The Golden Bough
James Frazer

“I realized then that anthropology, as presented by Sir James Frazer, is a great science, worthy of as much devotion as any of her elder and more exact studies and I became bound to the service of Frazerian anthropology.” Bronislaw Malinowski, by all accounts one of the most significant and influential figures in the development of anthropology, started here, with Frazer, with The Golden Bough, a study of comparative religion that not only helped to shape anthropology as an academic discipline but profoundly influenced a whole lot of the literature that appears on this list and intellectual and artistic culture generally – Yeats, Lovecraft, D.F. Lawrence, Hemingway, Freud, William Carlos Williams, Wittgenstein, and – more recently – Joseph Campbell and Camille Paglia, to name just a few.

The Golden Bough explores myth and religion cross-culturally to argue that there is a universal pattern by which people seek to make sense of the world and their place in it, and a general progression from myth to religion to science. There are, then, numerous common elements that run across cultures and across history and continue to shape the ways we consider existence. Fertility, the partnering of deities of sun and earth, harvest, death and rebirth – these central elements can be found at the core of virtually all explanatory frameworks, and provide the foundation for all religious belief.

Simple argument, put that way. And you can pick up a one-book abridged version pretty easily. The whole thing? 12 volumes that appeared between 1890 and 1915. That’s a whole lot of myth, a whole lot of religion, a whole lot of anthropological and archeological work.