Authors: Sir James George Frazer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Scottish anthropologist

Author Works


The Golden Bough, 1890 (2 volumes), 1911-1915 (12 volumes; 1 volume condensed, 1922)

Totemism and Exogamy, 1910

The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, 1913-1924 (3 volumes)

Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, 1918

Man, God, and Immortality, 1927

The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion, 1933-1936 (3 volumes)

Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogonies, 1935

Aftermath, 1936 (supplement to The Golden Bough)


Perhaps the foremost of pioneers in modern anthropology and renowned as the author of The Golden Bough, James George Frazer (FRAY-zur) was the son of Daniel F. Frazer, a partner in an old established firm of chemists. The young Frazer demonstrated academic distinction early at Larchfield Academy, then at Glasgow University, and finally at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was made a Fellow in 1879. Frazer’s early interest was in the classics, an interest that continued during his long scholarly career, during which he translated Apollodorus, Pausanius, Ovid, and Sallust. But friendship with W. Robertson Smith, the Hebrew scholar who wrote Religion of the Semites (1889), led Frazer to the work of Sir Edward Tylor (Primitive Culture, 1871) and so to anthropology. At Smith’s suggestion, Frazer wrote the articles on totem and taboo for the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Then he began collecting material for his famed study, The Golden Bough.{$I[AN]9810000557}{$I[A]Frazer, Sir James George}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Frazer, Sir James George}{$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Frazer, Sir James George}{$I[tim]1854;Frazer, Sir James George}

At first planned for two volumes, the study finally grew to twelve and took twenty-five years to complete. Beginning with the famous opening scene that reveals the doomed priest of Diana, sword in hand, in the sacred grove of Aricia, Frazer set out to study the relation of the ritual of sacrifice to the myths of divine kings of the Near East. Through the myth and rituals of the Near East and then Europe, Frazer tracked his theme, using the memoirs and correspondences of missionaries and travelers for sources. Compiling the material into notebooks, Frazer synthesized it into a study that proposed how primitive priest-magicians (shamans) became divine kings in later myths, and then gods. He suggested that Osiris, Attis, and Adonis are all avatars of this slain and resurrected vegetable god: a being who is slain or disposed of in the winter, but who must be reborn in the spring so that the primitive agricultural communities also will revive and prosper.

Many of Frazer’s theories have been revised by later anthropologists, but there is no question that his compilations made available for the first time an extraordinary body of material about early culture that had never been seriously considered before. As Sigmund Freud revealed to the individual a whole world within the self, so Frazer revealed to civilization a whole world of the past never noticed before, observed Theodore Gaster, one of Frazer’s more recent editors.

Laboring over a period of fifty years, often for twelve hours a day, Frazer also compiled monumental studies of mythology and culture, including Totemism and Exogamy; Man, God, and Immortality; and Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogonies. He was knighted in 1914, was given the Order of Merit in 1925, and received numerous honorary degrees, including those from Oxford, Cambridge, and his native Glasgow. In 1896 he married Lily Grove, who helped him organize notes and compile his records. In his later years, after his sight failed, Lady Frazer read records to him and transcribed his manuscripts. Frazer died at Cambridge in 1941, and his wife’s death followed several hours later.

BibliographyAckerman, Robert. J. G. Frazer: His Life and Work. 1987. Rev. ed. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001. A very useful study of Frazer and the evolution of The Golden Bough.Downie, Robert Angus. Frazer and the Golden Bough. London: Gollancz, 1970. A biography written by Frazer’s assistant in his later years.Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward. A History of Anthropological Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1981. A distinguished anthropologist, Evans-Pritchard is highly critical of Frazer’s theoretical and methodological shortcomings, but he still finds in Frazer important contributions to the understanding of magic. He pays “homage to his scholarship.”Hyman, Stanley Edgar. The Tangled Bank: Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud as Imaginative Writers. New York: Atheneum, 1962. An interesting study of the major popular social theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.Manganaro, Marc. Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, and Campbell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. This study of mythological theory in literature provides a critique of Frazer’s anthropological theories in terms of their effect on literature.Vickery, John B. The Literary Impact of “The Golden Bough.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Traces the influence of The Golden Bough on numerous works of literature.
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