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Frazer, James G.


FRAZER, JAMES G. (18541941), was a British anthropologist and historian of religion. James George Frazer, the eldest of four children, was born in preindustrial Glasgow, the son of a successful pharmacist. His parents were devout members of the Free Church of Scotland, a conservative sect that in the 1840s had broken away from the (Established) Church of Scotland on matters of church governance. Accordingly Frazer was raised in an atmosphere of deep piety, which, be it noted, he later said that he did not find oppressive.

Frazer early showed academic promise and entered the University of Glasgow at the then not unusually early age of fifteen. There, he writes in a genial memoir composed at the end of his life, three important things occurred: He conceived his lifelong love of the classics, he came to see that the world is governed by a system of unvarying natural laws, and he painlessly lost the religious faith of his childhood.

Frazer did brilliantly at Glasgow but soon realized that although Scottish education gave him a broader background than an English one would have, its standards were not as high. After taking his degree at Glasgow he therefore matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1874 for a second baccalaureate. He took second place in the classical tripos of 1878. A dissertation on Platonic epistemology gained him a fellowship at Trinity in 1879, which after three renewals was granted for life; he was a fellow of Trinity for more than sixty years.

In 1896 Frazer married Mrs. Elizabeth (Lilly) Grove, a French widow with two children who had become a writer out of economic necessity. She wrote an early and important volume on the history of the dance, along with many playlets in French for schoolroom use. She soon became convinced that the academic world was overlooking her husband's merits and strove mightily to advance his career (he was the stereotype of a research scholar, unworldly and shy). She also arranged for his work to be translated into French, which meant that Frazer was very well known in France after the war. Frazer was knighted in 1914, became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1925.

Frazer's first scholarly writing, from which his interest in anthropology can be said to date, came about through his friendship with William Robertson Smith (18471894), the eminent Scottish theologian and comparative Semiticist. More than any other person, Smith was responsible for disseminating the results of German biblical scholarship in Great Britain at the end of the century. For his pains he became the defendant in the last significant heresy trials in Great Britain. Although he was exonerated, Smith had become too notorious for provincial Scotland and therefore accepted an appointment in Cambridge. Among his many other activities, he was editor of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and as such was always looking for likely contributors. Meeting his countryman Frazer at Trinity, Smith soon set him to work. Because in those days encyclopedias were brought out a volume at a time, and because the volumes through the letter O had already appeared. Frazer was assigned articles beginning with P and subsequent letters. Thus it was that he came to write the important entries "Taboo" and "Totem," which launched him into the then sparsely populated field of anthropology.

In 1889 Frazer wrote to the publisher George Macmillan offering him a manuscript on magic, folklore, and religion in the ancient world. Macmillan accepted The Golden Bough, and it was published in two volumes in the following year. It was generally well received, the reviewers noting Frazer's impressive erudition and stylistic gifts. As soon as he had brought out the first edition, Frazer began preparing an enlarged second edition, which duly appeared in three volumes in 1900. The third and final edition, in twelve volumes, came out from 1911 to 1915. It is this massive version that Frazer himself abridged in 1922; he produced a thirteenth volume, Aftermath, in 1936.

The Golden Bough merits special attention because it remains Frazer's best-known work, but it hardly exhausts his contribution to the historical and anthropological study of ancient and "primitive" religion. In 1898 he published Pausanias's Description of Greece a translation of Pausanias's report of his travelsaccompanied by five volumes of commentary, maps, and plates, all of which represented fifteen years of work. Pausanias, who in the second century ce prepared this guidebook to his country, was especially curious about religion and inquired ceaselessly about artifacts and rituals that had survived in the countryside but were no longer extant in Athens. Pausanias's record is frequently the only surviving witness of many phenomena of ancient Greek folk religion. His travels constituted an ideal text for Frazer, permitting him to use his classical as well as his comparative anthropological knowledge.

Among Frazer's other major productions in the history of religion are Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship (1905); Totemism and Exogamy (1910), which gave Freud much data as well as the idea for a title (Totem and Taboo, 1911); Folk-Lore in the Old Testament (1918), which arose out of Frazer's study of Hebrew; and an edition of Ovid's Fasti (1929). The Fasti is a narrative poem organized around the cycle of the Roman holidays, and, like Pausanias, it gave Frazer an opportunity to employ the whole of his considerable scholarly equipment.

