In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sir James George Frazer

  • Introduction
  • The Golden Bough
  • The Golden Bough (Abridgments)
  • Primitive Religion
  • Greek and Roman Religion
  • Taboo and Totemism
  • The Old Testament
  • Religion Worldwide
  • Frazer and Smith
  • Essays
  • Letters
  • Bibliography
  • Biography
  • Recollections
  • Reviews of The Golden Bough (first and second editions)
  • Reviews of The Golden Bough (third edition)
  • Reviews of Pausanias
  • Reviews of Folk-Lore in The Old Testament
  • Reviews of Totemism and Exogamy and Totemica
  • Religion and Magic
  • Totemism and Exogamy
  • Myth and Ritual
  • Obituaries
  • Evaluations of Frazer on the Killing of the King
  • Evaluations of the Rest of Frazer’s Theory
  • Conceptual Issues
  • Influence of Frazer on Literature
  • Influence of Frazer on Culture

Anthropology Sir James George Frazer
Robert Segal
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0196


James George Frazer was the son of a prosperous Scottish pharmacist. He was educated at the University of Glasgow and attended Cambridge University for graduate studies in classics. His father was a staunch member of the Free Church of Scotland, but in the son religiosity never “took.” James George was an atheist and felt disdain toward religion. He was elected and then twice re-elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and stayed there as a Fellow his whole life—with the exception of an unhappy few months as Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Liverpool. As a traditional classicist, Frazer undertook translations and commentaries on Greek and Roman works that dealt with myths and rituals. In 1898 he published a six-volume translation and commentary on Pausanias’ travels to ancient religious sites in the 2nd century CE. In 1921 he published a two-volume translation and commentary on Apollodorus’s The Library, one of the key sources on ancient Greek mythology. In 1931 he published a critical edition of Ovid’s Latin Fasti, which consists of supposed interviews with Roman gods. At Cambridge, he became best friends with the Scottish Semiticist William Robertson Smith, who turned him from classicist to anthropologist. For the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was edited by Smith, Frazer wrote above all the entries on “Taboo” and “Totemism.” Those pioneering essays became the four-volume Totemism and Exogamy (1910) and the two-volume The Golden Bough (first edition 1890), which then appeared in three (1900) and eventually twelve (1911–1915) volumes. Frazer established totemism as a universal phenomenon and offered his own explanation, or series of explanations, of it. In The Golden Bough he tied myth to ritual to magic to kingship. He saw religion, modern as well as “primitive,” as an attempt to explain and control the physical world in order to produce good crops. Sometimes he deemed the king himself divine and then stressed the key custom of annually killing and replacing the king. Magic and religion were for him prescientific means of obtaining food. He saw magic and religion as originally working in succession but eventually working together. He downplayed ethics. Most importantly, he helped pioneer the comparative method, which he applied to the Old Testament (Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, three volumes [1918]) as well as to Greek and Roman religion. He would identify a custom in a culture that was seemingly inexplicable and would then turn to kindred cases from around the world to explain it. He sought the similarities, not the differences, among cultures. With only occasional exceptions, he attributed the similarities not to diffusion, or the influence of one culture on other cultures, but to independent invention, or the creation of the custom by each culture on its own. Frazer deemed religion and science mutually exclusive. They did not just serve the same function—coping with the physical world—but did so by mutually exclusive means. Religion and science were not like horses and cars, which can coexist. Once science was invented, one could not consistently be religious.

The Golden Bough

Frazer’s most celebrated work focuses on explaining an ancient Italian practice of killing the king and replacing him, using comparative religion to solve a problem that classical religion cannot. This work appeared first in two volumes (Frazer 1890), then in three volumes (Frazer 1900), and finally in twelve volumes (Frazer 1911–1915)—with two of the volumes (Frazer 1906) first appearing earlier—plus an aftermath (Frazer 1936). In all three editions the starting point is the purported ancient custom of an incumbent king, who is also a priest, being continuously threatened by others seeking to succeed him, one of whom eventually succeeds, only to be toppled in turn himself. Frazer can find no classical precedent for this custom and turns instead to living cases from around the world.

  • Frazer, James George. 1890. The golden bough: A study in comparative religion. 1st ed. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

    In this edition Frazer treats religion and magic as concurrent, though still distinct. Only in the second and third editions does he make magic the earliest stage of culture, succeeded by religion and in turn by science.

  • Frazer, James George. 1900. The golden bough: A study in magic and religion. 2d ed. 3 vols. London: Macmillan.

    Includes everything from the first edition with additional cases. Frazer now treats magic not as a mere supplement to religion but as a prior stage of culture. From the belatedly recognized failure of magic arises religion, in which food is secured through prayers and sacrifices to the gods rather than through the human manipulation of mechanical rituals. The difference is that between asking and compelling. The impersonality of magic parallels that of science. Frazer does not yet propose an in-between stage of magic and religion combined—a stage that is at the heart of the third edition of The Golden Bough.

  • Frazer, James George. 1906. Adonis Attis Osiris: Studies in the history of Oriental religion. 1st ed. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

    These volumes, published by themselves, came to constitute Part 4, or volumes 5 and 6, of the third edition of The Golden Bough (1914). Second edition 1907; third edition 1914.

  • Frazer, James George. 1911–1915. The golden bough: A study in magic and religion. 3d ed. 12 vols. 7 parts. London: Macmillan.

    Part 1, published in two volumes in 1911, was titled The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings. Parts 2 and 3, both published in 1911, were titled Taboo and the Perils of the Soul and The Dying God. Part 4, published in two volumes in 1906, was republished, with the original title Adonis Attis Osiris, in 1914. Part 5, published in two volumes in 1912, was titled Spirits of the Corn and of the Wind. Part 6, published in 1913, was titled The Scapegoat. Part 7, published in two volumes in 1913, was titled Balder the Beautiful.

  • Frazer, James George. 1936. The golden bough: Aftermath. 1 vol. London: Macmillan.

    Adds examples to the third edition, either ones that appeared since the publication of the third edition (1911–1915) or earlier ones of which Frazer was at the time unaware. There is no change to the theory itself. The emphasis is on magic.

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