Sir James George Frazer

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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....

(This entire section contains 2954 words.)

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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 titleAnthologia 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 to exist between a group of kindred people on the one side and a species of natural or artificial objects on the other side, which objects are called the totems of the human group.” At one time or another, Frazer advanced three different theories of the origin of totemism—none taken seriously by modern anthropologists. Of longer-term significance was his explanation of the function played by totemism: to knit together men in social groups so that collective action and responsibility were made possible. The argument that primitive “superstitions” were the basis of adaptive mechanisms crucial for human progress was a major theme running through his work. Another example was the concept of taboo, which he saw as the root source of latter-day systems of law and morality. As he wrote in The Golden Bough,

of 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. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost. . . .

The first edition of The Golden Bough had the subtitle “A Study in Comparative Religion,” the later editions, “A Study in Magic and Religion.” Its avowed purpose was to investigate certain classical accounts dealing with the worship of the Goddess Diana in the sacred grove at Lake Nemi (sometimes called Aricia after a nearby town) in southern Italy. The priest-king spent his time constantly on guard with drawn sword around a certain tree in the grove. He had succeeded to his title by murdering his predecessor with the spring of the mistletoe bough that grew high upon the tree. He, in turn, was destined to be killed by a successful challenger in the same way as soon as his powers began to slip. Frazer proceeded to find analogies to this story in practices and myths of different societies. Their source lay in the shared belief that the well-being of the people of a society was tied by “sympathy” with the continued power and virility of the king. Slaying the king before his enfeeblement would allow his powers to pass to his successor and thus assure the society’s continued flourishing. The premise underlying Frazer’s comparative approach was Tylor’s concept of the psychic unity of mankind, or, as Frazer put the matter, “the essential similarity in the working of the less developed human mind among all races, which corresponds to the essential similarity in their bodily frame.” Thus, he explained the similarity of beliefs among peoples widely separated in time and place as the result of “similar causes acting alike on the similar constitution of the human mind in different countries and under different skies.” He similarly took from Tylor his larger conceptual framework: “that all civilized races have at some period or other emerged from a state of savagery resembling more or less closely the state in which many backward races have continued to the present time.”

Frazer’s own focus was upon man’s evolutionary progress in achieving control over his environment through three distinctive modes of human thought: magic, religion, and science. Magical thought assumed that nature was governed by impersonal and unchanging laws. That assumption was correct but was based upon false reasoning. In the first place, magical thought relied upon what he called the “Law of Similarity”—that the qualities of one object would produce similar qualities in another (an assumption seen in the ancient Greek custom of eating raven’s eggs to produce black hair). Its second fallacy was the “Law of Contact or Contagion”—the idea that things that have been once in contact will continue to act on one another from a distance (such as the use of a man’s hair or nail clippings to work evil upon him). The corollary was that the invocation of the proper magical ceremonies, rites, or spells could control nature. The dawning awareness of magic’s impotence for doing so gave rise to religion: the belief that the superhuman beings controlling the world could be entreated, propitiated, or bribed to alter the course of human and natural affairs.

In the 1924-1925 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, published in 1926 as The Worship of Nature, Frazer traced the evolution of religion from animism through polytheism to monotheism. The rise of science involved a return to the correct idea of a law-governed universe, but with effective techniques for its mastery developed through logicoexperimental methods. Frazer himself was ambivalent about what lay ahead. At times, he wrote gloomily about the “great forces which seem to be making silently but relentlessly for the destruction of all this starry universe.” At other times, he waxed optimistic about how “as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect synthesis. . . . The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression towards a goal that for ever recedes.”

Frazer was married in 1896 to a French widow, Elisabeth (Lilly) Groves. The couple had no children. She devoted her life to facilitating his work while simultaneously acting as the indefatigible promoter and champion of his reputation. The honors did flow. Frazer was an original member of the British Academy, was knighted in 1914, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1925. He received a string of honorary degrees from universities in Great Britain and abroad. In 1921, the Frazer Lectureship in Social Anthropology to be held in turn at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, and Liverpool was established in his honor. Frazer suffered from almost total blindness during his last years. He died at Cambridge on May 7, 1941; a few hours later, his wife followed him. Even before his death, Frazer’s reputation among professional anthropologists had fallen into eclipse as part of the reaction against the evolutionary model of human cultural development. He had his share of vanity and found the criticisms directed against his work upsetting. Yet he was sufficiently self-perceptive to recognize that his was not the final word. “It is,” he wrote in the third edition of The Golden Bough, “the fate of theories to be washed away . . . and I am not so presumptuous to expect or desire for mine an exemption from the common lot.” If his work survived, he later acknowledged, the reason would be “less for the sake of the theories which they propound than for the sake of the facts which they record.”