The Golden Bough was noteworthy because it offered something that had not been done before in English: a treatment from the philosophical, evolutionary point of view, delivered in sonorous and untechnical language, of the beliefs and behavior of the ancient Greeks and Romans as if they were those of "primitives." By the end of the nineteenth century, the classical world had lost much of the privileged status it had enjoyed since the Renaissance as the origin and repository of the greatest that had ever been thought and said. Indeed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classical historiography was largely demythologizing in its impulse. But because of the centrality maintained by the classics in the educational curriculum and thus in the training and habit of mind of the governing classes in Great Britain, it came as a shock to a cultured reader when Frazer insisted on the ways in which life and thought in classical antiquity strongly resembled, overall and in detail, those of the "primitives" (or "savages") who had become well known to Europeans as a result of the imperialist expansion of the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century.

Although many scholars have disagreed with some or all of it, the argument of The Golden Bough may fairly be said by now to have become part of the basis of modern culture (at least on the level of metaphor), and many educated people who employ its argument are unaware of its origins. Briefly, the work purports to be an explanation of a curious ritual combat that took place, according to ancient sources, in classical times in the town of Aricia outside Rome. In a grove at Nemi a "priest" stood guard at all times, awaiting a challenger to his supremacy. The rule of the place was that any runaway slave who managed to reach the grove would gain his freedom if he succeeded in killing its guardian; with such success, however, came the obligation to assume the role of priest, and to kill or be killed in turn. In Frazer's view, this combat cannot be understood solely or wholly in terms of Roman religion; instead its elements must be analyzed comparatively (by adducing examples of analogous behavior from other "primitive" societies). He asserts that the guardian of the grove was a priest-king, who, like all such in primitive societies, literally incarnated the well-being of the community and thus had to be kept alive and well at all costs. This leads to a discussion of the strategies, both actual and symbolic (such as taboo, magic, sacrifice, and scapegoats), that such communities undertook to keep the king from weakness or death. At the heart of the work is a lengthy analysis of the complex of myth and ritual in the religions of the ancient eastern Mediterranean, all of which turn on death and resurrection and whose themes are often played out in seasonal combats and other fertility ceremonies. The main rites discussed are those of Attis, Adonis, Osiris, and Dionysos, all of whom Frazer understands as divine protagonists in the same, ubiquitous, recurrent vegetational drama.

The actual goings-on in the grove at Nemi are, Frazer finally admits, merely pretexts, for he is in fact interested in something more important: nothing less than the laws that describe the workings of the "primitive mind," which by definition is less well developed than the norm. Although this mind is inaccessible directly, it may be studied nevertheless, by adopting (from the work of the pioneering German folklorist Wilhelm Mannhardt) "the law of similarity": when customs are similar in different societies, one may then infer that the motives of the people performing them are also similar. This follows from the then generally accepted idea (advanced by E. B. Tylor) that the human race has evolved in a uniform fashion, mentally as well as physically. Further, because in Frazer's view the mentality of the primitive "Aryan" was still extant in that of the modern European peasantry because the peasantry still participated in a mental universe untouched by modern thought, it was therefore appropriate to compare the behavior of these so-called modern primitives (peasants and underdeveloped tribal societies) with that of historical societies of the ancient world in order to extract laws of primitive mental functioning.

Finally, however, Frazer was interested in even bigger game than primitive epistemology. For although in his survey of the dying-and-reviving gods of the eastern Mediterranean Frazer never mentions the name of Jesus, only the slowest of his readers could have failed to make the comparison between the pagan rites that result from an imperfect (because irrational) understanding of the universe and contemporary Christianity. Frazer employed the "objective," scientific comparative method as a weapon to finally dispatch Christianity as an outworn relic of misunderstanding, credulity, and superstition. There can be no doubt that his subliminal message was successfully delivered: The many uses of Frazerian arguments and images in the literature and cultural analysis of the post-World War I period (the most well-known of which is T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land ) are ample testimony to that. (In addition, the Frazer papers in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, contain many unsolicited letters from readers, educated and otherwise, that thank Frazer for having finally dispelled the veil of illusion from before their eyes as to the "real" nature of Christianity.)

As time has passed, Frazer's affinities are increasingly seen to be with those polymath scholars who, periodically since the Renaissance, have had the vision and industry to attempt a description and interpretation of the entire phenomenon of religion. Living when and where he did conferred several advantages on him. First, only by the end of the nineteenth century had European imperialism gone far enough to open up virtually the entire tribal world. Thus Frazer's was the first generation for which the data existed to permit a credible, anthropologically based worldwide conspectus of religious behavior. Second, the triumph of Darwinism automatically promoted as self-evidently correct any explanatory model that was based on evolutionary premises. If mind had developed in a linear fashion, as Frazer (and Tylor) believed, then a rigid, uniform progression from magic through religion to positive science seemed a plausible description of the pathway toward understanding that humanity had in fact taken.

