Sir James George Frazer was born in Glasgow, in 1854; he died in 1941 in Cambridge, where he spent most of his academic life. He was the best-known anthropologist of his time. His work was deeply influenced by Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and E. B. Tylor; that is to say, he applied a comparative and evolutionist approach to all available data, old and new. His solid foundation in the classics provided much of his comparative material. His main work, The Golden Bough, appeared in several editions: the first one in 1890, the last, abbreviated one, in 1922. It is still in print. This work, a comparative study of the evolution of religion as well as his many other publications on a variety of topics, influenced anthropologists, classicists, folklorists, scholars in the humanities, and psychologists, as well as the general educated reader, to whom most of his works are addressed. He was elected member of the British Academy in 1902 and was knighted in 1914.
Frazer, trained as a classicist and lawyer, first wrote on classical topics: the Roman historian Sallust (1884) and a six-volume edition on the 2nd century CE Greek antiquarian Pausanias (1898). This guidebook, the Description of Hellas, lists objects worthy of visiting in Greece, adding legends, stories, and anecdotes about them. Pausanias lists “survivals” of earlier times, a phenomenon that had been extensively documented by Tylor in his Primitive Culture (1871). Both works greatly influenced Frazer, whose methods were slow and meticulous: For instance, the work on Pausanias may have begun in 1884 but only reached publication 14 years later, in 6 volumes, totaling 3,000 pages.
In that same year (1884), Frazer met W. Robertson Smith, a fellow Scotsman who had been hired by Cambridge after having been run out of the Free Church College at Aberdeen in 1881 because of his heretical views. Robertson Smith was an ordained minister and worked on biblical subjects; he was the (future) author of Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889). However, at that time, he worked as an editor for the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He invited Frazer to submit some articles, all on the letter “P” and beyond. Frazer wrote the entries for Penates, Priapus, Proserpina, Pericles, Taboo, and Totem. Especially the latter two topics pushed him further into the direction of anthropology, and in 1887, he created a list of questions for those going into the field: Questions on the Manners, Customs, Religion, Superstitions, etc., of the Uncivilized or Semi-Civilized Peoples. The purpose was for others to collect the data in a systematic manner everywhere, so that true comparatists (like Frazer himself) could analyze the whole, preferably from their armchairs.
Frazer’s subsequent major work, The Golden Bough (first ed. 1890, 2 vols.), carried the subtitle: A Study in Comparative Religion. Its main topic was the Aryan myth of the dying king or priest, whose death reinvigorates life on earth. He supported his thesis with multiple anecdotes, both ancient and modern. He argued that survivals of primitive religion(s), the result of diffusion, could still be found among farmers and other backward populations in Europe and could also be detected in some religious practices current in Christianity. His Victorian readers were alarmed to see such festivals as the Roman Saturnalia, the Crucifixion of Christ, and Purim linked as rites of renewal. Frazer’s opinions on religion, especially Christianity, were expressed most strongly in his first edition of The Golden Bough but were gradually toned down or drowned in comparative detail. The thrust of his work, however, remained the same.
The second edition (1900, 3 vols.) carried the subtitle: A Study in Magic and Religion. It highlighted the inability of the “savage” to understand the difference between the natural and the supernatural. As civilizations matured, magic was replaced by religion, which in its turn was shown to make room for science. The Golden Bough grew to 13 volumes (1918) and was edited down to a single volume of 800 pages (1922). A supplement, Aftermath, appeared in 1936, 5 years after Frazer had gone blind and relied on the help of assistants. Frazer’s constant need for money—and the flood of new information coming in from Australia courtesy of W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen—drove him to revise many of his works, bringing in a stream of steady advances from his friend and publisher, George MacMillan.
Later in life, Frazer returned to work in classics, publishing a translation and commentary of The Library, a collection of Greek myths attributed to Apollodorus (mid-2nd-century BCE) in 1921. He published a translation of Ovid’s Fasti (1929), a compendium in verse of Roman beliefs and customs related to the calendar. As his reputation among professional anthropologists waned, it increased among the general public. He wrote the introduction to Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Pacific (1922); Freud wrote his Totem und Tabu (1913), inspired by Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy (4 vols., 1910). Frazer also influenced the so-called Cambridge ritualists (Jane Harrison, Francis Cornford, Gilbert Murray, A. B. Cook), a group of classical scholars who believed that ancient Greek religion and myth provided the clue to the origins of tragedy.
- Ackerman, R. (1987). J. G. Frazer and his work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Dorson, M. (1999). History of British folklore: The British folklorists, a history (Vol. 1). London & New York: Routledge.
- Stocking, G. W. Jr. (1995). After Tylor: British social anthropology 1888-1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin University Press.