Sir James George Frazer exerted a tremendous liberalizing influence in his time. He contributed the final blow to the demolition of the belief in the inerrancy and divine authorship of the Bible begun by the philological investigations of the higher criticism. He similarly undermined the ethnocentrism of the late nineteenth century European by showing that modern man was not so far removed from his primitive forebears as he liked to think. Frazer’s major strength, or, at least, the primary source of his popularity with the lay reading public, was his brilliance as a literary stylist. The abridged one-volume edition of The Golden Bough (first published in 1922) still attracts a wide readership. There is no question that his stature did much to legitimize anthropology as a field of study. His own place in the intellectual history of anthropology is more problematic. The most favorable of the next generation of anthropologists was Bronisław Malinowski, whose own work was strongly influenced by Frazer’s conception of the function played in the lives of primitive peoples by what appears to the modern eye to be superstition. Most, however, were dismissive, even contemptuous, of his contribution, one scholar going so far as to dismiss him as no more than “a voraciously diligent library mole.” Yet there have appeared signs of a renewed appreciation of The Golden Bough—notwithstanding its shortcomings—as, to quote the distinguished English anthropologist Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, “an essential source-book for all students of human thought.”

Perhaps Frazer’s most important long-term legacy was in the realm of literature. His exploration of the nature and interrelations of religion, myth, cult, and ritual had a tremendous impact upon the leading figures of twentieth century high modernism. Even more influential was his emphasis upon the irrational character of much of human life—upon the extent to which the primitive “savage” was still ingrained in modern man. Writers directly influenced in a major way by their reading of The Golden Bough include such seminal figures as William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, and Ezra Pound. Although James Joyce—unlike these others—did not explicitly acknowledge his debt, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) display a remarkable congruence with Frazer’s ideas, images, and even structural pattern. Appropriately, therefore, the poet A. E. Housman delivered what should stand as the fitting memorial when he eulogized The Golden Bough as “learning mated with literature, labour disguised in ease, a museum of dark and uncouth superstitions invested with the charm of a truly sympathetic magic.” In its pages, he told Frazer,

you have gathered, for the admonition of a proud and oblivious race, the scattered and fading relics of its foolish childhood, whether withdrawn from our view among savage folk, or lying unnoticed at our doors. The forgotten milestones of the road which man has travelled, the mazes and blind alleys of his appointed progress through time, are illuminated by your art and genius, and the strangest of remote and ancient things are brought near to the minds and hearts of your contemporaries.


Besterman, Theodore, comp. A Bibliography of Sir James George Frazer O.M. London: Macmillan, 1934. The fullest (but still incomplete) listing of Frazer’s publications.

Downie, R. Angus. James George Frazer: The Portrait of a Scholar. London: Watts, 1940. A worshipful biography by a man who was Frazer’s secretary during his last years. Valuable on the details of his career, but superficial regarding the substance of his work.

Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward. A History of Anthropological Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1981. A distinguished anthropologist, Evans-Pritchard is highly critical of Frazer’s theoretical and methodological shortcomings, but he still finds in Frazer important contributions to the understanding of magic. He pays “homage to his scholarship.”

Kardiner, Abram, and Edward Preble. They Studied Man. Cleveland: World, 1961. The chapter on Frazer is a balanced appraisal that constitutes the best introduction to his work for the lay reader.

Leach, Edmund. “Frazer and Malinowski: On the ‘Founding Fathers.’ “ Encounter 25 (November, 1965): 24-36. A sharp attack on Frazer as no more than “a voraciously diligent library mole” who was guilty of erroneous guesswork about the “causal relations linking together” his facts.

Vickery, John B. The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. A perceptive analysis of Frazer’s intellectual influence focusing upon the leading figures of twentieth century modernist literature.


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