Classical philosopher and anthropologist Sir James George Frazer was born in Glasgow, 1 January 1854, to Daniel F. Frazer, a pharmacist, and Katherine Brown of Helensburgh. The eldest of four children, Frazer was raised in a devout Presbyterian household. Schooled initially at Larchfield Academy, Helensburgh, and then at the University of Glasgow, where he graduated with an M.A. in 1869, Frazer was initiated early on into the tradition of classical studies. In Helensburgh and Glasgow he studied ancient philosophy and literature, which he continued at Trinity College, Cambridge. Frazer wrote the classical tripos exam at Cambridge in 1878 and in 1879 was offered a fellowship by the university. It was a post he would hold until the end of his life.
However, it was not in classical theory that Frazer made his academic mark. Rather, his fame came from the anthropological works he published later in life. Frazer’s interest in anthropology began in 1883 when Cambridge hired William Robertson Smith as Professor of Arabic. The two became friends and Smith encouraged Frazer to consider studying religious cultures and their rituals. In 1888, as the editor of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Smith asked Frazer to write two articles for the publication—one on ‘Taboo’ and the other on ‘Totemism’. By that time, Frazer had also been introduced to E. B. Tylor’s book Primitive Culture (1871) and was soon delivering papers on anthropological subjects. In 1885 he read a paper on burial customs to the Anthropological Institute; indeed, Frazer’s later career was marked by his unprecedented interest in the links between myths and rituals. He was the first professor of ‘social anthropology’ in Great Britain in Liverpool, although he only held the post for one year before returning permanently to Cambridge.
Often considered one of the founders of contemporary anthropology, and a major influence on twentieth-century social anthropology, Frazer was among the first to study ‘religion’ as a social activity that could be compared and contrasted. This stood in stark contrast to previous modes of theological discourse, which had sought to rationalise the truth-value inherent in various religious claims.
In 1890 Frazer published the first edition of his now-famous The Golden Bough, which described a ritual that took place at the Arician grove at Nemi, in Italy—a grove that had been sacred to Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt. A later, expanded edition of the book included and compared similar rites practiced in European countries, drawing parallels between ritual practices in early Christianity and the non-European world. Various reviewers to this day are unsure whether Frazer used this book to expound upon his own subtle anti-religiosity or if he was expressing an equally subtle version of Christian faith at odds with the politics and hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Although Frazer treated religion carefully and with a high degree of dispassion, he nonetheless had his critics. He was accused of rarely wanting to discuss his ideas or even to hold lectures to elaborate upon them, the Gifford Lectures of 1923 to 1925 being notable exceptions. More important, however, was the criticism that Frazer was a ‘desk-anthropologist’ with little original contributions to make to the field. It is generally noted that Frazer read copious amounts of literature by other anthropologists and researchers (including various missionaries with whom he corresponded regularly); it is also generally acknowledged that Frazer was a master note-taker and categorizer. Indeed, he published something on almost everything he ever took notes on. But Frazer rarely researched his own data. Apart from some trips to Spain and Greece, he was not considered to be a widely travelled man. He relied heavily on historical accounts by ancient historians, as well as surveys and questions sent to the missionaries on their travels. Frazer’s greatest innovation remains, perhaps, his systematic categorizing of other people’s findings in order to compare and contrast different cultural groupings.
A recent biography by Robert Ackerman has shed new light on Frazer’s attitude toward his own work. The biography claims that Frazer did not think relying on secondary sources was optimal for an anthropologist, but due to his own personal obligations—in particular to his wife, Elisabeth Johanna de Boys (known as Lilly), who had two children from a previous marriage—he was unable to engage in more first-hand research of his own.
During his lifetime, Frazer also found support among an eclectic group of contemporaneous academics and writers. Sigmund Freud was said to have agreed with Frazer on many of his theories regarding sexuality’s role in the creation of religious traditions in different societies. Freud even included some of Frazer’s data in his own book Totem and Taboo (1913). Bronislaw Malinowski, the renowned Polish-British anthropologist who founded the theory of functionalism, was another famous Frazer-supporter. Malinowski said that his inspiration for functionalism came from his contact at the London School of Economics with Frazer’s writing on similar themes (functionalism claims that the various branches of society—its diverse institutions, rituals and traditions—serve specific ‘functions’ in establishing a well-balanced and stable social network). Frazer also made a mark on the literary world. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, for example, is just one of many works produced under the influence of his theory that the symbolic cycle of life, death and rebirth underlines much historical and contemporary religious practice.
Frazer was knighted in 1914 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1920. His wife produced a French translation of his book The Golden Bough in 1923, and in 1924 Frazer was made a member of the Order of Merit for his contributions to ‘the cause of science’.
Frazer died of natural causes on 7 May 1941, following years of eye trouble and near-blindness. His wife died shortly thereafter on the same day. They were both buried in St Giles's cemetery, Cambridge.
Frazer’s major publications include: Totemism (1887); The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890); Adonis, Attis, Osiris: Studies in the History of Oriental Religion (1906); The Scope of Social Anthropology: A Lecture Delivered Before the University of Liverpool (1908); Psyche's Task: A Discourse Concerning the Influence of Superstition on the Growth of Institutions (1909); Totemism and Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society (1910); The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings (1911); The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, 2 vols. (1913, 1926); Folk-lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend and Law (1918); Garnered Sheaves: Essays, Addresses and Reviews (1931); Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogonies and Other Pieces (1935); Aftermath: A Supplement to the ‘Golden Bough’(1936).