Frazer, James George

views updated May 17 2018

Frazer, James George



Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), British social anthropologist, folklorist, and classical scholar, was born in Glasgow. He attended the University of Glasgow from 1869 to 1874 and then went to Trinity College, Cambridge. He became a fellow of the college in 1879 and remained at Cambridge for the rest of his life. For one year, 1907/1908, he visited Liverpool University as professor of social anthropology, being the first to hold a chair with that name. Throughout his career he made little or no direct contact with the remote peoples who figure so extensively in his writings, and much of his simplification of their ideas (which explains some of his popular success) may be attributed to this absence of personal experience.

It is difficult now to appreciate Frazer’s theories of magic and religion, since they have either been thoroughly assimilated or else outdated by extensive field research, yet in the intellectual life of his time, and particularly in the field of social anthropology, his work was of great importance. He himself appears to have anticipated the obsolescence of his work when he stressed that firsthand observation of foreign societies would furnish the science of man with a solid foundation which could never be shaken, and which would endure when many of the theories of his time, his own included, were forgotten or remembered only as curiosities. And with a characteristic skepticism that may now appear sententious he wrote that magic, science, and religion 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 And as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis, perhaps by some totally different way of looking at the phenomena—of registering the shadows on the screen—of which we in this generation can form no idea. The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression towards a goal that for ever recedes. (1890, pp. 712-713 in the abridged edition)

Although Frazer was directly in that current of opposition to established clerical orthodoxy that swept so many thinkers of his time (notoriously his friend William Robertson Smith) into socially painful controversy, he himself was consistently held in respect amounting to veneration. He treated Christianity as comparable with pagan religions and thus, at least by implication, deprived Christianity of its uniqueness, but he did so too tactfully to give real offense. He undermined rather than attacked the doctrinal convictions of his contemporaries. He was rewarded in his lifetime with public and academic honors, among them a civil list pension granted in 1905 for services to literature and anthropology. (It is interesting to note that he received his honorary D.C.L. at Oxford in the company of Lord Kitchener and Cecil Rhodes.) His wife was single-mindedly devoted to his reputation; indeed, R. R. Marett likened her to the guardian-wife of a priest of ancient Rome.

To his admirers Frazer appeared as a modern seer, a role that he accepted. He was revered by colonial administrators and missionaries as few anthropologists have been, and his extensive correspondence with them, together with his published questionnaire (1907), produced firsthand information about many peoples of the world. Men of letters (Kipling, Tennyson, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and D. H. Lawrence, to mention only a few) also took account of Frazer’s writings, which have probably influenced the poetry of this century as much as they have the anthropology. A. E. Housman identified some of the characteristics that account for the popular appeal of Frazer’s work when he described it as “... a museum of dark and uncouth superstitions invested with the charm of a truly sympathetic magic” and said it illuminated “the forgotten milestones of the road which man has travelled” (Dawson 1932, p. xi). Frazer’s success in popularizing his subject and consolidating its practical relevance must be seen as one of his great claims to fame in the social sciences.

The development of the psyche . The Golden Bough, a reconstruction of the whole history of modes of human thought, orders a vast range of exotic beliefs and customs in terms of man’s search for true knowledge and effective control of his environment and his condition. Frazer posited three elements in the development of the human psyche, and in the spirit of the evolutionary thinking of his time, he saw these as characterizing three stages in human mental advance: magical, religious, and scientific thought.

Magical thought assumed that the universe is regulated by impersonal and unchanging laws (in this respect, Frazer believed, magic is like science). These laws were known to the magician through his art and applied by him in a quasi-technical way to control events. But magical beliefs and procedures (unlike scientific ones) were derived from faulty reasoning by analogy and from superficial associations: the qualities of one object were supposed to induce similar qualities in another. (One of the many examples given by Frazer is the ancient Greek custom of eating ravens’ eggs to produce black hair.) This homeopathic magic assumed a “law of sympathy,” which operates in such a way that like produces like. In addition, there was “contagious magic,” which assumed that things once in intimate contact would subsequently act upon one another: a man’s hair or nail clippings, for example, were used to work evil upon him. Although Frazer oversimplified the problems of symbolic thought that such beliefs now present to anthropologists, his distinctions continue to have some elementary taxonomic value.

Magical thought, which was gradually discredited, in Frazer’s opinion, because its failures became apparent, gave way to religious thought. In this phase superhuman beings were thought to control the world. The uniformity of nature ceased to be taken for granted, since the occurrence of natural events was assumed to depend upon the will of conscious personal agents. Man sought to gain the help of these agents by acts of supplication and propitiation.

Finally, recognizing more clearly the limits of his own powers of control and applying logicoexperimental methods, man achieved the scientific stage.

Assessment of “The Golden Bough.” The main value of The Golden Bough for many of Frazer’s contemporaries lay in its wide range of reference, its bold ordering of complex and varied information, and its perception of similarities in beliefs and customs that to them might have appeared quite distinct from one another. Frazer greatly overstressed the part played by deliberate reasoning in religious and magic belief and created a primitive man whose intellectual ambitions and processes of thought were those of a scholar like himself. (Even his evolutionary sequence reflects, psychologically, the process of growing up as many people with a pious upbringing like Frazer’s experienced it: magical fantasies of power in early childhood, followed by adolescent religious belief, yielding in maturity to “scientific” agnosticism.)

