Sir James Frazer Bibliography Maker

"James Frazer" redirects here. For others, see James Frazer (disambiguation).

Sir James George FrazerOMFRSFRSEFBA[1] (; 1 January 1854 – 7 May 1941) was a Scottish social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion.[2] He is often considered one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology.

His most famous work, The Golden Bough (1890), documents and details the similarities among magical and religious beliefs around the globe. Frazer posited that human belief progressed through three stages: primitive magic, replaced by religion, in turn replaced by science.

Personal life[edit]

He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of Daniel F. Frazer, a chemist, and his wife, Katherine Brown.[3]

Frazer attended school at Springfield Academy and Larchfield Academy in Helensburgh.[4] He studied at the University of Glasgow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with honours in Classics (his dissertation was published years later as The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory) and remained a Classics Fellow all his life.[5] From Trinity, he went on to study law at the Middle Temple, but never practised.

Four times elected to Trinity's Title Alpha Fellowship, he was associated with the college for most of his life, except for a year, 1907–1908, spent at the University of Liverpool. He was knighted in 1914, and a public lectureship in social anthropology at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Glasgow and Liverpool was established in his honour in 1921.[6] He was, if not blind, then severely visually impaired from 1930 on. He and his wife, Lily, died in Cambridge within a few hours of each other. They are buried at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge, England.

His sister Isabella Katherine Frazer married the mathematician John SteggallFRSE.[7]

His work[edit]

The study of myth and religion became his areas of expertise. Except for visits to Italy and Greece, Frazer was not widely travelled. His prime sources of data were ancient histories and questionnaires mailed to missionaries and imperial officials all over the globe. Frazer's interest in social anthropology was aroused by reading E. B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871) and encouraged by his friend, the biblical scholar William Robertson Smith, who was comparing elements of the Old Testament with early Hebrew folklore.

Frazer was the first scholar to describe in detail the relations between myths and rituals. His vision of the annual sacrifice of the Year-King has not been borne out by field studies. Yet The Golden Bough, his study of ancient cults, rites, and myths, including their parallels in early Christianity, is still studied by modern mythographers for its detailed information.[citation needed]

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 published a single-volume abridged version, largely compiled by his wife Lady Frazer, in 1922, with some controversial material on Christianity excluded from the text.[8] The work's influence extended well beyond the conventional bounds of academia, inspiring the new work of psychologists and psychiatrists. Sigmund Freud cited Totemism and Exogamy frequently in his own Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics.[9]

The symbolic cycle of life, death and rebirth which Frazer divined behind myths of many peoples captivated a generation of artists and poets. Perhaps the most notable product of this fascination is T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922).

Frazer's pioneering work[10] has been criticised by late 20th-century scholars. For instance, in the 1980s Edmund Leach wrote a series of critical articles, one of which was featured as the lead in Anthropology Today, vol. 1 (1985).[11] He criticised The Golden Bough for the breadth of comparisons drawn from widely separated cultures, but often based his comments on the abridged edition, which omits the supportive archaeological details. In a positive review of a book narrowly focused on the cultus in the Hittite city of Nerik, J. D. Hawkins remarked approvingly in 1973, "The whole work is very methodical and sticks closely to the fully quoted documentary evidence in a way that would have been unfamiliar to the late Sir James Frazer."[12]

Another important work by Frazer is his six-volume commentary on the Greek traveller Pausanias' description of Greece in the mid-2nd century AD. Since his time, archaeological excavations have added enormously to the knowledge of ancient Greece, but scholars still find much of value in his detailed historical and topographical discussions of different sites, and his eyewitness accounts of Greece at the end of the 19th century.[citation needed]

Origin-of-death stories[edit]

Main article: Origin-of-death myth

Frazer collected stories from throughout the British Empire and devised four general classifications into which many of them could be grouped:[13][14]

  1. The Story of the Two Messengers
  2. The Story of the Waxing and Waning Moon
  3. The Story of the Serpent and his Cast Skin
  4. The Story of the Banana

