James George Frazer (January 1, 1854 – May 7, 1941), was a British social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion. His bestseller, The Golden Bough, not only captured the imagination of the general public, but also influenced numerous scholars of diverse fields, including Bronislaw Malinowski, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and numerous artists and poets.
Although controversial in its comparison of Christianity to other religions, his work opened a new way of looking at the rituals and beliefs of different cultures and finding common ground among them, inspiring new efforts in developing an understanding of the universal spirituality that links all people, past and present.
James George Frazer was born in Glasgow, Scotland, as the oldest of four children of Daniel Frazer and Katherine Brown. His mother’s great grandfather was the famous George Bogle, British envoy to Tibet, one of the first ever to travel into that remote land. Frazer grew up listening to stories from his journeys, tales of different cultures and civilizations, which no doubt motivated him later in life to study anthropology.
Frazer learned Latin and Greek at Larchfield Academy, and continued to study Classics at the University of Glasgow. He subsequently enrolled in Trinity College at Cambridge, where he graduated with honors in 1878. His dissertation was published years later in his book The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory.
Due to his father’s desire, Frazer went on to study law in London, at the Middle Temple. Although completing the qualifications in 1897, he decided against practicing law. Instead, he devoted himself to what he loved—writing and research on rituals and mythology.
His first major project was a translation and commentary on Pausanias, a second century Greek travel writer, which was published in six volumes in 1898. At the same time he was working on Pausanias, Frazer’s interest in social anthropology was deepened by his exposure to the work of Edward Burnett Tylor. After reading his Primitive Culture (Tylor 1871), Frazier realized that he wanted to dedicate his life to the study of primitive customs and beliefs. His friend, the biblical scholar William Robertson Smith, who was linking the Old Testament with early Hebrew folklore, encouraged him in this determination.
Frazer started by sending letters to as many missionaries, doctors, and travelers as he could find, in which he inquired about the indigenous peoples with whom they came into contact. He also collected reports from various written sources—books, ancient texts, etc.—which talked about different cultures. Frazer combined all of these to create one unified source of information on distant cultures.
In 1890, he published The Golden Bough, a compilation of information on the religious beliefs, myths, social taboos, and customs of different cultures in the world. The work immediately became a bestseller, and was widely used for decades as a source book within the social sciences. However, at the same time, his work came under serious criticism, due to one section which was later removed from the book, where Frazer compared Christianity with other, primitive religions.
Frazer married Elisabeth Grove in 1896, who became a great help in his work. She always encouraged her husband, and ensured that he had a comfortable environment for his work.
Frazier was elected to Trinity's Title Alpha Fellowship four times, and was associated with that Cambridge College for most of his life, except for the one year, 1907-1908, which he spent at the University of Liverpool.
He was knighted in 1915, for his contributions to the science of anthropology. He continued to work at Cambridge until his very last days. In 1930, he survived an accident that left him virtually blind, but which never stopped him from working. He relied on his secretaries and his wife to help him read and type. His wife stayed with him until his death, in 1941, in Cambridge, England. Just a few hours after his death, Lady Frazer died and they were buried together at St. Giles Cemetery in Cambridge.
The study of mythology and religion was Frazier’s area of expertise. Although he was far from being the first to study religions dispassionately, as a cultural phenomenon rather than from within theology, he was among the first to notice the relationship between myths and rituals. His greatest work, The Golden Bough—the study of ancient cults, rites, and myths, including their parallels with early Christianity—is still utilized by modern mythographers for its detailed information. The first edition, in two volumes, was published in 1890. The third edition was finished in 1915 and ran to twelve volumes, with a supplemental thirteenth volume added in 1936. He also published a single volume abridgment, largely compiled by his wife Lady Frazer, in 1922, with some controversial material removed from the text. Thus, with this work, Frazer established himself as an expert in anthropology, gaining the recognition of fellow scholars.
