James George Frazier was intrigued by an ancient Italian tale of "King Of The Wood" and this book is his attempt to discover the origin of the story. The eponymous King was in actuality a priest whose task was to protect Nemi, a grove of trees surrounding a sacred lake dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana. The King of the Wood was never a particular priest but rather a succession of them called upon to fulfill the role. Periodically a challenger would fight and kill the priest in the hopes of becoming King of the Wood themselves.
The Golden Bough title is a reference to a sacred mythological plant that was believed to have healing and protecting properties. He uses phrases inspired by and borrowed from Latin poet Virgil whose hero Aeneas uses a golden bough to guarantee himself safe passage through the Underworld. In "The Golden Bough" Frazier traces the ancient anthropological roots of this custom and discovers that it was formed as a result of a combination of religious practices and beliefs, magical thinking, folk rituals, myths and the worship of the earth and the seasons from many different countries. He discovered that diverse cultures from seemingly unconnected nations are surprisingly similar in their beliefs and practices and he also attempts to untangle the mysteries and make an educated guess about the true origin of the King of the Wood. He does this by applying science and logic to ancient anthropology which at first seems like looking for the nature of water by overwhelming it with oil, but the practice of using science to explain unscientific belief is actually very effective, although Frazier admits that many of the conclusions he came up with are little more than conjecture. This was deliberate because he wanted to appeal to a wider audience than the usual academia who read his work.
Frazer became an inspiration to subsequent anthropological scholars as well as those studying psychology, literature and religion. He also created a seminal work for he study of human behavior. Although many of his approaches and ideas have given way to newer ideas he is still viewed as a key figure in anthropology and the book is still studied today.