From a current point of view, however, viewing Frazer from the other side of a gulf produced by a nightmarish century and by many years of anthropological fieldwork and much greater philosophical and methodological sophistication, he seems himself to be a relic of a habit of thought that, if not exactly primitive, then is at least of long ago and far away. His extreme empiricism and antitheoretical inclination made him a victim, finally, of his mountains of data. At the same time, he could never have presented such a stirring picture of the long evolutionary struggle of humanity toward self-understanding had he not been so willing to use simple categories under which to organize his data.

Frazer's professional descendants are many and various, as are their evaluations of his work. For English-speaking anthropologists, he is seen mainly as a horrible example of the "armchair school" of anthropology that was swept away by the advent of fieldwork. Historians of religion hold him in higher esteem, probably because the comparative method (of which his work is the greatest exemplar) is still in guarded use in that discipline. Finally, his name stands highest among literary critics and cultural historians, to whose field he made no explicit contribution.

It may be most reasonable to situate Frazer in a grand traditionone that understands religion humanistically and therefore regards it as a perennially appropriate subject for discourse with the educated readerthat has been eclipsed in the present day as a result of the aspirations to scientific status of anthropology. One may see him, then, despite his obvious limitations, as a scholar whose vision and literary gifts ensure him a permanent place in the ranks of those who have expanded the modern idea of the mysterious past of humanity.

See Also

Smith, W. Robertson.


For further biographical information see my J. G. Frazer: His Life and Work (Cambridge, 1987). Two memoirs by Robert Angus Downie, James George Frazer (London, 1940) and Frazer and the Golden Bough (London, 1970), are sketchy. Theodore Besterman's A Bibliography of Sir James Frazer, O. M. (London, 1934) offers a useful guide to Frazer's complex oeuvre. E. O. James's obituary notice in the Dictionary of National Biography, 19411950 (supp. 3), R. R. Marett's in the Proceedings of the British Academy 27 (1941): 377492, and H. J. Fleure's in the Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 3 (1941): 897914, are helpful. See also Bronislaw Malinowski's "Sir James George Frazer: A Biographical Appreciation," in his A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1944), pp. 177221 combines lucid criticism with appreciation of Frazer as founder of modern scientific anthropology and great humanist.

New Sources

Robert Ackerman, see "J. G. Frazer and the Jews," in Religion 22 (1992): 135150, and The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists (New York and London, 1991; 2d ed. 2002), esp. chapter four: a book very informative, despite some factual mistakes and the overall inadequacy from the viewpoint of history of religions. These shortcomings are neglected in the review by Michel Despland, Numen 50 (2003): 479481. Scathing criticism in an article by another prominent representative of British social anthropology: Edmund R. Leach, "Golden Bough or Gilded Twig?," Daedalus 90 (1961): 371387. Very important for the religious-historical perspective is Jonathan Zettel Smith, The Glory, Jest and Riddle. James George Frazer and the Golden Bough (Ph.D. diss, Yale, 1969). Smith's views are summarized in the seminal article "When the Bough Breaks," History of Religions 12, no. 4 (1973): 342371, reprinted in J. Z. Smith, Map is not Territory, Leiden, 1978, pp. 208239, and in the fourth chapter of Drudgery Divine (Chicago, 1990), pp. 85115. Frazer is central in Smith's redescription of the field of comparative religious studies, a work characterized by painstaking erudition and unequaled acumen, although very controversial in its far-reaching conclusions. See also the profile "James George Frazer" by Hans Wissmann, in Klassiker der Religionswissenschaft von Friedrich Schleiermacher bis Mircea Eliade, Munich, 1997, pp. 7789. For the literary aspects of Frazer's oeuvre see John B. Vickery, The Literary Impact of "The Golden Bough" (Princeton, 1973); Robert Fraser, The Making of "The Golden Bough" (London, 1990) and Sir James Frazer and the Literary Imagination, edited by Robert Fraser (London, 1990).

Ackerman Robert. The Myth and Ritual School. New York, 1991.

Beard, Mary. "Frazer et ses bois sacrés." In Les bois sacrés: actes du colloque international organisé par le Centre Jean Bérard et l'École pratique des Hautes Études (V Section), edited by Olivier de Cazanove and John Scheid, pp. 171180. Naples, 1993.

Gee, Emma. "Some Thoughts about the 'Fasti' of James George Frazer." Antichthon 32 (1998): 6490.

Robert Ackerman (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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