Sir James George Frazer, OM, FRS, FBA, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a prolific scholar whose deep and broad classical learning underlay his epochal explorations into the comparative evolutionary history of religion. His most important work was folkloristic and anthropological, as those terms were understood before the First World War, but he also produced a larger quantity of first-class classical work than do many scholars who never stray from the beaten paths of classical antiquity. Although his writings met a mixed reception from the start among scholars, they arguably had a greater impact on the thinking of the educated lay reader in the English-speaking world in the first third of this century than those of any other British scholar. During that time, they caused thoughtful people to understand the origins, development, and meaning of human mental and spiritual evolution in a new way, and even now, half a century after his death, some range him with Darwin, Marx, and Freud as a prime architect of the modern consciousness. The statement by T. S. Eliot in the notes to his landmark modernist poem The Waste Land (1922) that the work could be understood fully only by a reader conversant with The Golden Bough is only the best-known acknowledgment of that influence.
James Frazer was born in preindustrial Glasgow, the eldest son of a pious (Free Church of Scotland), middle-class family. His father, self- educated, was activist by temperament and rose to become a leader among the businessmen of Glasgow and the pharmacists of Scotland. James, by contrast was shy, retiring, and bookish from the start. His academic career began brilliantly in 1874, when he swept most of the classical honors in taking his first degree at the University of Glasgow. There (Frazer says) the Latinist G. G. Ramsay (1839-1921) played a critical part in shaping his understanding of the classical world. It was also at Glasgow that his religious faith seems to have slipped painlessly away.
It is worth noting that the standard expected of the students at Glasgow was not as high as it was at an English university, but the curriculum was much broader. In a technical sense Frazer was not as well prepared as his English contemporaries who were products of classical preparatory schools; on the other hand, Glasgow introduced him to subjects like psychology and philosophy that undergraduates in England never encountered. This early exposure may have predisposed him to taking the wide views that characterize all his mature work.
At this time Scottish graduates interested in pursuing an academic career regularly took a second B.A., usually in England; accordingly, Frazer entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1874. This was to be his spiritual home, as student and fellow, for the rest of his long life. There, as he continued to read widely, the great influence was his teacher Henry Jackson (1839-1921), praelector in ancient philosophy. After coming second in the classical Tripos of 1878, he won a college fellowship in 1879 with a Jacksonian dissertation on The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory. (This fellowship, having been renewed in 1885, 1890, and 1895, became tenable for life. Except for one year, 1907-1908, when Frazer left Cambridge to take up a chair in social anthropology at Liverpool but then returned, homesick for Cambridge, the fellowship was his only academic position. In later years—especially after he married a French widow with two teen-aged children in 1896—he depended for much of his income on book royalties. He did no teaching and had no students, which explains to some extent why his later eclipse was so total.)
At Trinity he also absorbed great doses of evolutionary social thought in the work of Herbert Spencer, then at the height of his influence, and the rationalist anticlericalism of the French Orientalist Ernest Renan. By the 1880s, then, Frazer had much broader interests than the typical Cambridge classical graduate of the time, who tended to be content in a rather antlike way to add his tiny contribution to the mountain of textual commentary. Frazer revised a school text of Sallust’s Catilina and Jugurtha and had already begun a translation of and commentary upon Pausanias when, in 1884, he met and fell under the spell of the brilliant Scottish Semiticist and historian of religion, William Robertson Smith (1846-1894). It was Smith who gave Frazer his first intimations of anthropology and “primitive” religion.
Smith had publicized the results of German Biblical criticism in the volumes of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, of which he was the editor. For his pains he became the defendant in the last important heresy trial in Britain. Although exonerated, he was too notorious for provincial Scotland and as a result emigrated to Cambridge. Smith quickly enlisted the young but already erudite Frazer, possessor of a clear and graceful style, as a contributor to the encyclopedia. At that time volumes were published as they were completed, and for this reason everything through the letter O had already appeared. Thus it was that he first had Frazer write a few small classical articles on subjects beginning with P, and when all went well entrusted to him the major articles on “Taboo” and “Totemism.” The younger man never looked back. The new field of anthropology, although at the time not a university subject and thus without professional prospects, must have appeared to him more inviting than classics, where all must have seemed set in stone.
