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Frazer on Myth and Ritual

Author(s): Robert Ackerman


Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1975), pp. 115-134
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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FRAZER ON MYTH AND RITUAL


BY ROBERT ACKERMAN1

I.-"Ritualism" is the theorythat derivesmyth, andin consequence


literature and folklore influencedby myth, from antecedent ritual
performances,usually of the agriculturalmagical sort. Certainlythe
most illustrious ancestor in the pedigree of ritualism is Sir James
George Frazer (1854-1941), who in the three editions of The Golden
Bough (1890, 2 vols.; 1900, 3 vols.; 1911-15, 12 vols.) made the sadhappy career of the dying but revivinggod, divinekings, and fertility
rites well known to all educated persons.2In turn Dionysus, Attis,
Osiris, Adonis, and the rest of their tribe profoundlyaffectedthe poets
and novelists writing between the World Wars; the indebtednessto
Frazer expressed by T. S. Eliot in the Notes to "The Waste Land"
(1922) is only the most famous acknowledgementof such literary
influence.In addition,Frazer directlyinspiredGilbertMurray(18661957) and the three classicists known as the CambridgeRitualistsJane Ellen Harrison(1850-1928), F. M. Cornford(1874-1943),and A.
B. Cook (1868-1952)-in their efforts to show that prehistoric
Dionysian fertility rites were, historically, the structural models for
Greek drama.3These classical scholars have in turn given rise to a
group of modern"myth-and-ritual"literarycritics whose work,in the
somewhathyperbolicopinionof one of them, the late Stanley Edgar
Hyman, "has given Frazer an importancein literarycriticismat least
equal to that of Marx and Freud."4And althoughit has becomeharder
to isolate the specificallyFrazerianstrain in the generalcultural mixture as time has passed, it is clear that Frazerand ritualismhave had
definite,albeit limited,effects on biblicalstudies,comparativereligion,
andotherdisciplinesas well.5
Consultingthe work of Frazerhimself, however,one finds that he
'Some of the research for this essay was made possible by a grant in 1972 from the
Council on Research in the Humanities of Columbia University.
2Haskell M. Block, "Cultural Anthropology and Contemporary Literary Criticism,"
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 11 (1952), 46-54; Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The
Ritual View of Myth and the Mythic," Myth: A Symposium, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok
(Bloomington, 1965;originally published 1955), 136-53.
3GilbertMurray, "Excursus on the Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy," in J.
E. Harrison, Themis, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1927; originally published 1912), 341-63; F.
M. Cornford, The Originof Attic Comedy (London, 1914).
4Hyman, The TangledBank (New York, 1962), 439.
5Hyman's "The Ritual View of Myth and the Mythic," op. cit., gives a misleadingly
optimistic view of the ritualist contributionin these and other disciplines.
115

