James George Frazer

(1854—1941) social anthropologist and classical scholar

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British anthropologist and classical scholar. He was knighted in 1914 and appointed to the OM in 1925.

Frazer was born in Glasgow and took his MA at Glasgow University (1874) before winning a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1879 he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity, which he held until his death.

The whole vast structure of The Golden Bough (2 vols, 1890; third and complete edition in 12 vols, 1911–15) grew from Frazer's attempt to explain the ancient office of priest-king of the Arician grove near Lake Nemi in Italy. To this end he gathered material from primitive cultures throughout the world, and although his conclusions may be suspect or superseded by more recent research his great compendium of comparative data has never been surpassed. In 1907 Liverpool University created a chair of social anthropology for Frazer; his inaugural lecture was published as The Scope of Social Anthropology (1908). Although he retained the Liverpool chair until 1922, Frazer always preferred Cambridge and continued to work there. He delivered the Gifford lectures at St Andrews on two occasions (1911–12, 1924–25), and these lectures were published as The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead (1913) and The Worship of Nature (1926). Other major contributions to his subject were Psyche's Task (1909), Totemism and Exogamy (1910), and Folklore in the Old Testament (1918). In 1936 he added an Aftermath to The Golden Bough and in 1938 and 1939 the contents of his anthropological notebooks were published as Anthologia Anthropologica.

Always a prodigious and disciplined worker, Frazer also published in the field of classical studies. His editions of Pausanias (1898) and of Ovid's Fasti (1929) are permeated with his anthropological insights. In English literature he admired the prose stylists of the eighteenth century and in 1912 he published an edition of the Letters of William Cowper.

Subjects: Arts and Humanities.

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Works by James George Frazer