The Golden Bough


In addition to being the key required for Aeneas to access the underworld, ‘The Golden Bough’ is also the name of a book written by the social anthropologist James Frazer. The book is a sprawling account of the different religious and cultural traditions that Frazer found out about through correspondence with missionaries and other adventurers who had travelled the world. Eliot claimed that he was heavily influenced by Frazer’s work while he was writing the Wasteland.


In the book, Frazer attempts to find a common theme underlying every single cultural festival or tradition that he has ever heard about. Partly as a result of trying to do too much and partly as a result of being based on fairly flimsy anecdotal evidence, Frazer’s scientific thesis is ultimately unconvincing and the book is a little too rambling and disorganised to be an enjoyable read. However, the key thrust of Frazer’s argument is that every cultural practice and tradition from all over the world can be traced back to the importance of growing crops in primitive society and in some places he makes a reasonably convincing argument that there were few aspects of life as psychologically significant to primitive man as the fear felt upon seeing the crops and fruits wither and die during the autumn and the subsequent joy felt upon witnessing the return of life in the spring.


In line with this, Frazer describes many European harvest customs where the harvesters keep a part of the old harvest safe throughout the winter in order to replant it again in the spring as if to ‘carry the energy safely over’ from the old year, through the winter, into the spring. The idea of declining from a period of life, vitality and abundance (Summer), through a time of barren coldness (Winter) to be reborn again (in the Spring) has obvious echoes of the journey the Eliot believes that we need to take through the Wasteland and perhaps Eliot’s attempt to preserve fragments of an ancient, more cultured past through the allusions he makes in his work may mirror Frazer’s idea of ‘carrying over’ the force of life from the old world into the new.