Outlining Universal Human Understanding
Frazer uses "The Golden Bough" to reveal to his audience, much as it has been revealed over the course of history, the various systems of consciousness in which the human species has come to understand its existence in relation to its natural surroundings. By initially providing for us the singular circumstance of a priest in the woods clasping a knife at Nemi, Frazer effectively displays a microcosm of the magical system, critically analyzing its various components and conjecturing its total attachment to an encompassing universal system.
He firstly identifies the scene at Nemi. Then, he pulls out of the initial scene to show the system that the priest is part of, the tradition of civilization that ensures the growth of agriculture by transferring the power and order of the universe (personified by the deities) into a particular individual who is worshipped as a god himself. By the laws of similarity, this chosen one becomes for the people the embodiment of the universe and, in pleasing him, the people will prosper. All of their traditions are direct reactions to this power- what they do, they do to please the priest/king and the gods he represents (these actions become rituals and traditions); what they don't do becomes the systematic exclusion of any action that might offend the gods (taboos) and disrupt the universe. Frazer next shows how this system of hierarchy and custom is based on the interpretation of the planet itself, identifying and relating similar gods in different cultures to the natural systems that provoke anxiety in people regarding food- people would pray to gods that their crops would be plentiful and animals would reproduce. Thus, we can see that a system of deities was developed out of the forces that affected an agricultural system and fertility system.
Here, we can see that human consciousness is evolving, not by fundamentally changing, but rather by being absorbed into larger and larger systems. And with each new absorption comes new levels of consciousness. People initially understood that the universe was ordered but believed that they could change it simply by willing it. Then, they realized the inefficacy of their magic and believed that gods could only change it, and they could appeal to the gods to change it in their favor. Then, human consciousness turned to science to explain the way the world worked. Along the way, as kings and priests realized that sacrificing children and innocent people was not in their best interest, systems of morality began to influence cultural practices, and kings used symbols and substitutes so they could retain their power. All of these aspects evolved over time to bring us the social system we see today.
Magic is the tool used to change the system that man lives in. As people have grown to experience the world more fully, their observations have gotten more refined. In this way we can see that human understanding, starting from the idea of sympathetic magic, has been absorbed into larger and larger systems, constituting the makeup of a total human knowledge. The raw and unrefined knowledge is, at its most basic stage in "The Golden Bough," recreated at the end of the book. Through the constant assertion of larger systems, a golden bough becomes recognizable as essential in the killing the old king to preserve the order of the universe, in that mistletoe is the manifestation of fertility and the succession of a new power, or the reincarnation of life, or the resurrection of the dead, which symbolically creates for a society the understanding of itself in relation to its needs, desires, fears, and beliefs. Thus, at the basic level of human consciousness, it could only be understood as obvious that the everlasting life harnessed within the mistletoe would be the only effective weapon in destroying the frailty of mortality which posed, what was considered, the unimaginable threat to the preservation of the order of the universe.