The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief to The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief to scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices which have influenced the 20th century. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king. Specifically, that man progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.
This thesis was concocted around Turner's picture of The Golden Bough, a sacred grove where there grew a certain tree that grew day and night; a transfigured landscape in a dream-like vision of the little wood-land lake of Nemi -- "Diana's Mirror" where religious ceremonies and the "fulfillment of vows" of priests and kings were held.
This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world's mythologies.
The germ for Frazer's thesis was the pre-Roman priest-king at the fane of Nemi, who was murdered ritually by his successor:
"When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Bough 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."
The book's title was taken from an incident in the Aeneid, illustrated by the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner: Aeneas and the Sibyl present the golden bough to the gatekeeper of Hades in order to gain admission.