At any one time my reading table is piled high with about 20 books. Some are books I’m currently reading; some are books I intend to read soon. Some are books I think I ought to read, but somehow never get around to. And some are books that I dip into every now and then, slowly working through them a chapter here, another chapter three years later…
One of these reading table perennials is The Golden Bough by JG Frazer, which I have been reading on and off for over 20 years. For those who don’t know, it’s a huge, rambling, early 20th century study of magic, religion, superstition and mythology – and it is full of fascinating ideas, beliefs and practices.
I picked my copy up second-hand from Cromford’s world famous Scarthin Bookshop in 1991 (I know, because I wrote so inside the cover). It is not a particularly handsome or exciting edition, and I feel no compunction in underlining interesting passages or scrawling notes in the margins.*
The prose is quite dated and shows the prejudices of a privileged white male of what was still then a colonial super-power. But look beyond that, and The Golden Bough is a treasure trove of fascinating ideas. Barely a page goes by without me jotting something in the margins – though often it is only an exclamation mark. Over the years I have squirrelled away many little snippets and ideas, and every now and then I find the perfect place to make use of them.
Yesterday I had great fun writing a scene (for my work in progress, Kikimora) in which the inhabitants of my fictional town decide their gods aren’t pulling their weight and need reminding of their duties. They take the god’s statue from the market square and parade it through town, beating it, and calling insults at it. They then throw it in the icy river, and tell it it will stay there until the god answers their prayers and brings the long overdue Spring.
According to Frazer such practises occurred as recently as 1893. In drought-stricken Italy,
“saints were turned, like naughty children, with their faces to the walls. Others (were) stripped of their robes, exiled, threatened, grossly insulted, ducked in horse-ponds.”
“At Licata the patron saint, St Angelo … was put in irons and threatened with drowning or hanging. ‘Rain or the rope!’ roared the angry people at him, as they shook their fists in his face.”
This is wonderful, entertaining stuff. If I hadn’t read it here I would never have believed such things took place. I love the idea of gods having to prove themselves and pull their weight.
One of the enjoyable things about European heritage is the way that Pagan traditions have managed to coexist and insinuate themselves into newer Christian ideas. In many places it was common for people to go to church every Sunday, but still honour their household gods and spirits with little offerings and sacrifices. This interplay of Christian and Pagan ideas allows the development of fascinating hybrid customs which are a gift to a writer.
One of my earliest short stories borrowed ideas from Frazer in the competition between three brothers to become their villages new Rain King (after the old one was burnt alive for failing to bring the rains). It was a very cynical story in which the most ruthless and underhand brother won, and turned out to be just the leader the village needed. I have no idea what became of it, or if anyone but me ever read it.
Similarly, my first (unpublished) novel had a recurring motif based on Frazer’s idea of the King of the Wood – the concept of killing the king in order to become king.
It seems I owe Frazer quite a debt of inspiration.
I will continue to dip into The Golden Bough now and then, when the mood takes me. You never know what odd, horrific, or amusing thing will crop up next, or where I’ll be able to make use of it.
I’d be interested to hear if others have their special go-to inspirational texts? Where do you keep going back to?
* I am not precious about books. I know some people are. My sister used to berate me terribly for cracking the spines if I borrowed books off her. Seriously, how can you read a book without cracking the spine? Personally I think books are to be read and enjoyed, and a bit of wear and tear proves this has happened.