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ROBERT ACKERMAN

emphaticallywas not at all a ritualistthroughmost of his career,andit


is indeeddebatablewhether,with the exceptionof a few early years, he
might ever have been accuratelyso identified.Instead one sees, while
turning the many pages of the many volumes of the several Golden
Boughs, that Frazermovedthroughthree differentexplanationsof the
meaning,genesis, and functionof myth, sometimesentertainingseveral
of them simultaneously,heedless or else unawareof their contradictorinessand seemingirreconcilability.Thereis, however,no doubthow
this theoreticalindecision(if that is whatit was) ended,becausein 1921
Frazer was so far out of sympathy with his supposedfollowers, the
CambridgeRitualists, that he took special pains to attack them. In
view of such confusionthis essay is offeredas a chapterin the as-yetunwrittenintellectualbiographyof one of the great men of our time,6
attempting to trace his complicated movements on the questions of
myth and ritual;it will make clear the difficultiesin ascribingthe label
"ritualist"to him and also explainin what ways he may reasonablybe
thoughtof as such.
To appreciatethe full extent of Frazer'sextraordinarydivagations
and ambivalencesin this area, some inevitablebacktrackingis in order.
Throughthe first half of the nineteenthcenturyin Englandthe critical
study of mythologylanguished;unfortunatelyColeridgedid not bring
over Romantic ideas on myth along with his other Germanimports,
and perhaps as a result the arid pedantry of George Eliot's Mr.
Casaubonand his "Key to All Mythologies"was unfortunatelyall too
typical.7In 1856, however,the methodsof Germanphilologythat had
revolutionizedmythographyon the Continentwere naturalizedin England in F. Max MUller's(1823-1900) importantessay "Comparative
Mythology."8In it MUllerturnedthe techniquesand resultsof the disciplinein whichhe was trained-comparative philology-to the studyof
myth. He began with the idea, advancedby the earlier comparatists,
that most of the Europeanlanguagesalong with Sanskritwere descen6In the light of Frazer's stature, it is extraordinary that we still await a satisfactory
scholarly life. There exist two anecdotal biographical sketches by one of Frazer's longtime private secretaries: R. Angus Downie, James George Frazer (London, 1940), and
Frazer and the Golden Bough (London, 1970), and Stanley Edgar Hyman's effort, using
sophisticated literary-critical and psychoanalytic techniques, in The Tangled Bank. Although this last is seriously flawed by its author's overmastering commitment to "mythand-ritual" criticism, it does possess the considerable merit of taking Frazer seriously,
and I found it helpful in its thoughtfulness and suggestiveness.
7For a good sketch of Victorian mythography see James Kissane, "Victorian
Mythology," VictorianStudies, 6 (1962), 5-28.
8The essay, originally printed in Oxford Essays, Contributed by Members of the
University (London, 1856), is most easily consulted in Muller's Chips from a German
Workshop, 2 vols. (London, 1867), II, 1-141. I quote from the edition brought out by
Scribner's (New York, 1869).

FRAZER ON MYTH AND RITUAL

117

dants of some now-extinctcommontonguethat had beenspokenby the


shadowy Aryans, the early invaders of India. This so-called Aryan
Hypothesis,generallyacceptedby the 1850s, postulatedthat what we
now recognizeas the basis of Westernculturehad been broughtfrom
India to Europeby the successive waves of Aryan-descendedpeoples
who pouredout of CentralAsia. Appliedto myth, this meantto MUller
that Greekmythswerein fact variantsof Indicoriginals,andthat these
originalsand their relationshipsmight be recoveredthroughan exclusively philological analysis based on the known laws of linguistic
change. When he subjectedthe myths to such analysis, most of them
turned out to be misunderstoodancient Aryan statements about the
sun, which caused MUller and his followers to be dubbed "solar
mythologists."
As Andrew Lang remarked, "Between 1860 and 1880, roughly
speaking,people who became interestedin myths and religionsfound
the mythologicaltheoriesof ProfessorMax Mullerin possessionof the
field."9Solar mythology became generally accepted, at least in the
popular mind, and it was only over the corpse of solarism that the
anthropologicalview of myth establisheditself.10So far as Frazerwas
concerned,the three most importantanthropologistswere E. B. Tylor,
WilliamRobertsonSmith, andlater, WilhelmMannhardt.
For Mullerprimitivemyth-makingman had beena Wordsworthian
nature mystic, strugglingto embody in sounds and then in stories his
intimations of immortality and eternity.1 By comparison the rival
explanationof myth-that put forwardby the folkloristsandethnographers-asserted that mythopoeic man was primarily a thinker, attemptingto understandhow the worldcame to be the wayit is, andthat
myths were etiological tales whose main defect was that they were
wrong.As E. B. Tylor put it in a coupleof memorablesentencesfrom
the first anthropologytextbook in English,"Myth is not to be looked
on as mere error and folly, but as an interestingproductof the human
mind. It is sham history, the fictitious narrativeof events that never
happened."12

For these early anthropologicalrationalists,myth was a productof


primitiveratiocinationand was thereforeto be judged like any other
mental effort. Although by such a standard most of it was patent
9ModernMythology(London, 1898), 1.
'OA good account of the long battle between Lang and MUller is in Richard M.
Dorson, "The Eclipse of Solar Mythology," Myth: A Symposium, op. cit., 25-63.
"E.g., MUllerwrites: "The creation of every word was originally a poem, embodying a
bold metaphor or a bright conception." "Comparative Mythology," ed. cit., II, 77; examples might be multiplied.
'2E. B. Tylor, Anthropology (London, 1881); I quote from the revised edition (1924),
387.

