Sir James George Frazer Biography


Article abstract: Although Frazer’s theories are not held in high esteem by most modern anthropologists, he was a pioneer in applying the comparative approach to the study of human institutions. At the same time, his writings had a broader intellectual impact that did much to undermine late Victorian ethnocentrism. His masterwork, The Golden Bough, would play a major role in inspiring and shaping twentieth century modernist literature.

Early Life

James George Frazer was born on January 1, 1854, in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of Daniel F. Frazer, a partner in a long-established drug and chemical firm, and the former Katherine Brown. He grew up in a devout Presbyterian household where daily reading of the Scriptures was the rule. Even after abandoning any belief in divine revelation, he would continue to venerate the Bible as “noble literature” (an opinion evidenced in his work of 1895, Passages of the Bible Chosen for Their Literary Beauty and Interest . . .).

After attending local preparatory schools, Frazer went on in 1869 to the University of Glasgow and received an M.A. degree in 1874. His study with the famous physicist Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) was the source of his lifelong belief that the universe was “regulated by exact and absolutely unvarying laws of Nature expressible in mathematical formulas.” Winning a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, he placed second in the first class of the historical tripos in 1878. The following year, he was elected a Fellow of the College. Frazer started his scholarly career as a classicist. His first published work was a revised edition of the writings of the Roman historian Sallust. His more important contributions in this area were his translations of and commentaries upon Pausanias’ Description of Greece (c. 150 c.e.) and Ovid’s Fasti (before 8 c.e.), in 1898 and 1929, respectively.

Frazer’s interest in anthropology was first awakened by his reading of E. B. Tylor’s landmark, Primitive Culture (1871). Frazer would adopt Tylor’s evolutionary scheme of mankind’s progressive development from savagery through barbarism to civilization along with its corollary assumption that contemporary primitive societies represented the earlier stages through which civilized peoples had passed.

An even more decisive influence in shaping Frazer’s future career came from William Robertson Smith. Smith was dismissed in 1881 from his chair of Old Testament exegesis at the Free Church College of Aberdeen because of accusations that he denied God’s authorship of the Bible. Appointed reader in Arabic at Cambridge in 1883, Smith became Frazer’s intellectual mentor. In Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889), Smith portrayed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “positive religions” owing “their origin to the preaching of great religious innovators.” What most influenced Frazer, however, was Smith’s thesis that earlier religions had been shaped by “the action of unconscious forces operating from age to age.” Smith inspired Frazer’s first foray into social anthropology: “On Certain Burial Customs as Illustrative of the Primitive Theory of the Soul” (1885). More important, Smith was responsible for his selection to write the articles on “taboo” and “totemism” for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, appearing in 1888. “The researches I made for these articles,” Frazer would recall, “were the beginning of a systematic application to anthropology and especially to a study of the backward races of men whom we call savages and barbarians.”

Life’s Work

Frazer was a poor public speaker. Although he was appointed professor of social anthropology at the University of Liverpool in 1907, he was so temperamentally ill-suited for teaching that he returned after a year to Trinity and remained there for the rest of his life. He was exclusively a library-bound anthropologist. A superb linguist, he knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. He did no fieldwork, however, even though he drew much of the evidence for his arguments from contemporary primitive societies; instead, he relied upon travelers’ accounts and available ethnographic reports as well as his own extensive correspondence with missionaries and colonial officials. He was a prodigious worker, setting down to work daily at eight in the morning and continuing often until late into the night. His technique was to mark and then copy into a notebook relevant passages in his reading; the contents of these so-called unclassified note-books were published in four volumes in 1938-1939 under the title Anthologia Anthropologica. He then rearranged this material in abbreviated form by subject in a second set of “classified note-books.” Frazer’s own writings were frequently repetitive, and large chunks consisted of stylistically embellished extracts from his sources. Even so, his productivity was remarkable. The fullest (but still incomplete) bibliography of his publications lists 266 items; his published volumes fill at least two yards of library shelf space. Whatever their merits as anthropology, his writings were—like the Bible—great literature.

Frazer is most remembered for The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. The first edition was published in two volumes in 1890; a second edition of three volumes appeared in 1900; and the third edition consisting of twelve volumes which came out between 1911 and 1915. A supplemental thirteenth volume incorporating new data was added in 1936, but he dealt at length in separate books with a number of subsidiary topics. One—neatly summarized in the title of a course of lectures he delivered at Trinity in 1905—was “The Sacred Character and Magical Functions of Kings in Early Society” (published that same year as Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship). A second was the subject of his first foray into anthropology: the primitive conception of the soul. In the Gifford Lectures of 1911-1912 at the University of St. Andrews—published in 1913 as The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead—he dealt with the aborigines of Australia, the Torres Strait Islands, New Guinea, and Melanesia. Follow-up volumes extended his coverage to the Polynesians (1922) and the Micronesians (1924). Frazer’s findings were then reworked in the three volumes of The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, appearing between 1933 and 1936. A third—prefigured in an essay of 1907 but then elaborated into the three-volume Folk-Lore of the Old Testament (1918)—was his analysis of the Old Testament as a body of folklore (that is, “a people’s traditionary beliefs and customs”) having striking parallels with the primitive customs recorded by ethnographers.

A major interest of Frazer was totemism. By 1910, his Encyclopaedia Britannica article on that subject had grown into the massive four-volume Totemism and Exogamy. A fifth volume, Totemica, was added in 1937. Frazer defined totemism as “an intimate relation which is supposed...

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