Sir James George Frazer

Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), a British classicist and anthropologist, was the author of "The Golden Bough," a classic study of magic and religion. It popularized anthropology.

James Frazer was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on Jan. 1, 1854. He attended Glasgow University (1869-1874), where his major interest was the classics. He continued his studies in classics at Trinity College at Cambridge and was elected a fellow of the college in 1879. He remained at Cambridge the rest of his life, except for an appointment as professor of social anthropology at Liverpool University in 1907, which he resigned after a year.

Frazer continued his interest in classics, editing Sallust's Catilina et lugurtha (1884), translating Pausanias's Description of Greece (1898), and editing and translating Ovid's Fasti (1929).

Frazer's early classical interests were considerably broadened through acquaintance with Sir Edward Tylor's Primitive Culture. Frazer decided that ancient rituals and myths could be illuminated by examination of similar customs of modern peoples living in a "savage" or "barbarous" stage. He borrowed Tylor's comparative method and developed his own method of comparison of customs of peoples of all times and places, which he retained throughout his lifelong research. His results have been criticized on the grounds that he took customs out of cultural context and that many of the customs compared were only superficially similar.

Early in his career as a fellow at Cambridge, Frazer met W. Robertson Smith, who stimulated his interest in comparative religion. Frazer's interest in totemism derived from Smith's invitation to write the article on the subject for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1888).

Frazer never did fieldwork. He spent all his life in the library, working 12, often 15, hours a day, almost everyday. He obtained ethnographic information from the accounts of travelers, missionaries, and colonial administrators. To obtain desired information he prepared a questionnaire on "the manners, customs, religions, superstitions, etc., of uncivilized or semi-civilized peoples" (1887).

The first edition of The Golden Bough appeared in 1890. A second, expanded edition appeared in 1900, and a third, much expanded edition in 1911-1915. One reason for the great success of The Golden Bough is its excellent, if ornate, Victorian prose style. Today it is probably read as much for its literary merits as for its anthropological content.

Frazer was an inductivist; hence, his work is characterized by a sparsity of theory and much information. The general framework for the wealth of information, always so well phrased if too often oversimplified, is the idea that magic has given rise to religion, which in turn has given rise to science, in evolutionary stages. Magic is an attempt to control nature in which erroneous assumptions are made. When, in the course of time, the "savage" discovers that magic does not work, he gives up the attempt to control nature and instead seeks to propitiate or cajole the spirits or gods, which practice constitutes religion. Finally, in a higher state of civilization, man returns to the attempt to control nature, this time employing the experimental and objective techniques which constitute science. Frazer's distinction between magic and religion has proved valid, but the idea that an evolutionary stage of magic invariably preceded religion is invalid, as religious sentiments have been observed in very primitive peoples.

Frazer's Totemism and Exogamy (1910) is an expansion of his early work on totemism. His Folk-lore in the Old Testament (1923), Man, God and Immortality (1927), a collection of his writings on human progress, and many other works appeared in many volumes and in many editions. Though his ideas either have been disproved or amalgamated into more sophisticated theories, Frazer was perhaps the most honored anthropologist of all times. He was knighted in 1914 and awarded the British Order of Merit in 1925. He died in Cambridge on May 7, 1941.


Further Reading on Sir James George Frazer

An adulatory account of Frazer's life and work is given by his secretary, Robert Angus Downie, in James George Frazer: The Portrait of a Scholar (1940). A vivid description of Frazer and a more impartial analysis of his contributions constitute a chapter in Abram Kardiner and Edward Preble, They Studied Man (1961). Bronislaw Malinowski devotes a biographical appreciation to Frazer in A Scientific Theory of Culture, and Other Essays (1944).