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Sir James (George) Frazer (1854-1941)


British anthropologist, historian of religion and classical scholar, whose best-known work The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion traced the evolution of human behavior, ancient and primitive myth, magic, religion, ritual, and taboo. The book appeared first in two volumes in 1890 and finally in 12 volumes in 1911-15. It was named after the golden bough in the sacred grove at Nemi, near Rome. Frazer did much to popularize anthropology, and although his insights were widely influential in his time, his conclusions are mostly discredited now.

"It is said, too, that sailors, beating up against the wind in the Gulf of Finland, sometimes see a strange sail heave in sight astern and overhaul them hand over hand. On she comes with a cloud of canvas – all her studding-sails out – right in the teeth of the wind, forging her way through the foaming billows, dashing back the spray in sheets from her cutwater, every sail swollen to bursting, every rope to strained to cracking. The sailors know that she hails from Finland." (from The New Golden Bough, ed. by Theodor H. Gaster, 1959)

James Frazer was born in Glasgow, Scotland, into a pious middle-class family. He was the eldest of four children of Daniel K. Frazer, a pharmacist, and Katherine (Brown) Frazer. Although he rejected Christian religion "as utterly false," he grew up as a member of the Free Church of Scotland.

Frazer was educated at Larchfield Academy, Helensburgh, and University of Glasgow and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his dissertation on Plato won him a Research Fellowship. Frazer became a classics fellow from 1871 until his death. While at Glasgow, he studied under Lord Kelvin. Except for one year, 1907-08, spent at the University of Liverpool as professor of social anthropology, Frazer remained from 1908 most of his life in Cambridge.

Frazer also studied law because of his father's wishes. He was called to the English Bar in 1879, but he never practised. In 1896 he married Elizabeth (Lilly) Grove, a French widow of the master Charles Baylee Grove, with two teen-aged children. While living in South America, she had learned Spanish. In Britain she turned to writing and a commission from the Badminton Library led her to Cambridge. Elizabeth devoted herself to providing her husband with the support that was needed to his writing and research. However, by the 1910s, she had lost her hearing and impatient and dominating by nature, she also alienated many of Frazer's old friends. His extensive correspondence was for Frazer not only a duty but his principal channel of communication. Frazer's letters were handwritten, he never owned a typewriter, and he rarely used the telephone.

As a scholar Frazer began first with a translation and commentary of Pausanias, a Greek travel writer of the second century. Pausanias stirred Frazer's interest in ethnographic materials. In 1890 and 1895 he travelled the Greek hinterlands on horseback to observe what was left of the old customs and practices. Frazer's interest in social anthropology was aroused by reading E.B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871) and encouraged by his friend William Robertson Smith at Cambridge. In The Golden Bough he argued, that everywhere in human mental evolution a belief in magic preceded religion, which in turn was followed in the West by science. In the first stage a false causality was seen to exist between rituals and natural events. Religion appeared in the second stage, and the third stage was science. Customs deriving from earlier periods persisted as survivals into later ages, where they were frequently reinterpreted according to the dominant mode of thought.

The Golden Bough stimulated a number of writers, including D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land (1922) is perhaps the best example of its literary influence, where, for example, the Fisher King and Waste-Land shape the motifs. An abridged, one-volume edition was published in 1922. Its influence can be found in the writings of Synge, Yeats, and Joyce. Frazer himself did not write much fiction. These works, including The Quest of the Gorgon's Head (1920) were assembled in Sir Roger De Coverly & Other Literary Pieces (1920). Freud used in his mythological studies Frazer's report that primitives often called the afterbirth brother, sister or twin, and even fed it and took care of it for a while. Frazer himself considered Eliot's The Waste Land unintelligible, and he laughed at Freud's ideas. In a letter he wrote: "I have got a new book Totemism and Taboo [sic], the translation of a book by a German or Austrian psychologist, who borrows most of his facts from me and tries to explain them by the mental processes, especially the dreams of the insane! Not a hopeful procedure..."

The Golden Bough has given inspiration to many fantasy stories, including the myth of Diana and the sacrificial killing of the Year King by his successor in a rite of renewal. "The killing of the god, that is, of his human incarnation, is therefore a merely a necessary step to his revival or resurrection in a better form. Far from being an extinction of the divine spirit, it is only the beginning of a purer and stronger manifestation of it." (from The New Golden Bough, ed. by Theodor H. Gaster, 1959) When the vigor of the king begins to decline, he must die so that – in fantasy terms – the land can begin to experience the healing. Frazer argued that ritual derived from a universal psychic impulse. In this view he drew parallels between the death and resurrection of Christ and ancient beliefs. Noteworthy, although averse to Christianity, he criticized Arthur Drew's denial of the historicity of Jesus (The Christ Myth, 1909) to be entirely groundless

Anthropologists have opposed Frazer's armchair theories, and field work has shown that similar institutions have widely dissimilar origins. In The Savage Mind Claude LÚvi-Strauss argued against Frazer's belief that the origin of food taboos had a natural basis and that the food cravings of pregnant women could be elevated to the status of universal phenomenon; they are farm from being general and can take different forms in different societies.

Today Frazer's books are still considered a storehouse of ethnographic information, although his insights belong rather to history than current orientation of anthropology. Frazer traveled relatively little and did not have time to verify his claims; it was the Polish-born anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), one of Frazer’s students, who established modern field work. Frazer's own knowledge of primitive societies was entirely second-hand, gathered largely from questionnaires sent to missionaries familiar with their country's culture and language. Notions of totemism – he outlined at least three theories – were dismissed by LÚvi-Strauss, and his structuralist methods of research. When Frazer paid his last visit to the Sorbonne in 1928 to give a lecture, LÚvi-Strauss was not interested in attending.

Frazer's other works include Psyche's Task (1909), Totemism and Exogamy (1910), which was a primary source for Freud's Totem und Tabu (1912), The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead (1913-24), Folk-lore in the Old Testament (1918). He published a six-volume translation and commentary on Pausanias (1898), a five-volume edition of Ovid's Fasti (1929), and other works on classical and literary topics. Frazer virtually worked all the time, seven days a week, twelve or more hours a day.

Frazer was knighted in 1914. Aside from occasional trips to Greece and the Continent, he and Lady Frazer rarely left Cambridge. While giving a speech in 1931, he went suddenly blind. He had had eyer trobles for decades, but blindness did not deter him from doing his work. With the aid of secretaries and amanuenses, Frazer continued his research. He had collected materials for many books and in his old age he produced a supplement, Aftermath (1936), to The Golden Bough. Much of Totemica (1937) consisted of extracts from well-known or rather obscure works. "Facts of great pertinence for the true understanding of this difficult subject are thus brought most conveniently together," said one reviewer. During this last period of his life, Frazer moved restlessly. He lived in hotels in London and Paris and in a rented flat in Cambridge. Frazer died in Cambridge on May 7, 1941. His wife died a few hours later – they were buried in St Giles’s Cemetery.

A Victorian era scholar, Frazer was not followed in Cambridge in anthropology. Malinowski who overturned many of Frazer's central ideas and propagated a utilitarian theory of culture, died a year later. The Austrian and Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein rejected Frazer's treatment of magical rituals as though they were early forms of science. "What narrowess of life we find in Frazer," he exclaimed. "And as a result: how impossible for him to understand a different way of life from the English one of his time!" Noteworthy, Wittgenstein himself was widely regarded as unsociable.

For further reading: James George Frazer: The Portrait of a Scholar by R.A. Downie (1940); The Tangled Bank by S.E. Hyman (1962); Frazer and the Goden Bough by R.A. Downie (1970); The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough by J.B. Vickery (1973); J.G. Frazer by R. Ackerman (1987); Sir James Frazer and the Literary Imagination, ed. by Robert Fraser (1991); Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority by M. Manganaro (1992); 'James Frazer and Cambridge Anthropolgy,' in Anthropology and Politics: Revolutions in the Sacred Grove by Ernest Gellner (1995); Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough / Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by Rush Rhees (2010)

Selected works:

  • Totemism, 1884
  • The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion, 1890 (2 vols.)
  • Description of Greece / Pausanias, 1898 (translator)
  • The Golden Bough, 1900 (3 vols.)
  • Pausanias, and Other Greek Sketches , 1900 (reissued as Studies in Greek Scenery, Legend and History, 1917)
  • Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship, 1905 (resissued as The Magical Origins of Kings, 1920
  • Adonis, Attis, Osiris, 1906
  • Psyche's Task, 1909
  • Totemism and Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society, 1910 (4 vols.)
  • The Dying God, 1911
  • The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, 1911 (2 vols.)
  • Taboo and the Perils of the Soul, 1911
  • Letters of William Cowper, with a Memoir and a Few Notes, 1912 (editor)
  • Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild, 1912 (2 vols.)
  • The Scapegoat, 1913
  • Balder the Beautiful, 1913 (2 vols.)
  • The Golden Bough, 1911-1915 (12 vols.; abridged edition in 1922)
  • Essays of Joseph Addison, 1915 (ed.)
  • The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, 1913-24
  • Folk-lore in the Old Testament, 1918 (3 vols.)
  • Sir Roger De Coverly & Other Literary Pieces, 1920
  • The Library by Apollodorus, 1921 (2 vols.; ed. and transl.)
  • The Worship of Nature, 1926
  • The Gorgon's Head and other Literary Pieces, 1927
  • Fasti / Ovid, 1929 (5 vols.; ed. and transl.) 
  • The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory, 1930
  • Graecia antiqua, 1930 (compiled with A.W. Van Buren)
  • Myths of the Origin of Fire, 1930
  • Garnered Sheaves, 1931
  • Condorcet on the Progress of the Human Mind, 1933
  • The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, 1933-36 (3 vols.)
  • Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogenies, and Other Pieces, 1935
  • Aftermath: a supplement to The golden bough, 1936
  • Totemica: A Supplement to Totemism and Exogamy, 1937
  • Anthologia Anthropologica, 1938-39 (4 vols.; edited by R. A. Downie)
  • Magic and Religion, 1944
  • Selected Letters of Sir J. G. Frazer, 2005 (edited Robert Ackerman)

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