His eyes having been opened by anthropology, Frazer suspended work on Pausanias and turned to an ambitious and speculative general work on the nature and origins of religion: The Golden Bough (1890). From the point of view of intellectual history, the book may be seen as a late contribution to the long-term movement to topple the Greeks and Romans from the privileged positions in the European historical imagination that they had occupied since the Renaissance. Frazer, demythologizing, asserted that the Greeks and Romans were at the same (not very advanced) stage of mental evolution as contemporary European peasants and so-called primitive peoples. (The discovery—or the invention—of the “folk” and folklore was one of the great enterprises of European romanticism, and masses of data about “savages” had flowed into the European capitals throughout the nineteenth century as a result of imperialism and colonialism. In terms of its main sources, then, The Golden Bough could not have been written much earlier than it was.) For this reason, the best way to understand the spiritual life of classical antiquity, Frazer argued, was through the lens of the religious behavior of peasants and savages and the mentality such behavior bespoke. The book was generally well received, the reviewers praising especially Frazer’s deftness in guiding the reader through veritable Saharas of dry facts.
The Golden Bough’s novelty lay in the way it juxtaposed materials from the classical and “savage” worlds, using the latter to illuminate the former. Its hidden agenda lay in what was not discussed: although the reader learns much about Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, and the other gods of the eastern Mediterranean, there is not a word about the most well-known of that pantheon, Jesus. Only the slowest reader, however, could not notice this striking omission, and only the same kind of reader could fail to make the connection between the heathen gods that Frazer argues are the products of mental confusion and the Son of God. Thus, by seeming to follow the comparative method and the ethnographic data wherever they led him, Frazer made many of his points by indirection while avoiding religious polemic, for which he had no taste. For all its masses of exotic facts, The Golden Bough is an attempt to employ the prestige of an objective “scientific” methodology to hammer the last nail into the coffin of Christianity in post-Darwinian Britain. His book was well received not merely because of its accomplished style but because there existed in 1890 an educated audience that was deeply interested in any work that promised to shed light on the question of whether religion remained viable as a guide to life.
As soon as The Golden Bough appeared, Frazer returned to Pausanias. (It is not wholly fanciful to see Frazer as a modern Pausanias: both share in a marked degree the qualities of digressiveness, curiosity, and a special interest in the religion, mythology, and customs of the past.) He traveled to Greece in 1890 and again in 1895, visiting the archaeological sites then being excavated in order to gather the most up-to-date information. As he labored, the commentary grew in a way that alarmed his publisher and foreshadowed the relentless ballooning of his later work. In 1898, some fourteen years after Frazer had begun, Macmillan finally brought out the six quarto volumes of ausanias’s Description of Greece, which magisterially assembled and weighed all the evidence on the myriad of large and small archaeological, historical, and topographical questions that studded that author’s problematic guidebook. Many believe it to be Frazer’s most completely successful work.
Significantly, the only aspect of Pausanias that is scanted is the text—essentially that of Schubart (1838-9), as emended by various hands—which Frazer chose not to edit. Instead, to his translation he merely appended a long list of textual variants and emendations. For Frazer, though an excellent scholar, the text was never of interest in itself, and although subsequently he twice returned to pure classical scholarship (Apollodorus’ The Library and Ovid’s Fasti), those works were chosen only because they lent themselves to the application of folklore and anthropology.
With Pausanias at last out of the way, Frazer returned to The Golden Bough, eager to revise it in the light of new information concerning the religious and social institutions of the Australian aborigines. These peoples, then regarded as the most primitive in the world, were thought to afford a glimpse into “the childhood of the race.” It was the Australian evidence that impelled him in the second edition to the thesis with which he is most closely identified: that magic, religion, and science characterize the three successive stages in the evolution of the mind. Although The Golden Bough’s ostensible raison d’être is an explanation of a strange ritual combat that took place in the grove of Diana at Nemi, as the work relentlessly grew (from two volumes in 1890 to three in 1900 to twelve in 1911-1915), it became increasingly clear that Nemi existed merely as a peg from which Frazer might hang his immense excursus into the world’s folklore and mythology, and that in fact he was stalking bigger game: nothing less than an analysis of the evolution of the human mind. Indeed, in the concluding pages of the third edition, Frazer finally acknowledged his true subject to be epistemology.
The years 1900-1914 Frazer dedicated to anthropology. He was especially preoccupied with the evolution of the institution of the sacred kingship in ancient and primitive cultures and the vexed question of the origins and meaning of totemism. On the first of these his most important work was Lectures on the History of the Kingship (1905), which emerged from an energizing series of discussions with A. B. Cook (1868-1952). Their collaboration marked the first time since 1894, the year of Robertson Smith’s death, that Frazer had worked in a significant way with anyone.
During these same years Frazer also proceeded to distance himself from “ritualism”—the idea that ritual preceded (and therefore was more important than) myth in ancient religion, a position associated with Robertson Smith that he had seemed to endorse in the first edition of The Golden Bough. As he did so, ritualism was being enthusiastically embraced by a group of Frazer’s classical colleagues who came to be known as the Cambridge Ritualists: Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928), F. M. Cornford (1874-1943), A. B. Cook (1868-1952), and Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) (despite his being an Oxford man). They drew heavily upon Frazer’s work but augmented it where in their view it was weakest, in sociology and psychology. Frazer saw all social change as the result of individual thought and effort. He implicitly assumed in the best British utilitarian tradition that the ancient primitive community was to be understood as an atomistic assemblage of competing selves; in psychology he likewise assumed rationalistic utilitarian motives, at least among those in the tribe who were least benighted mentally (the “primitive savants”). The Ritualists, on the other hand, combining the collectivist sociology of Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) with the vitalism of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and the “animatism” of the English anthropologist R. R. Marett (1866-1943), came to understand primitive religious institutions as originating in collective manifestations and not as the products of individual ratiocination.
By 1914, in the conclusion of the third edition of The Golden Bough, Frazer had moved so far from ritualism as to endorse euhemerism as the best explanation of ancient religion. Needless to say, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the Ritualists, especially because they levied upon his work so freely. He made his views known unequivocally in 1921, when, in the introduction to his Loeb edition of Apollodorus’ The Library, he went out of his way to disavow the Ritualists. This gradual but unmistakable evolution of his position on the origins, meaning, and relationship of myth to ritual fatally undermines any formulation that associates Frazer directly and closely with ritualism.
The publication of the great third edition of The Golden Bough brought Frazer recognition: a knighthood in 1914, fellowship in the Royal Society in 1920, membership in the select Order of Merit in 1925. The immense success of the one-volume abridgment he prepared in 1922 finally gave him the financial security he had long sought. It may be an indication of his deepest allegiances that as soon as he was relieved of money worries he immediately returned to the classics. Long a friend of James Loeb (1867-1933), he had been involved in the Loeb Library from its inception before the war; indeed, Loeb had asked him to be its first general editor. But Frazer, loath to leave his friend George Macmillan, was unwilling to assume the responsibility of directing the Loeb series. As noted above, however, he did edit two titles in it—The Library and Fasti—because they represented opportunities for anthropological and folkloristic commentary. Indeed, the Fasti was Pausanias all over again, with the copiousness of the commentary such that the narrow confines of the Loeb format could contain only a small part of it; Macmillan published the entire edition in five quarto volumes.
There is an important difference in tone and subtext between the Pausanias and Frazer’s Loeb classical work of the 1920s. In the 1890s Pausanias had been a distinctly embattled author because twenty years earlier Wilamowitz (1848-1931) concluded that the Greek traveler’s account was an unreliable farrago of plagiarism and invention and accordingly he and his students carried on a lengthy anti-Pausanian polemic. Therefore, no one working on Pausanias at the time could remain neutral. As a result of his lengthy immersion in Pausanias, Frazer, normally the least combative of men, found himself engaged in a protracted battle that he found distasteful but in which he acquitted himself handily. (He had the great advantage of being right, for the archaeological evidence supported Pausanias nearly every time.) As a result, he conceived a lifelong animus against Wilamowitz. By comparison the Apollodorus and the Ovid, although, like the Pausanias, still useful today, were anything but controversial, and as a result perhaps lack the decisiveness and emotional energy that sometimes result from intellectual tension.
The Fasti, completed when Frazer was seventy-five, was his last great achievement. He had suffered from eye trouble for many years, and suddenly in 1931 he went blind. When he learned that his sight would never return, Frazer gamely kept working for another decade with the help of readers and amanuenses, and even published an embryonic attempt at a fourth edition of The Golden Bough, entitled Aftermath, in 1936.
When he died from the degenerative effects of old age at the age of eighty- seven in 1941, his passing was not greatly mourned. In the 1920s Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) had revolutionized anthropology by changing its focus from the comparative study of the evolution of institutions to the study of social structures in individual societies and by insisting on the importance of fieldwork as a sine qua non for any general formulations. By the 1930s Frazer had thus come to be seen as the incarnation of how not to do anthropology, and the decline in his reputation was precipitous and long-lasting. Only since the 1960s has Frazer’s importance (to all but classics) come to be understood as essentially cultural in his contributions to the fund of significant images and metaphors of our time. Indeed, at moments he achieved truly prophetic stature as he plumbed the irrational side of the human psyche, albeit with some distaste, in cataloguing the “errors” that underlay religion. He outlived the era of Western intellectual, social, and political confidence that made his work on religion possible—his important contributions in that field were complete by 1914—and unhappily survived to see the recrudescence of that dark side in the Second World War.