proven" path. Even my father used to wear a special pair of red socks to do video-editing, because they made the equipment work. It was a joke, of course--and yet I'm pretty sure he wore the socks. Frazer would understand that immediately as an instance of "contagious magic": probably Dad once wore these unusual socks, which may have been noticed by colleagues, and on that day the editing equipment happened to perform better than usual. The coincidence of two unusual events links them causally in the "savage" (that is, our) mind. Thereafter, if Dad had failed to wear the socks, and the equipment had failed to work properly, he would have had only himself to blame. Who knows, maybe his colleagues would have sacrificed him to the god of video-editing.

I was planning to read only a little into The Golden Bough this time, since I felt I'd never have the oomph to make it through all 934 pages. But I'm on page 610, and still absorbed...

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