Often Frazer preached the dangers of misinterpretation that he himself had failed to avoid. What he said of Robertson Smith’s Religion of the Semites may be said of his own explanations of primitive thought: namely, that what now seems to be their inherent plausibility is in fact a presumption against them. Similarly Rousseau’s views on the origin of society commended themselves to the most reasonable people of the previous century just because, if they had to reconstruct society from its foundations, they would have proceeded much as Rousseau supposed primitive men did. Thus Frazer and many of his contemporaries explained magical and religious thought by imputing a “natural” form of their own reasoning to very different peoples. Moreover, lacking knowledge of local languages and cultures, they were satisfied to take reports of isolated customs and beliefs quite out of their social context, and in this process they sometimes distorted even such evidence as they had.

An early critique of Frazer’s work is that of W. Ridgeway (1924), who discussed divine kingship, one of Frazer’s central themes in The Golden Bough. The divine king, according to Frazer, has a vitality that is believed to be the source of vitality in society and nature, and therefore, when his powers fail, he must be put to death so that a vigorous successor may continue to ensure prosperity. Ridgeway admitted that Frazer’s exposition of the sacredness of kingship and the symbolism surrounding it did draw attention to these subjects and stimulate further investigation, but he charged that for many years Frazer’s mode of analysis also distracted attention from the practical politics of ancient tribal monarchies. A more recent examination of Frazer’s interpretation is Evans-Pritchard’s Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan (1948). This shows in a particularly interesting way the hold Frazer’s imagination had even on professional field observation: thus C. G. Seligman’s investigations among the Shilluk, which used Frazer’s concept of divine kingship, revealed just the set of beliefs and practices that fitted the Frazer argument. As Evans-Pritchard points out, there is very slight evidence for the actual ritual killing of the kings of Shilluk, while there is considerable evidence for the important role played by political conflicts within the ruling house. Many anthropologists thus became “enslaved,” as Seligman was and as Malinowski once claimed to have been, by Frazerian anthropology (see also Leach 1965).

Influence of Frazer’s ideas . Frazer’s detailed contributions to anthropological thinking—his studies of the soul, of death, and of totemism and taboo, for example—belong to a framework of discussion that has now largely been abandoned, although it should be granted to him that in his time his was a more modern view than many others. He recognized, for example, that the notion of taboo has something to do with the Roman concept of sacer, with its dual connotation of “sacred” and “accursed,” and though his general theory of totemism was crudely mechanistic, he did go some way toward identifying the bond of a common life that frequently links men and their totemic species.

But the significance of Frazer does not depend finally upon his anthropological theories. What he did was to introduce a comparative approach to the study of human social institutions. Here the very ambivalences and contradictions in his attitudes toward “the savage” may have served a purpose. While he had a certain ethnocentric contempt for the “dark and uncouth superstitions” he recorded, he also constantly implied that primitive thought is part of a single body of human tradition, linking his contemporaries (and himself) with much they despised. His self-deceived magicians and priests were also agents of human progress, the ablest and most intelligent of their time. In keeping with his own political philosophy, he also commended them for establishing intellectual despotism—and any statesman of his time who agreed with Frazer in principle was thereby accepting comparison with savages.

Frazer denied that all savages have an equal propensity to accept mystical explanations, asserting that in “savage as in civilized society there are sceptics as well as mystics” ([1923] 1931, p. 416); indeed, he believed that the “primitive mentality” that Levy-Bruhl attributed exclusively to savages also characterizes such modern thinkers with mystical proclivities as Pascal, Newton, and Hegel. And on various occasions he stressed not only the common qualities of the thought of savage and civilized men but the positive contributions the former have made to the latter. Thus, in Psyche’s Task (1909) he made a plea for the value of “superstitions”: he saw their function in the maintaining of such institutions as civil order, private property, marriage, and the sanctity of human life. In a sense he anticipated the interest in “function” of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. And in The Golden Bough he wrote that of [all] the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done, our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive. (1890, p. 264 in the abridged edition)

It is, then, as a powerful solvent of contemporary prejudices that Frazer’s work stands out. Without him, the struggle to introduce anthropological knowledge and anthropological viewpoints to authorities in academic and public life would have been longer and harder. In an essential way, he made modern anthropology possible.


[For discussion of the subsequent development of Frazer’s ideas, seeANTHROPOLOGY, article onTHE COMPARATIVE METHOD IN ANTHROPOLOGY; CULTURE; MYTH AND SYMBOL; RELIGION; RITUAL; and the biographies ofLEVY-BRUHL; MALINOWSKI; SELIG-MAN, C. G.; SMITH, WILLIAM ROBERTSON.]


(1887) 1910 Totemism and Exogamy. 4 vols. London: Macmillan.

(1890) 1955 The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 3d ed., rev. & enl. 13 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan. ⇒ A one-volume abridged edition was published in 1922, and reprinted in 1955.

(1907) 1910 Questions on the Customs, Beliefs and Languages of Savages. Cambridge Univ. Press.

(1909) 1920 Psyche’s Task: A Discourse Concerning the Influence of Superstition on the Growth of Institutions. 2d ed., rev. & enl. London: Macmillan.

(1923) 1931 Garnered Sheaves: Essays, Addresses, and Reviews. London: Macmillan.


BESTERMAN, THEODORE 1934 A Bibliography of Sir James George Frazer, O.M. London: Macmillan.

DAWSON, WARREN R. (editor) 1932 The Frazer Lectures: 1922-1932. London: Macmillan.

EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E. 1948 The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan. Cambridge Univ. Press.

LEACH, EDMUND R. 1965 Frazer and Malinowski. Encounter 25, no. 5:24-36.

RIDGEWAY, W. 1924 The Methods of Manhardt and Frazer, as Illustrated by the Writings of the Mistress of Girton (Miss Phillpotts, O.B.E.), Miss Jessie Weston, and Dr. B. Malinowski. Cambridge Philological Society, Proceedings Nos. 124-126:6-19.

About this article

James Frazer

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic