Popularly referred to as the father of modern anthropology, James George Frazer is one of the most celebrated social anthropologists in modern times. Born a Scot in 1854, Frazer has contributed immensely to anthropology through his comparative studies in mythology and comparative religion. One of his most celebrated works The Golden Bough dwells on magic, religion and science as the process through which human belief system develops. The aim of this research paper is to evaluate Frazer’s contribution to anthropology. To achieve this aim, the research adopted the archival methods of research. This method involved browsing over numerous archives constituting Frazer’s works in comparative religion. The method was necessitated by the theoretical nature of the topic. Furthermore, much of the data from which this research borrows is historical and exists in books and archived media. In view of this, it would not have been possible to conduct research through any other method. To meet the requirement of this research, the following question seemed relevant:
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What is Frazer’s contribution to anthropology?
Responding to this question required a keen evaluation of Frazer’s works. This research paper attempts to trace the development of human belief system through Frazer’s chronology (magic, religion and science). The development of human belief system from savagery to science (implicitly seen as the process of intellectual development of man) is critically evaluated Vis a Vis other famous philosophies such as the myth theory. By highlighting the three stage theory, the research paper downplays the role of myth in influencing the development of human belief system, and concludes that magic, religion and science, rather than myths have significantly influenced development of belief system.
The formation of the belief systems within human societies progresses through three sequential stages; magic, religion and science. To begin with, beliefs are primarily formed around primitive magic, but with time develop to religion. This implies that magic is the platform on which religion thrives. Magic does not just happen but develops out of the recognition of natural laws. The recognition of the power of the natural laws slowly led to development of religion. Within these laws, man develops certain attitudes on nature and other living beings. The application of natural law brings up the issue of the legitimacy. Those laws that shine light on truth are taken to be legitimate and are referred to as science. On the contrary, those laws that do not shine light on perceived truths are considered to be illegitimate and thus taken to be magic. Frazer’s assertions discount the role of myths in formation of people’s beliefs. However, his school of thought has been critiqued by the likes of Houlden (2003) whose views on religion especially on the concept of transference of evil, greatly contradict Frazer’s. Furthermore, Scapo (2005) in opposition to Frazer’s works argues that myths, as carried by mythbearers, enable communities to formulate a system of beliefs from which they draw daily inspiration.
Magic, religion and science
Frazer (1911) asserts that magic is the birth mother of modern and ancient religion. Frazer referred to magic as confused ideas about transcendental powers through which ideas are illogically connected. Therefore, primitive society’s portrayed the rawest form of intellectual abilities (they were basically animalist). Suffice to state that Frazer (1911) asserts that primitive magic also existed within classical societies such as the Greeks and the Romans, from which the concept of fertility borrows heavily from. Specifically, the Greek concept of fertility (perceived through Osiris, the god of fertility) heavily borrows from primitive magic’s notions on fertility and vegetation. In ancient societies, taboos were influenced by primitive magic.
Frazer’s magic has two basic principles; homeopathy and contagion. Frazer explains homeopathic magic as the aspect of living things reproducing other beings similar to them. In this sense, primitive societies had sacred kings, such as the Aracian King of the Wood who could only be married to sacred deities for recreation and protection of life. Homeopathic magic connotes that sexual contact results to vegetation (reproduction). The idea of sexual reproduction is further developed through religion and science. Through contagious magic, ancient taboo, which Frazer defines as norms that governed the relationship between humans, was developed. Frazer (1911) asserts that the power of magic on the natural environment was limited. When such limitations were discovered, ideological shifts from magic to religion occurred. Religion thus is refined primitive magic.
Frazer and Frazer (1911) dwell on religion and hypothesis that religion is one of the key aspects for the development of people’s beliefs. By religion Frazer and Frazer (1911) refer to the universal religion as the belief system in the magical power of the supernatural are evident. This implies that religion developed when man recognized powers superior to his own understanding. Such development took place over a long period of tiem and is concurrent to the intellectual development of man. As such religion, in Frazer’s (1911) view is the emancipation of the intelligent man from the throes of primitive magic. Suffice too state that primitive magic was based on animalism, but gradually as man developed intellectually, he started to perceive the existence of higher powers and thus the development of polytheism. Mans gradually formed primitive religious beliefs based on worship of many animals and plants.
Such kind of primitive religion is found amongst the Dionysus who worshiped the Goat and the Bull, as well as the ancient Greeks who worshiped the pig and the bull. Through their comparative studies, Frazer and Frazer (1911) found out that in many of the world societies, magic and religion are connected in more than one way. Modern religious beliefs on the existences of supreme and controlling being, such the Greek gods, the Christian God heavily borrows from the notion of supreme magical power held by primitive societies. In ancient times, man depended on magic for his needs that could not merely be satisfied physically. The catholic creed is the manifestation of positive magic in its most efficient form. Such efficacy of magic as informing the catholic creed also bears heavily on the formation of the belief system among the Catholics. Furthermore, through beliefs founded on magic man has been freed from primitive thresholds of life. Thus, magic and religion are interlinked and enable communities form their belief system.
Frazer’s assertion on religious influence on the formation of the belief system within the human society is not limited to the concept of magic. Frazer (1913) adds to his earlier works, the concept of transference of evil. Frazer argues that the religious concept of sin has continued to influence the formation of the belief systems within human societies. Through the concept of scapegoating every society has animals, object, plants or even people which are sacrificed to carry the sins of others. Such objects are made to carry the guilt of the entire society or transfer evil, disease and sin this leave carriers happy and satisfied. Such rites are evident in 4th century Europe especially among the Marcellus’ of Bordeaux who used to transfer warts to other people by rubbing as many small stones around their infected res. Whoever picked the stones picked the warts and the carrier was healed and left happy. Furthermore, amongst the Bulgarians fever was transferred to trees by running thrice around the willow tree crying out these words: “The fever shall shake thee, and the sun shall warm me” (Frazer’s 1911).
Furthermore, Frazer’s (1913) concept of scapegoating is popularly referred to as transference of evil and alludes heavily to major religions such as Christianity especially with regard to Jesus Christ who was crucified for the sins for his followers. Frazer likens the killing of Jesus Christ to the killing of deities in primitive societies and more recently to the killing of gods of fertility among the Mexicans. Frazer and Frazer (1911) seem to fuse these two ideas (science and religion) by portraying how combinedly they lead to formation of belief systems. Science is the later phenomenon that is influenced by magic through the natural law. Imperatively, Frazer (1890) explain that mythologies as the human misinterpretation of the power of magic. Therefore, Frazer (1890), Frazer (1911) and Frazer and Frazer (1911) discount myths as important to development of beliefs.
The relationship between science and magical religion is based on the legitimacy of the application of natural laws. When the application of the laws is seen to be legitimate, then this is basically referred to as science. Science is therefore perceived to have developed out of evidence-based religion. For instance ancient societies a spiritual connection to animals and plants. The primitive concept of spiritual vegetation power formed the basis of primitive religious beliefs within which animals and plants were worshiped. On the converse if the application of the natural laws is perceived to be illegitimate, then this is magic. This implies in the formation of the human belief system, magic is seen and the manifestation of illegitimate natural laws, while science is the later form of magic, which is empirically verifiable form of natural laws. Science can empirically authenticate natural laws and therefore portrays the highest form of man’s intellectual developed. Thus primitive magic has lead to the development of scientific influence on human belief system. Myth, are not accounted for.
Frazer’s assertion on the legitimacy in the application of natural laws is well detailed in other works that he has written. Frazer (1910) explains in details the formation of the human societies’ systems of belief in which people are perceived as having inherent relationships with the spirit world, herein referred to as totemism. Frazer (1910) asserts that totemismic relationships differentiate man and other savage beings, here in referred to as animals. The most common form of totemic relations known is seen through man relationship with the natural world, through such practices as agriculture. In many societies in America, Africa, Europe and Asia, there exists conclusive evident to indicate that man relationship with animals and plants has existed for along time.
Totemism revolves around procreation; agriculture and animal farming thrive on reproduction to increase yields. Among the ancient Australian, Frazer found out that man held animals and certain plants in high religious esteem. Other Primitive Communities have spiritual connection with animals and plants. Furthermore Out of these natural laws there developed taboos that governed the relationship between human, especially with reference to procreation. Such exogamic relationships are the basis of religion within the human society. In modern societies, man relates to animal on the basis of science rather than religion. This is evident through modem agriculture, which heavily relies on scientific discoveries. In this regard, Frazer overlooked myths as the primary foundation of the formation of the human belief system.
In Frazer’s (1911) view, it would be inappropriate for anthropologists to explain anthropology and the study of the human beliefs system, without thinking of science. Frazer, in his works, creates what can be termed as the science of anthropology. Frazer uses comparative approach in his studies by comparing some of his philosophical thoughts with facts. The comparative methods used in the study of the ethical and religious attributes of major societies allows for comparisons of theories and practice. In this view, Frazer was able to isolate what was true from what was false about the true nature of the human soul. Frazer (1911) argues that through his comparative methods of study, he was able to come up with comparative ethics. Frazer’s comparative ethics are perceived s the scientific basis on which post-Frazer sociologist builds their works on. This portrays Frazer’s deep seated belief on science as a method of evaluating anthropological truths. Significantly, Frazer (1911) discounts the influence of mythologies in the human beliefs system. In this view, religions as well as human ethics are practical phenomena.
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They are not just beliefs that exist in the abstract but real life occurrences that go beyond people mythological constructions. They can only be effectively studied through empirical methods, especially those based on comparison. Frazer’s works have not passed without criticisms. As mentioned earlier many scholars perceive Frazer’s (1913) works as alluding to religious saint and prophets, such as Jesus Christ. In this view, the scholars argue that Frazer (1913) takes Jesus to be among the many scapegoats that were used by ancient societies for the atonement of the society’s sins. However, Houlden (2003) in his volume refers Frazer’s works as the real scapegoat and seems to defend Jesus against Frazer’s assertion. Houlden (2003) asserts that even though Jesus was not inherently the son of God as depicted in the book of Mark, he attained that status through his divine role of providing salvation to mankind. As such Jesus cannot be termed as a scapegoat but the divine link between man and God. Moreover, on the concept of myths, Csapo (2005) opposes Frazer (1911) on the role of myth in formation of beliefs within the human societies.
Csapo (2005) unlike Frazer (1911) argues that myths are major element of beliefs within major societies. From comparative studies conducted across major societies in Africa, Asia and Australia, Csapo (2005) explains that myths constituted the peoples folktales and were carried by mythbearers. Out of a community’s folktale emerged traditions which were part of a community’s belief system. These, among other ideas have continued to dominate the criticism of Frazer’s works. Even though discredited by some sociologists in the 20th century, Frazer’s works are of great relevance to modern sociology. The Golden Bough, which is one of his most influential works, is taken as both a scholarly and literary work.
This has enabled modern sociologists gain a deeper understanding of the development of culture. Frazer delves back into primitive societies and forwards the idea that primitive mentality endures even in modern societies. Frazer’s progressive theory on the development of human beliefs system has helped modern sociologist link some of the modern beliefs to ancient rites. For instance ancient polytheism through which man worshiped many animals can be used as the basis of understating some of the modern polytheistic religions, such as Hindu. Furthermore, Frazer’s school of sociology has enabled further development of other modern disciplines such as psychology. Frazer lays bare the growth of human belief system from primitive magic. In doing so, his school of sociology has helped modern psychologist enlarge their understanding of the development of human behavior.
While Csapo’s (2005) asserts that myths are part of the belief system within human societies, Frazer (1890) asserts that scholars have confused myths with illegitimate magic. Frazer, in all his works provides three progressive steps within which communities and major societies form their belief systems. Belief progressively grows from primitive magic from which civilized societies develop religion. Science is the advanced status of such magic where facts are empirically verifiable and are perceived to reveal truths about the true nature of human societies. Despite criticism, Frazer’s works have contributed immensely on the role of magic, religion and science to the formation of belief systems of major societies world over.
Csapo, E. (2005). Theories of mythology ancient culture. London: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers.
Frazer.G. J. (1890). Golden bough. London: Macmillan and co. limited.
Frazer.G. J. (1910). Totemism and exogamy: a treatise on certain early forms of superstition and society. London: Macmillan and Co. Limited.
Frazer.G. J. (1911). The taboo and the perils of soul. New York: Macmillan and Co. Limited.
Frazer, R & Frazer.G. J. (1911). The golden bough: a study in magic and religion. Oxford: Oxford University press.
Frazer, G. J. (1913). The scapegoat. London: Macmillan.
Houlden, J.L. (2003). Jesus in history, thought, and culture: An encyclopedia, Volume1.London: ABC-CLIO.