James G. Frazer

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, and educated at the University of Glasgow with a second baccalaureate at Trinity College at Cambridge, James Frazer is a noteworthy British anthropologist and historian and is among a group of late nineteenth-century scholars known as Intellectualists (a group generally interested in using evolutionary theory to study early humans in light of their mental abilities). He was also concerned with studying cultural phenomena through the lens of the comparative method, assuming that collecting descriptive information on many variations of, for instance, a particular institution, would help to shed light on the origins of the institution. Looking solely within one culture was therefore not sufficient to explain the origins and role of actions or beliefs. Instead of doing fieldwork himself, Frazer (like all early anthropologists) relied on the letters, journals, and manuscripts from missionaries, explorers, and military personnel (indicating the intimate, though sometimes unrecognized, link between European colonial expansion, on the one hand, and gains in scientific knowledge, on the other). Frazer wrote, in his first book The Golden Bough, about the behaviors of the participants in a Hellenistic ritual and then compared their actions to that of modern "primitives." The Golden Bough examined an ancient ritual that is said to take place in the city of Aricia, near Rome. The ritual involves a priest whose duty it was to guard the grove near Lake Nemi. If a slave happened to escape from his master and kill the priest, he would win his freedom but also take on the responsibility of guarding the grove. Frazer was fascinated by this story for its insights into what he called the "primitive mind." Through his research Frazer hoped to shed light on the current behaviors of those involved in "primitive" religions by using his method of comparative studies. Frazer's thesis (similar to that fellow Intellectualist E. B. Tylor's) was that the mental capacities of humankind developed in the same evolutionary way as did the human body. Further, Frazer hypothesized that magic was the behavioral predecessor of religion just as religion was the intellectual predecessor of science, therefore, modern "primitives" could have much in common with the classical Hellenistic mind. Frazer has played a major role in the study of religion through his impact on modern scholars. Although The Golden Bough grew into a vast, multi-volume work that few people might read in its entirety today, it is one of the first scholarly books that consistently employed the comparative method.

Major Works

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890)

Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship (1905)

Totemism and Exogamy (1910)

Folk-Lore in the Old Testament (1918)


"Along with the view of the world as pervaded by spiritual forces, savage man has a different, and probably still older, conception in which we may detect a germ of the modern notion of natural law or the view of nature as a series of events occurring in an invariable order without the intervention of personal agency. The germ of which I speak is involved in that sympathetic magic, as it may be called, which plays a large part in most systems of superstition."

- from James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890)

Select Web Resources on Frazer

The Literary Encyclopedia entry on James G. Frazer

Abridged version of The Golden Bough online at Bartleby.com

Secondary Literature on Frazer and Religion

Jonathan Z. Smith, The Glory, Jest, and Riddle. James George Frazer and the Golden Bough. Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1969.

Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History, pp. 87-94. Open Court Press, 1986.

Brian Morris, Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text, chapter 3. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Walter H. Capps, Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, pp. 71-74. Fortress Press, 1995.

Daniel Pals, Seven Theories of Religion, chapter 1. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Robert Ackerman, "Frazer, James G.," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition. vol. 5, pp. 3190-3193. Macmillan, 2005.

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