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James George Frazer

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Sir James George Frazer (January 1, 1854 - May 7, 1941 EV), a social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion, was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He studied at Glasgow University and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with honors in Classics (his dissertation would be published years later as The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory) and remained a Classics Fellow all his life. He went on from Trinity to study law at the Middle Temple and yet never practiced. He was four times elected to Trinity's Title Alpha Fellowship, and was associated with the college for most of his life, except for a year, 1907-08 EV, spent at the University of Liverpool. He was knighted in 1914 EV. He was, if not blind, then severely visually impaired from 1930 EV on.

The study of myth and religion became his areas of expertise. Except for Italy and Greece, Frazer was not widely travelled. His prime sources of data were ancient histories and questionnaires mailed to missionaries and Imperial officials all over the globe. Frazer's interest in social anthropology was aroused by reading E.B. Taylor's Primitive Culture (1871 EV) and encouraged by his friend, the biblical scholar W. Robertson-Smith, who was linking the Old Testament with early Hebrew folklore. Frazer was far from the first to study religions dispassionately, as a cultural phenomenon rather than from within theology, but he was the first to detail the relations between myths and rituals, though his theories of totemism were superseded by Claude Lévi-Strauss and his vision of the annual sacrifice of the Year King has not been borne out by field studies. Even his generation's choice of Darwinian evolution as a social paradigm, interpreted by Frazer as three rising stages of human progress—magic giving rise to religion, then culminating in science—has not proved valid. Yet The Golden Bough, his study of ancient cults, rites, and myths, including their parallels with early Christianity, arguably his greatest work, is still rifled by modern mythographers for its detailed information. Notably, The Golden Bough influenced René Girard and drove him to study anthropology to develop his mimesis theory of the scapegoat.

The first edition, in two volumes, was published in 1890 EV. The third edition was finished in 1915 EV and ran to twelve volumes, with a supplemental thirteenth volume added in 1936 EV. He also published a single volume abridgement, largely compiled by his wife Lady Frazer, in 1922 EV, with some controversial material removed from the text.

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