The Story of the Two Messengers[edit]

This type of story is common in Africa. Two messages are carried from the supreme being to mankind: one of eternal life and one of death. The messenger carrying the tidings of eternal life is delayed, and so the message of death is received first by mankind.[14]

The Bantu people of Southern Africa, such as the Zulu, tell that Unkulunkulu, the Old Old One, sent a message that men should not die, giving it to the chameleon. The chameleon was slow and dawdled, taking time to eat and sleep. Unkulunkulu meanwhile had changed his mind and gave a message of death to the lizard who travelled quickly and so overtook the chameleon. The message of death was delivered first and so, when the chameleon arrived with its message of life, mankind would not hear it and so is fated to die.[14]

Because of this, Bantu people, such as the Ngoni, punish lizards and chameleons. For example, children may be allowed to put tobacco into a chameleon's mouth so that the nicotine poisons it and the creature dies, writhing while turning colours.[14]

Variations of the tale are found in other parts of Africa. The Akamba say the messengers are the chameleon and the thrush while the Ashanti say they are the goat and the sheep.[14]

The Bura people of northern Nigeria say that, at first, neither death nor disease existed but, one day, a man became ill and died. The people sent a worm to ask the sky deity, Hyel, what they should do with him. The worm was told that the people should hang the corpse in the fork of a tree and throw mush at it until it came back to life. But a malicious lizard, Agadzagadza,[15] hurried ahead of the worm and told the people to dig a grave, wrap the corpse in cloth, and bury it. The people did this. When the worm arrived and said that they should dig up the corpse, place it in a tree, and throw mush at it, they were too lazy to do this, and so death remained on Earth.[16][17] This Bura story has the common mythic motif of a vital message which is diverted by a trickster.[18]

In Togoland, the messengers were the dog and the frog, and, as in the Bura version, the messengers go first from mankind to God to get answers to their questions.[14]

The Story of the Waxing and Waning Moon[edit]

The moon regularly seems to disappear and then return. This gave primitive peoples the idea that man should or might return from death in a similar way. Stories that associate the moon with the origin of death are found especially around the Pacific region. In Fiji, it is said that the moon suggested that mankind should return as he did. But the rat god, Ra Kalavo, would not permit this, insisting that men should die like rats. In Australia, the Wotjobaluk aborigines say that the moon used to revive the dead until an old man said that this should stop. The Cham have it that the goddess of good luck used to revive the dead, but the sky-god sent her to the moon so she could not do this any more.[14]

The Story of the Serpent and his Cast Skin[edit]

Animals which shed their skin, such as snakes and lizards, appeared to be immortal to primitive people. This led to stories in which mankind lost the ability to do this. For example, in Vietnam, it was said that the Jade Emperor sent word from heaven to mankind that, when they became old, they should shed their skins while the serpents would die and be buried. But some snakes overheard the command and threatened to bite the messenger unless he switched the message, so that man would die while snakes would be eternally renewed. For the natives of the island of Nias, the story was that the messenger who completed their creation failed to fast and ate bananas rather than crabs. If he had eaten the latter, then mankind would have shed their skins like crabs and so lived eternally.[14]

The Story of the Banana[edit]

The banana plant bears its fruit on a stalk which dies after bearing. This gave people such as the Nias islanders the idea that they had inherited this short-lived property of the banana rather than the immortality of the crab. The natives of Poso also based their myth on this property of the banana. Their story is that the creator in the sky would lower gifts to mankind on a rope and, one day, a stone was offered to the first couple. They refused the gift as they did not know what to do with it and so the creator took it back and lowered a banana. The couple ate this with relish, but the creator told them that they would live as the banana, perishing after having children rather than remaining everlasting like the stone.[14]

Selected works[edit]

  • Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogenies, and Other Pieces (1935)
  • The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion (1933–36)
  • Condorcet on the Progress of the Human Mind (1933)
  • Garnered Sheaves (1931)
  • The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory (1930)
  • Myths of the Origin of Fire (1930)
  • Fasti, by Ovid (text, translation and commentary), 5 volumes (1929)
  • Devil's Advocate (1928)
  • Man, God, and Immortality (1927)
  • Taboo and the Perils of the Soul (1911)
  • The Gorgon's Head and other Literary Pieces (1927)
  • The Worship of Nature (1926) (from 1923–25 Gifford Lectures,[19])
  • The Library, by Apollodorus (text, translation and notes), 2 volumes (1921): ISBN 0-674-99135-4 (vol. 1); ISBN 0-674-99136-2 (vol. 2)
  • Folk-lore in the Old Testament (1918)
  • The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, 3 volumes (1913–24)
  • The Golden Bough, 3rd edition: 12 volumes (1906–15; 1936)
  • Totemism and Exogamy (1910)
  • Psyche's Task (1909)
  • The Golden Bough, 2nd edition: expanded to 6 volumes (1900)
  • Pausanias, and other Greek sketches (1900)
  • Description of Greece, by Pausanias (translation and commentary) (1897–) 6 volumes.
  • The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion, 1st edition (1890)
  • Totemism (1887)
  • Jan Harold Brunvard, American Folklore; An Encyclopedia, s.v. "Superstition" (p 692-697)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abFleure, H. J. (1941). "James George Frazer. 1854-1941". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 3 (10): 896–914. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1941.0041. 
  2. ^Mary Beard, "Frazer, Leach, and Virgil: The Popularity (and Unpopularity) of the Golden Bough," Comparative Studies in Society and History, 34.2 (April 1992:203–224).
  3. ^BIOGRAPHICAL INDEX OF FORMER FELLOWS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH 1783 – 2002(PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X. 
  4. ^Jaques Waardenburg. 1999. Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion. Aims, Methods and Theories of Research, Volume I: Introduction and Anthology, p244. New York : Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016328-4
  5. ^"Frazer, James George (FRSR874JG)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  6. ^Address to Sir James George Frazer on the occasion of the foundation, in his honour, of the Frazer Lectureship in Social Anthropology in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow and Liverpool (1920).
  7. ^BIOGRAPHICAL INDEX OF FORMER FELLOWS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH 1783 – 2002(PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X. 
  8. ^For the history of The Golden Bough see R. Fraser, The Making of The Golden Bough: The Origins and Growth of an Argument (London, 1990).
  9. ^Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Life of Savages and Neurotics, trans., A.A. Brill (London: Routledge and Sons, 1919), p. 4
  10. ^"For those who see Frazer's work as the start of anthropological study in its modern sense, the site and the cult of Nemi must hold a particular place: This colourful but minor backwater of Roman religion marks the source of the discipline of Social anthropology", remarks Mary Beard, in noting the critical reassessment of Frazer's work following Edmund Leach, "Frazer, Leach, and Virgil: The Popularity (and Unpopularity) of the Golden Bough," Comparative Studies in Society and History, 34.2 (April 1992:203–224), p. 204.
  11. ^Leach, "Reflections on a visit to Nemi: did Frazer get it wrong?", Anthropology Today1 (1985)
  12. ^Hawkins, reviewing Volkert Haas, Der Kult von Nerik: ein Beitrag zur hethitischen Religionsgeschichte, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London36.1 (1973:128).
  13. ^Janet Parker; Alice Mills; Julie Stanton (2007), "Myths of Death", Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies, Struik, p. 306, ISBN 978-1-77007-453-8 
  14. ^ abcdefghiJ. G. Frazer (1913), The Belief in Immortality and The Worship of the Dead, Macmillan, ISBN 978-1-4400-4514-1 
  15. ^Eva M. Thury; Margaret K. Devinney (2005), Introduction to Mythology, Oxford University Press, p. 95, ISBN 978-0-19-517968-2 
  16. ^Arthur Cotterell (1999), "Death comes into the world", Encyclopedia of World Mythology, ISBN 978-0-7607-2855-0,  
  17. ^Scheub, Harold (1990), The African storyteller: stories from African oral traditions, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, p. 52, ISBN 978-0-8403-6037-3,  
  18. ^Scheub, Harold (1994), Meanings: Manual for the African Storyteller, Kendall/Hunt, p. 27, ISBN 978-0-8403-9934-2,  
  19. ^Gifford Lecture Series – BooksArchived 16 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine. at

