Civilised and uncivilised societies

The Worship of Nature

  • James George Frazer
1923 to 1925
University of Edinburgh

James George Frazer approached his Gifford Lectures from the perspective of an anthropologist. He focused on rituals involving Sky-, Earth- and Sun-worship in ancient and contemporary ‘civilizations’. His favourite ancient examples are based on classical texts from Vedic, Babylonian, Greek and Roman scholars. Frazer’s contemporary examples, however, are drawn largely from accounts given by missionaries travelling across ‘uncivilized’ Africa and isolated parts of India during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, recounting the rituals of local ‘tribes’ they met. Basing his theories on classical and missionary accounts combined, Frazer explains how it is that various religious communities throughout time and space have deified the Sky, Earth and Sun. The ubiquity of such nature-worship throughout human history leads him to conclude that all societies, at some point in time, attempt to explain the world around them by ascribing meaning and personality to natural phenomena. Frazer notes that, in this regard, the ‘civilized’ ancient Greeks and Romans are no different from the ‘uncivilised’ Bantu ‘savages’ living across Africa. This proves, he says, that Europeans and their ancestors are not as different from the ‘savages’ as his early twentieth-century audience might have been apt to think. As an anthropologist, Frazer was one of the first Gifford Lecturers to use the series as a space in which to describe and compare various religious ‘gods’ as opposed to engaging in a theological discourse about the ultimate nature and meaning of any one particular ‘God’.

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