James George Frazer

Sir James George Frazer

[frey-zer]

Sir James George Frazer, 1933.

(born Jan. 1, 1854, Glasgow, Scot.—died May 7, 1941, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, Eng.) British anthropologist, folklorist, and classical scholar. Frazer attended Glasgow University and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became a professor and remained the rest of his life. In The Golden Bough (1890; enlarged to 12 vols., 1911–15), Frazer examined the evolution of modes of thought from the magical to the religious and, finally, to the scientific. Although his evolutionary sequence is no longer accepted, Frazer's synthesis of the new science of cultural anthropology with traditional humanistic concerns and his lively descriptions of exotic cultural beliefs and practices had a wide influence. His other works include Totemism and Exogamy (1910) and Folk-Lore in the Old Testament (1918).

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Sir James George Frazer (January 1, 1854, Glasgow, ScotlandMay 7, 1941), was a Scottish social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion.

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

Biography

He studied at the University of Glasgow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with honors in Classics (his dissertation would be published years later as The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory) and remained a Classics Fellow all his life. He went on from Trinity to study law at the Middle Temple and yet never practised. He was four times elected to Trinity's Title Alpha Fellowship, and 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 . He was, if not blind, then severely visually impaired from 1930 on. He and his wife, Lily, died within a few hours of each other. They are buried at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge, England.

The study of myth and religion became his areas of expertise. Except for Italy and Greece, Frazer was not widely traveled. 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 linking the Old Testament with early Hebrew folklore.

Frazer was far from being the first to study religions dispassionately, as a cultural phenomenon rather than from within theology. He was, though, the first to detail the relations between myths and rituals. His theories of totemism were superseded by Claude Lévi-Strauss and his vision of the annual sacrifice of the Year King has not been borne out by field studies. His generation's choice of Darwinian evolution as a social paradigm, interpreted by Frazer as three rising stages of human progress -- magic giving rise to religion, then culminating in science -- has not proved valid. Yet The Golden Bough, his study of ancient cults, rites, and myths, including their parallels with early Christianity, arguably his greatest work, is still rifled by modern mythographers for its detailed information. Notably, The Golden Bough influenced René Girard; and led him to study anthropology to develop his mimesis theory of the scapegoat. The work's influence spilled well over the conventional bounds of academia, however; the symbolic cycle of life, death and rebirth which Frazer divined behind myths of all pedigrees captivated a whole generation of artists and poets. Perhaps the most notable product of this fascination is T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. More recently it was an influence on the ending of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (a copy of The Golden Bough figures in one of the final shots of the film).

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 abridgement, largely compiled by his wife Lady Frazer, in 1922, with some controversial material removed from the text.

Jane Ellen Harrison, a respected historian of Greek religion and a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, gave Frazer's immensely popular work academic credibility, and it has retained the reputation of a middle-brow classic.

Frazer's pioneering work has come under criticism by more recent scholars, following a series of critical, even vituperative articles by Edmund Leach, one of which was selected as the lead article in Anthopology Today, vol. 1 (1985); in part Frazer's Golden Bough was criticised for the breadth of comparisons drawn from widely separated cultures, but the criticism is often based on the abridged edition, which omits the supportive archaeological details. In a positive review of a work narrowly focusing 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.

Selected works

  • 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)
    • one-volume abridgement (1931)
      • revised by G. P. Goold (1989, corr. 1996): ISBN 0-674-99279-2
  • Devil's Advocate (1928)
  • Man, God, and Immortality (1927)
  • The Gorgon's Head and other Literary Pieces (1927)
  • The Worship of Nature (1926) (from 1923–25 Gifford Lectures,)
  • 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)
    • 1922 one-volume abridgement: ISBN 0-486-42492-8
  • Totemism and Exogamy (1910)
  • Psyche's Task (1909)
  • The Golden Bough, 2nd edition: expanded to 6 volumes (1900)
  • Descriptions of Greece, by Pausanias (translation and commentary) (1897)
  • The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion, 1st edition (1890)
  • Totemism (1887)

See also

References

  • Jan Harold Brunvard, American Folklore; An Encyclopedia, s.v. "Superstition" (p 692-697)

External links

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