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The early theories of religion: Frazer a) what was his interest in studying religion?
b) which categories did he use to describe it?
c) how helpful were those categories?
d) what are the enduring merits and what are the limits of his work?
James Frazer's theory of religion, espoused chiefly in his The Golden Bough, first published in 1906, has been formative in the shaping of modern theories of religion, and in the fields of anthropology and ethnography. It was influential in its time for being the one of the first major works of its kind, namely an 'epic of humanity' 1, and the first work to use such a geographically and ethnically broad range of examples in an attempt to distinguish the cause and root of the human individual and social concept of religion. To lay out Frazer's theory of religion in the most comprehensible fashion, we should begin by considering, as the title question does too, what interest Frazer had in the study of religion, and in answering this we will encounter a facet of his theory, and indeed of studies of his theory, that has been present since its publication and that will continue to be relevant throughout this essay, namely the relationship between Frazer's ideas and the ideas of Edward Tylor, whose Primitive Culture, published three decades earlier than The Golden Bough, has been equally seminal in the history of ideas both in the field of anthropology and the study of religion. We should from there begin to examine the content of Frazer's theory that relates specifically to his vision and definition of religion, but we should also look more broadly at the place that he considered religion to hold within the framework of past (and indeed future) human cultural development, and indeed the way he envisaged this cultural development as having transpired. An understanding of this having been gained, we should consider the success of the theory, and any continued value of Frazer's work to the study of religion, and while it will be seen that the theory itself is impressive in its scope, the nature of Frazer's use of evidence and the conclusions that he draws bear out not only the conclusion that the theory built upon assumptions that are often indefensible, but also that, while the framework in its broadest sense appears reasonable, it fails to provide a satisfactory depiction of religion's place in human societal development. Frazer's interest in the study of religion was likely born at least in part out of his upbringing, as a member of a devout Presbyterian family, but the inspiration that lay behind The Golden Bough specifically was the story, mentioned in passing by both Ovid and Virgil amongst others, of the small cult of the goddess Diana Nemorensis that lived on the shore of Lake Nemi in western Italy. There, the temple was ministered by the priest known as the Rex Nemorensis, or 'King of the Wood', whose task it was to defend the boughs of the trees in the sacred grove. The line of succession of the Rex Nemorensis was what fascinated Frazer, since it allowed for the accession of a new priest-king only if the potential successor could first steal one of these sacred 'golden boughs', and kill the incumbent Rex Nemorensis in one-on-one combat. To Frazer, this savage ritual was a fascinating relic of an earlier time, and he was intrigued by how such a bloodthirsty hangover from a previous age had remained amidst increasingly civilised and genteel Roman culture. It was this task to which Frazer set himself in The Golden Bough, then: to uncover and examine these hidden, primitive aspects of human culture that lie behind the cultivated developments of the poetry and philosophy of a more developed society. This idea Frazer found first in Tylor's Primitive Culture, in which the idea of 'survivals' was first posited. Tylor asserted that when a society 1 JG Frazer, quoted in J Thrower, Religion: The Classical Theories, Edinburgh (1999), p102
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