The Golden Bough was first published in two volumes in 1890. It is a must-read for those interested in comparative mythology and the study of religion.
Sir James George Frazer attempted to explain the succession of the priests of Diana in Nemi known as the King of the Wood. The succession is unusual for its violence. The priest who represented Virbius (or Hippolytus) must stand vigilant lest someone attack him and take his place. To understand this problem better, the author delved into the history of magic, examined ritual and mythology and cited various beliefs and practices from across the world that were similar in function.
He first examined the principles of magic; tree worship; the different taboos particularly those taboos involving the nobles; religious ceremonies; the fertility cults, etc.
The King of the Wood at Nemi was "probably regarded as an incarnation of a tree-spirit/spirit of vegetation and is endowed with the magical powers to make trees bear fruit, crops to grow, etc. His life is governed by a system of precautions or taboos to guard against the influence of demons and sorcerers. But the value attached to his life necessitates his violent death as the means of preserving it from inevitable decay of age/avoid natural death or old age to transmit his life to his successors."
The point of the book is to show that religions or cults were about the worship and occasional sacrifice of a sacred king. It can also be seen in the book that mankind has progressed from its use of magic to organized religion to science in understanding life and the world.
I do not recommend this volume to those who only have a casual interest in mythology. The Golden Bough can be tedious for someone with only a passing interest or little to no knowledge about myths and rituals. The author could fill up pages just enumerating dozens of examples about a particular event or object.
If you have a fair knowledge of world mythology or want to further your studies however, The Golden Bough is a must-read. It is often cited in various comparative mythology and anthropology books so why not read it first-hand.
Rating: 8 out of 10