External links[edit]

A snake shedding its skin
Sir James Frazer

AKA James George Frazer

Birthplace:Glasgow, Scotland
Location of death:Cambridge, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Ascension Parish Burial Ground, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight

Nationality: Scotland
Executive summary:The Golden Bough

Sir James Frazer was a British anthropologist, folklorist, and classical scholar, best remembered as the author of the The Golden Bough. A classic in anthropology as well as in studies of comparative religion, magic, and folklore, the work has also had a tremendous impact on the fields of literature, psychology, and anthropology. In addition to introducing the world to a rich sampling of the world's cultural diversity, it also made readers profoundly aware of the parallels and commonalities existing between the religions and mythologies of various cultures, including between pagan beliefs and early Christianity. His work was a primary source material for the neo-pagan movement and influenced such notables as Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot.

James George Frazer was born January 1, 1854 in Glasgow, Scotland. His father was a pharmacist and his mother was descended from George Bogle, the famous British envoy to Tibet. In 1774 Bogle had, under the auspices of the East India Company, become one of the first British citizens to journey into that insular land. Young James grew up steeped in tales of travel, but also in the doctrines of the Free Church of Scotland, under the influence of his father. As a youth he learned Latin and Greek, expanding on this later at Glasgow University, where he also studied physics under the direction of the legendary Lord Kelvin. He subsequently studied the Classics tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1878. Frazer's dissertation on Plato earned him the Title Alpha Fellowship the following year, an honor that would be repeatedly renewed over the years.

Nonetheless, he was constantly urged by his father to find a "real" profession. And in response he took up the study of Law, moving to London to study at the Middle Temple. He was called to the bar four years later. With this out of his way he returned to Cambridge, immersing himself in the work he loved, researching customs and mythology. And he never did take up the practice of law. Instead he undertook the translation and commentary upon Paesanias, a second century Greek travel writer. So massive was the project however, that its six volumes did not appear until 1898. In the meanwhile, inspired by Edward Tylor's Primitive Culture, he had already begun the work for which he would eventually become famous: his survey of primitive customs and beliefs.

Frazer sent letters of enquiry abroad to as many missionaries, doctors, and civil servants as he could find contact information for, querying them about the indigenous peoples with which they were in contact. He then combined the wealth of information this netted him with what he had managed to glean from ancient texts (such as the work of Paesanias) as well as from books and other reports generated by more recent travelers and explorers. The first published product of this work was Totemism, published by him in 1887. But in 1890 he produced The Golden Bough, an impressive tome which compiled a wealth of information on the myths, religions, social taboos, and customs of a broad array of cultures. It presented a rich, exotic diversity of customs and beliefs, whose novelty provoked startling new insights about the nature of society and humanity. But it also highlighted the existence of key themes -- such as birth, growth, death, and rebirth -- and it underscored their importance and their commonality across broad cultural divides.

Naturally, the impact on literature and the arts was huge, influencing James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Robert Graves, and Mary Renault to name but a few. But it also tackled the subject of religion in a way that was relatively new � that is, as a subject for secular study. And it led readers to consider the parallels between earlier forms of Christianity and the rituals and beliefs of various primitive tribes. But it so scandalized the public that he should include the story of Christ and the crucifixion along side "heathen" tales with similar themes, that the material had to be removed to an appendix in later editions. And in fact an abridged version removed the offending material altogether.

