Frazer, James

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FRAZER, JAMES (1854–1941), Scottish anthropologist and historian.

Death alone stilled the magisterial prose of James Frazer. Nothing else deterred his ever-expanding efforts in anthropology, classics, folklore, and the history of religions: neither a decade's blindness nor a generational shift in academic anthropology away from comparative surveys to functionalist ethnography. Never resting on his laurels (a knighthood, many prizes, world renown), Frazer cultivated an international reading public, aided by Lady Lilly Frazer, his wife and canny manager of a virtual cottage industry producing her husband's and her own books and translations, particularly in her native France.

Born in Glasgow in 1854, Frazer excelled there and at Cambridge in classics; he was directed to anthropological topics by the Scottish theologian William Robertson Smith (1846–1894). Frazer's abundant works include Totemism and Exogamy (4 vols., 1910), Pausanias's Description of Greece (6 vols., 1898; translation and commentary); Folklore in the Old Testament (1918); and of course The Golden Bough, that Victorian-Edwardian cornucopia of ethnological, historical, and literary depictions of sacrificial and sacramental forms that Frazer felt lay beneath and behind human reason—and possibly even in its future. Ambiguous prognosis characterizes its gargantuan third edition (12 vols., 1907–1915, plus 1936 Aftermath). "Magic, religion, and science," Frazer intones,

are nothing but theories of thought; and as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis…. 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.

This unsettling prospect resonates with Psyche's Task (1909), where Frazer argues that superstition remained the underpinning of civilization's highest achievements: crown and mitre, marriage, and private property.

The evolutionary or maturational sequence—magic, religion, science—described in the earlier editions of The Golden Bough (2 vols., 1890; 3 vols., 1900) is somewhat diluted in the third edition's vastness. Frazer also modulated his aggressive anticlericalism of 1900, when he had provocatively set Purim and Christ in the company of his key themes: dying gods and vegetal rites; legends of cyclically assassinated priest-kings; all manner of baffling primitive festivals, classical myths, and peasant lore. Readers of Frazer have long debated his stance toward rationalism and religiosity. The literary scholar Stanley Hyman, concluding that he oscillated inconclusively, puts Frazer in the company of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Frazer's biographer Robert Ackerman rightly places Frazer high in the ranks of figures who have expanded the modern idea of humanity's mysterious past.

Frazer briefly held (at Liverpool) Britain's first official chair in "social anthropology." Not a fieldworker, he nevertheless marshaled resources for intensive ethnography by others in Melanesia, Australia, and Africa. Contrary to his "armchair" reputation, Frazer made arduous travels in Greece for his translations and archaeological surveys. That authoritative Frazerian tone can sound imperious (and imperialist); his sonorous expansiveness may strike today's readers as consonant with colonialism "on which the sun never set." But Frazer's vivid and informed compilation of ostensibly bizarre rites possibly undermined more than buttressed supposedly self-confident Victorian values. Just how much subsequent approaches in anthropology—from Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski (1884–1942) to contemporary cultural critique—owe to Sir James remains a subject of contention.

Frazer's immense learning—in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and world ethnology—surpassed German rivals; his translations of Apollodorus (1921) and of Ovid's Fasti (1929) remain influential. His more general impact has outlasted that of Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917), Ernest Renan (1823–1892), Andrew Lang (1844–1912), and sundry scholars of his era. Frazer too retailed sensational metaphors of "survivals": primitive Aryans among us today, peasants still savage at heart. Ultimately, however, his work conveys no moral of Aryan superiority or Christian preferability. Those hoping to understand Frazer must reckon with his attraction to the "romantic irony" of Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), and Jean Paul (Jean Paul Friedrich Richter; 1763–1825). The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), in his own striking "remarks on Frazer," might have made more of this dimension of Frazer's vision.

Recent revaluations stress the durability of Frazer's controversial tomes and their relevance to travel writing, narratives of remembrance, discursive eloquence, and critical issues of cultural fragmentariness. His captivating evocations of sacrifice and scapegoats have reverberated in popular culture as well (e.g., the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and the musician Jim Morrison). Frazer's interdisciplinary salience is manifest whenever anthropologists, historians of religions, classicists, and scholars of cultural and literary studies resume a comparative mission.

See alsoImperialism; Primitivism; Science and Technology.


Ackerman, Robert. J. G. Frazer: His Life and Work. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Fraser, Robert. The Making of The Golden Bough: The Origins and Growth of an Argument. London, 1990.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. The Tangled Bank: Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud as Imaginative Writers. New York, 1962.

Manganaro, Marc, ed. Modernist Anthropology: From Fieldwork to Text. Princeton, N.J., 1990.

Stocking, George. After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 1888–1951. Madison, Wis., 1995.

Vickery, John B. The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough. Princeton, N.J., 1973.

James A. Boon