This first volume of Professor Frazer’s book, The Belief in Immortality, consists of twenty lectures delivered between 1911 and 1912 as part of the Gifford’s Lectures at the University of St. Andrews. Frazer focuses on the belief in immortality in primitive societies, as he believes only then can we understand our own beliefs in life after death.
In the first three lectures, Frazer clarifies the notion of immortality as not the belief in an endless life, but rather the idea that after our existence as human beings we continue to exist in another form. The persistence of the soul after the death of the body is essentially the main idea that Frazer investigates here.
The chief explanation for the belief in the survival of the soul after death is the result of the human tendency to look for causes. Frazer argues that dreams are frequently understood in relation to the belief in immortality. When a native dreams of a person already dead, he infers that the dead still exist only in a different way, namely, apart from their bodies. Thus, natives find an explanation for many of their daily events in their dreams. The spirits of the dead cause what is ‘bad’ and ‘good’ within the community.
After these introductory aspects, Frazer discusses the belief in immortality held by a wide range of tribes. He begins with the aborigines of Central Australia, whom he considers the most primitive in existence. Particularly interesting is his description of their belief in reincarnation and the interval between the rebirth of the soul and the moment in which the soul has left the body of the individual. Frazer considers that the belief in a place where the souls of the dead go is an expression of a more advanced stage of cultural development. Thus, for example, certain tribes of New Caledonian (Southern Melanesia) firmly believe in the existence of a warm place at the bottom of the sea where the spirits of the dead mingle with other spirits and where food is abundant.
In addition to these diverse examples of ‘primitive’ conceptions of the spirit and its survival after the death of the body, Frazer presents numerous ‘curious’ and ancient traditions and customs related to the way various ‘archaic’ societies honour the dead and understand ‘death’. A particularly remarkable case on which Frazer focuses relates to certain tribes in British New Guinea. After building a two-floor structure, they place the corpse in the upper floor while the widow or the widower sleeps below. The liquids of the corpse drop down and cover the widower, thereby initiating a communion between the former lovers.
Frazer thinks that all these cases and ‘theories of the soul’ ultimately reflect the transition from a purely magical belief in the past and in the present to an age of purer religion.