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Sir James Frazer

Sir James FrazerAKA James George Frazer

Born: 1-Jan-1854
Birthplace: Glasgow, Scotland
Died: 7-May-1941
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
Occupation: Anthropologist

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 René 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 (1887, anthropology)
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890, anthropology)
Psyche's Task (1909, nonfiction)
Totemism and Exogamy (1910, anthropology)
The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, Volume I (1913, anthropology)
Folk-lore in the Old Testament (1918, anthropology)
Apollodorus: the Library (1921, nonfiction)
The Worship of Nature (1926, anthropology)
The Gorgon's Head and other Literary Pieces (1927, fiction)
Man, God, and Immortality (1927, nonficton)
Myths of the Origin of Fire (1930, nonfiction)
The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory (1930, nonfiction)
Garnered Sheaves (1931, nonfiction)
Condorcet on the Progress of the Human Mind (1933, nonfiction)
The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, Volume I (1933, anthropology)
Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogenies, and Other Pieces (1935, collection)
Magic and Religion (1944, anthropology)

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