Frazer, Sir James George


Frazer, Sir James George
(1854-1941)
   An anthropologist who held that all human societies have evolved through similar stages of magical and religious belief. These he established by comparing ancient mythologies with the beliefs and rituals of tribal societies in Africa, Australia, or the Americas, and with recent folk customs - since the latter, he claimed, contained items surviving from earlier stages, albeit corrupted and misunderstood. This non-historical cross-cultural approach was typical of his period; it is now rejected as invalid by anthropologists and folklorists, but its influence can still be seen in many popular works.
   Frazer's major book was The Golden Bough, on which he worked throughout his life; the first edition (1890) was in two volumes, the second (1900) in three, the third (1911-15) in twelve. Modern readers often use the one-volume abridgement (1922), where the arguments stand out more clearly, stripped of their massive footnotes and many examples; this is a pity, since the data remain valuable even where the interpretations are obsolete.
   The Golden Bough was widely acclaimed, and influenced several major poets and novelists in the inter-war years; to the general public, it remains the best-known, and most emotionally persuasive, study of myth and folklore. Frazer launched the idea of a sacred king who had to be killed when he grew old, because his virility was identified with the life-force of the crops; he stressed the importance of the annual cycle of vegetation, and especially cereal crops, which he linked to the myths of dying-and-rising gods in Near Eastern religions; he distinguished usefully between 'imitative' and 'contagious' *magic; he had much to say about taboos, tree-worship, human and animal sacrifice, scapegoats, fire-festivals, and much else. The logical links between these many topics are weak, and the accumulated data sometimes hardly relevant to the theories they are meant to support; his speculations regularly go far beyond what the evidence will bear, and he sometimes adds to the confusion by allowing incompatible interpretations to coexist. But his dramatic ideas and colourful, emotive style were most persuasive, and his influence endures; whenever '*fertility cults' are offered as an explanation of folk custom, an echo of Frazer can be heard. Ackerman, 1987; Dorson, 1968: 283-8.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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