The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, is a comparative study of mythology and religion. Written by the Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer, it was first published in 1890.
I feel I just must paste a lengthy segment of the Preface to a follow-on work by Frazer — 📙 Aftermath, a Supplement to the Golden Bough, 1936 — here. The language, I feel, is just so damn fine . . .
When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Rough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking ; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood. But insensibly I was led on, step by step, into surveying, as from some specular height, some Pisgah of the mind, a great part of the human race ; I was beguiled, as by some subtle enchanter, into inditing what I cannot but regard as a dark, a tragic chronicle of human error and folly, of fruitless endeavour, wasted time, and blighted hopes. At the best the chronicle may serve as a warning, as a sort of Ariadne’s thread, to help the forlorn wayfarer to shun some of the snares and pitfalls into which his fellows have fallen before him in the labyrinth of life. Such as it is, with all its shortcomings, I now submit The Golden Bough in its completed form to the judgment of my contemporaries, and perhaps of posterity.
Here is another extract:
The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression towards a goal that for ever recedes. We need not murmur at the endless pursuit:
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
Ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.*
Great things will come of that pursuit, though we may not enjoy them. Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future—some great Ulysses of the realms of thought—than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science. But a dark shadow lies athwart the far end of this fair prospect. For however vast the increase of knowledge and of power which the future may have in store for man, he can scarcely hope to stay the sweep of those great forces which seem to be making silently but relentlessly for the destruction of all this starry universe in which our earth swims as a speck or mote. In the ages to come man may be able to predict, perhaps even to control, the wayward courses of the winds and clouds, but hardly will his puny hands have strength to speed afresh our slackening planet in its orbit or rekindle the dying fire of the sun. Yet the philosopher who trembles at the idea of such distant catastrophes may console himself by reflecting that these gloomy apprehensions, like the earth and the sun themselves, are only parts of that unsubstantial world which thought has conjured up out of the void, and that the phantoms which the subtle enchantress has evoked to-day she may ban to-morrow. They too, like so much that to common eyes seems solid, may melt into air, into thin air.
* “You were not made to live as brutes / But to follow virtue and knowledge.”
— From Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri