James George Frazer

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Sir James George Frazer (1933)

Sir James George Frazer (born January 1, 1854 in Glasgow , † May 7, 1941 in Cambridge ) was a Scottish ethnologist and classical philologist . Alongside Edward B. Tylor and Émile Durkheim, he is considered to be a co-founder of religious ethnology .


Frazer was the son of the pharmacist Daniel Frazer and his wife Katherine, both members of the Free Church of Scotland . He attended school in Helensburgh and studied from 1869 at the University of Glasgow , where he discovered his love for classical philology, and from 1874 at Trinity College in Cambridge , where he received his doctorate in 1878 with a thesis on the theory of Platonic ideas (published only in 1930) . He then studied law at the Middle Temple without ever practicing.

Except for a short stay at the University of Liverpool 1907-1908, he worked all his life at Trinity College, where he received a scholarship in 1879 , which was extended in 1885, 1890, 1895 and finally for life. In the winter of 1883/84 he met William Robertson Smith , who invited him to work on the Encyclopaedia Britannica . Frazer wrote the articles taboo and totemism , two terms around which his work should revolve again and again. In 1886 he married the French widow Elizabeth Grove, who had two daughters. During her married life, she translated Frazer's works into French and worked tirelessly for the public recognition of her husband's academic achievements.

The third version of Frazer's Golden Branch (1928) was a surprising sales success that freed him from his previous material worries. After recurring eye problems, Frazer became completely blind in 1931. So he had to rely on the help of secretaries, of whom Robert Angus Downie wrote his first biography while still alive. When he finally died on May 7, 1941, his wife passed away only a few hours after him. He is buried with his wife at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge.


Frazer received numerous honors. In 1914 he was promoted to a Knight Bachelor degree , and in 1920 the Sir James George Frazer Memorial Lectureship in Social Anthropology at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow and Liverpool was established in his honor . In 1910 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh . He was a corresponding member of the German Archaeological Institute (from 1901), the Prussian Academy of Sciences (from 1911) and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences . In 1902 he was elected a member of the British Academy .


Frazer researched the religious history and folklore backgrounds of ancient texts. According to the scientific paradigm of that time, his interest was mainly in the research of evolutionary processes , so that he wanted to make the “primitive” (ie “original”) views and rites behind ancient sources visible through inferences by analogy.

Frazer's concept of religion was reductionist , as he understood religion as a deficient worldview based on a false cognitive perspective and represented the fear-based attempt to secure threatened survival.

In the field of ethnology , Frazer tried to identify the drives and motives of the so-called “savages” using comparative methods. He postulated the ability to distinguish whether a given motivation is actually decisive for the motive or just (unconsciously) advanced, and to be able to name the true motivation behind it. Through his research Frazer contributed significantly to the recognition of ethnology as a science .

The Golden Bough (painting by William Turner )

Frazer tried in his major work The Golden Bough ( The Golden Bough ) Greek and Roman history of religion through a comparative method under Edward Tylor and the services provided by the folklore research to connect, one of which Mannhardt work "forest and field cults" it affected most . He comes to the conclusion that the evolution of the human mind represents an advancement from magic to religion and finally to science. Accordingly, magic is the attempt to control the environment threatening man and to influence it in his favor, and from this arises the knowledge of supernatural powers, whose benevolence is to be achieved through religion. Especially in his foreword to the third edition from 1928, which is missing in the widespread, abridged German-language edition, Frazer showed himself to be a combative critic of religion who considered it inevitable to shake the foundations of beliefs.

However, his mission-conscious evolutionist view is no longer represented in the relevant sciences today, because on the one hand science is no longer necessarily assigned meaning, on the other hand magic and religion are often mixed up and, furthermore, Frazer assumes the achievement of individual outstanding individuals and the sociological perspective refuses. Frazer's magnum opus served as a source of inspiration for numerous artists, such as the surrealists Max Ernst and Wolfgang Paalen .

Frazer's work Totemism and Exogamy compiled all ethnographic data on the subject of exogamy for the first time in the history of ethnology and is considered an important work despite the criticism of Frazer's conclusions. Frazer returned to his beginnings as a classical philologist when he edited and commented on Ovid's Fasti in 1929 . In this generally recognized five-volume work, Frazer adhered relatively closely to the texts to be explained and renounced evolutionist approaches.



"In the end, what we call truth is only the hypothesis that has worked best."

- James George Frazer, The Golden Branch, final chapter 23


  • Robert Ackerman: JG Frazer. His Life and Work. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1988; ISBN 0-521-340934
  • Robert Ackerman: The Collected Works of JG Frazer. Surrey, Curzon Press 19XX, ISBN 0-7007-0318-7
  • Mary Beard: Frazer, Leach, and Virgil: The Popularity (and Unpopularity) of the Golden Bough. In: Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 34, No. 2 (April, 1992), pp. 203-224
  • Robert A. Downie: Frazer and the golden bough: the portrait of a scholar. London, Watts 1970.
  • Bronisław Malinowski : Sir JG Frazer: A Biographical Appreciation. In: ders., A Scientific Theory of Culture. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press 1944.
  • Edmund Leach: Reflections on a Visit to Nemi: Did Frazer Get It Wrong? In: Anthropology Today Vol. 1, No. 2 (April, 1985), pp. 2-3
  • Robert A. Segal: The Frazerian roots of contemporary theories of religion and violence. In: Religion 37, 2007, pp. 4–25
  • Jonathan Z. Smith: When the Bough Breaks. In: ders .: Map is not territory: studies in the history of religions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1978, pp. 208-239
  • Klaus-Gunther Wesseling:  James George Frazer. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Volume 18, Bautz, Herzberg 2001, ISBN 3-88309-086-7 , Sp. 457-467.
  • Hans Wißmann: James George Frazer (1854-1941). In: Axel Michaels (Hrsg.): Classics of religious studies. Munich, CH Beck 2004; ISBN 3-406-42813-4

Web links

Commons : James George Frazer  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed December 6, 2019 .
  2. ^ Members of the previous academies. Sir James George Frazer. Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities , accessed on March 25, 2013 .
  3. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed May 29, 2020 .
  4. The painting illustrates Virgil's Aeneid 6.136ff and 6.183ff: The Sibyl tells Aeneas about a "golden twig" that he must pluck and have with him as a gift for Proserpina on his journey into the underworld. The lake in the background is not (as Frazer assumed) Lake Nemi , but Lake Avern . See M. Butlin, E. Joll: The Paintings of JMW Turner. New Haven & London 1984, pp. 204f.