Sir James George Frazer (January 1, 1854, Glasgow, Scotland – May 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.
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 His theories of totemism were superseded by Claude Lévi-Strauss and his vision of the annual sacrifice of the Year King has not been borne out by field studies.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.