But Sigmund Freud meanwhile found the work rich with literal and symbolic information relevant to his developing psychoanalytic theories. And Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was very impressed by Frazer's observations, using them as a stepping-stone to the creation of his spiritually oriented theory of the collective unconscious, especially as it pertained to what he called the universal religious impulse within mankind. Joseph Campbell, the modern icon of comparative mythology, certainly drew on Frazer (along with Max Muller and Sir Edward Tylor) in formulating his influential insights into the role of mythology, for society and the psyche. Meanwhile philosopher Ren� Girard built on Frazer's The Golden Bough to create his theory of mimesis. And of course, whole generations of anthropologists have been inspired by the work of Frazer, in one way or another, to better document and study the religions, myths, and social forms of primitive peoples -- in search of an ever more accurate picture of our differences and commonalities, and of the underlying forces that shape us and are shaped by us.

In the intervening years, since the publication of the Golden Bough and its later expanded editions (which at one point filled some 12 volumes), anthropology has disproved a good deal of Frazer's treasured assumptions and conclusions. Archaeology refutes his claim for the annual killing of the �Year King� within ancient cultures. And cultural anthropology has shown that human societies do not follow one singular path of development-- as the paradigm of Social Darwinism had led Frazer to assume. In addition, the ethnographic material upon which he based his various conclusions has shown to be prohibitively incomplete and skewed by the bias of the white colonialists who collected it. Many of his ideas about the role and purpose of sympathetic magic remain in use today.

Beyond all of this however, Frazer's magnificent undertaking, including The Golden Bough, must be acknowledged for the sheer brilliance and audacity of its scope, and for the ingenuity that underlay its inception. Frazer himself must further be acknowledged for having the willingness to scrutinize his own culture -- and hold it up for intelligent, sympathetic comparison to other belief systems -- at a time when the general opinion was that other customs and belief systems were merely inferior institutions in need of eradication.

Given the fervor with which Christian missionaries sought to wipe out other spiritual traditions, it is ironic then that it was Frazer's work with The Golden Bough which aided and inspired the rebirth of paganism. Frazer's detailed ethnography of non-Christian tribal cultures, along with his analysis of the ancient European rituals and customs once associated with nature and goddess worship, became primary source material for those seeking to reconstitute what the agents of Christianity had obliterated. Thus in the 1950s, years after Frazer's passing, Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley (drawing also on the work of H. P. Blavatsky and of the The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) layed the foundations for Wicca and other branches of neopaganism.

Despite the scandal that his work initially drew among the small-minded, James Frazer was knighted in 1915 for his contributions to the science of anthropology. Firmly ensconced at Cambridge University, and assured of the significance of his work, he continued to write and research unabated until his final years. Even a terrible incident in 1930, in which his eyes filled with blood and left him virtually blind failed to slow him down. Instead he became dependent upon secretaries and other helpers to do the work of his eyes and hands. And always he was aided by his devoted wife Lilly, who spent their years together encouraging and promoting his work. Sir James Frazer died May 7, 1941. Lilly, or Lady Frazer, died but a few hours later. They were interred together, side by side, in St. Gile's Cemetery, Cambridge.

Father: Daniel K. Frazer
Mother: Katherine Brown

    High School: Larchfield Academy, Helensburgh, Scotland
    University: University of Glasgow
    University: Trinity College, Cambridge University
    Professor: Social Anthropology, University of Liverpool (1907-08)
    Professor: Trinity College, Cambridge University (1871-1941)

Author of books:
Totemism (, anthropology)
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (, anthropology)
Psyche's Task (, nonfiction)
Totemism and Exogamy (, anthropology)
The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, Volume I (, anthropology)
Folk-lore in the Old Testament (, anthropology)
Apollodorus: the Library (, nonfiction)
The Worship of Nature (, anthropology)
The Gorgon's Head and other Literary Pieces (, fiction)
Man, God, and Immortality (, nonficton)
Myths of the Origin of Fire (, nonfiction)
The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory (, nonfiction)
Garnered Sheaves (, nonfiction)
Condorcet on the Progress of the Human Mind (, nonfiction)
The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, Volume I (, anthropology)
Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogenies, and Other Pieces (, collection)
Magic and Religion (, anthropology)

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