Frazer compiled The Golden Bough based on a great amount of data he collected over the years from various sources, including already written works on the topic of different cultures, as well as reports from missionaries and travelers who were in direct contact with those cultures. He did not, however, travel extensively himself. When completed, The Golden Bough was an impressive compilation of customs, rituals, and beliefs of cultures around the world. Frazer particularly emphasized similarities of key themes, such as birth, growth, death, and rebirth, which he found across cultures. Through this, Frazer provoked new insights into cultural diversity and commonality, a different perspective in what had, until then, been European and American-centered academia.
His work inspired the understanding of "divine kingship," the combination of monarchy and priesthood, and the concept of the sacrificial killing of the "Year King" by his successor, in a rite of renewal—when the vigor of the king begins to decline, he must die, leading to the emergence of new life:
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 Golden Bough).
One of the most controversial aspects of Frazer’s work was the topic of religion, particularly Christianity. Frazer’s approach to religion was rather novel. He dealt with it from a secular perspective, disregarding theology or anything that dealt with “meaning,” focusing only on the external manifestations. The most provocative part was his parallel between early Christianity and other religions, especially their rituals and customs. Frazer drew a comparison between the story of Christ and other similar stories of death and rebirth from other religions. Due to this, Frazer received severe public criticism and eventually that part of the book had to be removed.
Frazer also claimed that everywhere, in all cultures, a belief in magic preceded religion, which in turn was followed by science. In the stage of magic, a false causality was seen between rituals and natural events. The second stage, religion, attributed the connection to divine, or spiritual, intervention, while the third stage, science, discovered the true causal relationships among physical objects and events. Although his evolutionary sequence is no longer accepted, his distinction between magic and religion was widely adopted by anthropologists.
Frazer’s work, particularly the The Golden Bough, influenced numerous scholars and writers. Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung used The Golden Bough as a source book in their own work on religion, although they took it in almost totally different directions. Jung took Frazer’s observations as a stepping-stone to his spiritually oriented theory of the collective unconscious. Totemism and Exogamy (1910), was a primary source for Freud's Totem and Taboo. Bronislaw Malinowski was enthralled by Frazer's book, and long afterward traced his enthusiasm for anthropology to it. After Joseph Campbell also built upon Frazer's work in his formulation of the role of mythology in society and the individual psyche.
Frazer's work had influence beyond the bounds of theoretical academia. The symbolic cycle of life, death, and rebirth, which Frazer observed behind the myths of all cultures, captivated a whole generation of artists and poets, including James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Mary Renault, René Girard, and others. T. S. Eliot acknowledged The Golden Bough as a source of inspiration in his writing of The Waste Land.
Frazer was one of the first scholars to directly compare the religious beliefs, mythologies, and social behaviors of different cultures, and to find the similarities that connect them. He was one of the first to break down the barriers between Christianity and other religions, showing that it had more common points with other beliefs than people generally wanted to acknowledge. This was quite a brave claim on the part of Frazer, at a time when Christianity was regarded as a superior religion that needed to evangelize all others, considered heathens.
Most of Frazer’s work can be considered pioneering in the area of anthropology. Since he did not travel much, he relied mostly on reports from other people, from which he compiled his ethnographic material and drew conclusions. However, it has been shown that those conclusions were often based on incomplete and biased facts, skewed by the views of those who collected them. His theories of totemism were later superseded by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and his view of the annual sacrifice of the "Year King" has not been verified by field studies. Furthermore, his generation's choice of Darwinian evolution as a social paradigm, through which he interpreted cultural development as three rising stages of progress—magic giving rise to religion, then culminating in science—has not proved valid.
Nevertheless, Frazer influenced not only numerous generations of anthropologists who continued the work in comparative mythology or religion, but he also evoked interest in forgotten, distant, and exotic cultures. With his description of the pre-Christian Europe and its tribal beliefs and customs, Frazer also evoked interest in paganism, leading to the revival of certain of their rituals through the development of Neo-Paganism, including Wicca. Thus, in one way or another, numerous scholars and others were inspired by Frazer's work to study, document, and even revive the religions, myths, and social practices of primitive peoples. In this way, his contribution to the search for ever more accurate understanding of human differences and commonalities, and the underlying forces that shape and are shaped by people, has continued.
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