Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1854-1941) Classical scholar and prolific compiler of ethnographic information, long associated with Cambridge University.

Although Frazer wrote extensively on a variety of topics, he is best remembered for his 12-volume The Golden Bough , a compendium on magic and religion, originally published in two volumes in 1890 and later expanded (St. Martin's 1990). The aim of this treatise is to explain the ancient Roman ritual murder of the priest of Diana at Nemi, the site of a sacred grove with a golden bough. According to this custom, the priesthood went to the person who could break off the bough and kill the incumbent priest. Although The Golden Bough never answers the central question posed, it provides a veritable series of intellectual trails and detours that have fascinated many students of comparative religion.

Following Edward B. Tylor's conceptual division between magic, religion, and science, Frazer delineated a schema of the evolution of thought. Magic preceded religion and represented a pseudoscientific worldview that operated on the assumption that it was possible to control nature by coercing supernatural entities. It assumed two basic forms: (1) homeopathic or imitative magic based on the "law of similarity" and (2) contagious magic based on the "law of contact." Religion entailed the recognition that spells and incantations do not produce the effects desired and that natural forces are regulated by greater beings. It constituted a more mature stage that prepared the way for the emergence of a scientific worldview. Science represents the culmination of mental development that would over time supersede religion. Like other Eurocentric evolutionary theoreticians, Frazer failed to realize that the magician's manipulation of sacred symbols is based on a phenomenological understanding of processes that may produce certain kinds of mental states. Furthermore, various scholars, such as W. E. H. Stanner, have demonstrated that the Australian Aborigines, a foraging society, exhibit a highly complex religious system.

In his four-volume Totemism and Exogamy (Macmillan 1910), Frazer examined totemism as both religion (an indigenous system of worshiping animals, plants, and inanimate objects) and a system of kinship classification that identifies individuals and groups as having descended from a lineal mythological ancestor. Frazer initially argued that consumption of the totemic species was prohibited and that clan exogamy was the fundamental principle of totemism. He later maintained that the ban on the eating of totemic animals was intended for the clan descended from the totemic species and not for the entire group.

Frazer also contributed to critical biblical studies with a three-volume compendium, Folklore in the Old Testament (Macmillan 1918).

Hans A. Baer


E. Hatch, Theories of Man and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press).

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