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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough is a seminal work of comparative religion written by Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer. When it was first published in 1890, The Golden Bough attracted controversy for including Christianity alongside pagan religions in Frazer’s analysis. Nonetheless, the book was wildly successful, and it had a tremendous impact on the psychology and literature of the 20th century.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on The Golden Bough.

MAGIC Frazer’s central thesis in The Golden Bough is that all civilizations progress through three stages of belief: magic, religion, and finally science. Frazer proposes that many civilizations share a belief in sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is the idea that one can affect a real-world object by performing some action on an image or representation of it. Frazer developed this concept further into his Law of Similarity (a magician can produce an effect by imitating it) and Law of Contagion (affecting a material object in a certain way will affect a person once in contact with it).


The book’s title derives from an incident in The Aeneid, which was itself memorably painted by British artist J.M.W. Turner. The scene painted by Turner shows Aeneas offering the titular object to the Roman goddess Proserpine in order to enter the Underworld to obtain information from his father.


The golden bough also served a ritualistic role in early Roman history. According to Frazer, Roman priests of the goddess Diana were ritually beaten to death with a supposedly golden bough taken from the grove of Diana on the shores of Lake Nemi. The priest was known as The King of the Wood (rex Nemorensis in Latin) and his successor would take his title.


The death of The King of the Wood is emblematic of a wider ancient religious belief in the importance of ritual death. Through studies of mythological figures like Osiris, Attis, and Balder, Frazer suggests that ritual sacrifice represents the death and then renewal of crops.


In ancient cultures, then, the death of a god was viewed as essential for the continued survival of the people. Frazer comments on the numerous myths of the corn spirit, the mystical personification of the corn crop. This corn spirit, be it in the form of a corn hare, corn cock, corn ox, or other, was eaten following the harvest.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • Maybe you shouldn’t let your friend make little dolls of you and poke them with things. Learn more about the idea of sympathetic magic here.

  • T.S. Eliot was heavily indebted to Frazer for his theories. Learn more from this article from the British Library.

  • J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Golden Bough is worthy of study in its own right.

  • Want to know a little more about Diana’s worshipers? Watch this video this video to learn more about the Temple of Diana at Lake Nemi.


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