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ROBERT ACKERMAN

nonsense,Tylor adjureshis readersto take it seriouslynonethelessbecauseit can help us to understandmuch,especiallyconcerningthat dim


prehistoricperiod about which we know so little. Thus myth at least
offersvaluableevidenceconcerningprimitivementalfunctioning.
Tylor, a convincedevolutionist,13foundmyth importantbecauseof
the light it shedon religion,withwhichit shareda commonsource.This
source is exclusivelymental, inherentin the functioningof the savage
mind,whichis postulatedas qualitativelydifferentfrom our own. This
mentalityis radicallysubjective;its chief trait is an inveteratehabit of
animatingnature, which survivesin the fancy of children.The savage
animatesor, as Tylor puts it, "transfiguresinto mythsthe facts of daily
experience,"as the result of his applicationof a "broadphilosophyof
nature, early and crude indeed, but thoughtful,consistent, and quite
really and seriously meant."'4 The "savage philosopher"founds his
theoryon the notionof souls. Souls in turn are thoughtto exist because
it is well knownthat the (spiritsof the) dead appearin dreams and visions to the living;ergo, some part of them must still live. And from
this the primitivesavantproceedsto expandthe scope of the doctrine,
attributingsouls of some kind to nonhumanobjects-animals, plants,
andeven stones.
Along with Tylor the other scholarwho earlyinfluencedFrazerwas
WilliamRobertsonSmith.15Smith was the brilliantScottish theologian
and scholar who, more than any other single man, succeededin interpretingfor Britainthe results of a centuryof Germanbiblical"higher
criticism."For his pains Smith was prosecutedin the last great heresy
trial in Scotland; the protracted strain of the ordeal undoubtedly
shortened his life (he died at the age of forty-seven in 1894) and
preventedhim from completingwhat wouldhave beenhis masterwork,
The Religion of the Semites.16
'3It is tempting but misleading to see evolutionary anthropology as coming into being
in response to Darwin's call in the antepenultimate paragraph of The Origin of Species
for the systematic application of evolutionary principles to the study of mankind ("Much
light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history"). In fact the leaders of evolutionary social thought-Herbert Spencer, Sir Henry Maine, J. F. McLennan-had been
airing their characteristic views in print for at least a decade by 1859. Cf. John Burrow,
Evolution and Society (rev. ed., Cambridge, 1966).
'4E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, 2 vols. (London, 1871); I quote from the sixth edition
(1924), I, 285.
'5The biography is The Life of William Robertson Smith, by John Sutherland Black
and George Chrystal (London, 1912), also Frazer's obituary essay, "William Robertson
Smith," The Gorgon's Head and Other Literary Pieces (London, 1927), 275-92; originally in The Fortnightly Review (May 1894).
16TheReligion of the Semites is all that remains of the three series of Burnett Lectures that Smith gave from October 1888 to October 1891 on the topic, "The primitive re-

FRAZER ON MYTH AND RITUAL

119

In The Religion of the Semites Smith attempted a reconstruction of

what may be termed (after E. M. W. Tillyard)the "ancientSemitic


worldpicture"out of whichwere born the historicalSemitic religions.
And here he partedcompanywith the rationalismso well exemplified
by Tylor. Whereasthe latter began with a primitivephilosopherwho
elaboratedmyth and then religionin an attempt to understandand
answer questions about the natural universein the same way E. B.
Tylor wouldif he were a primitiveman,17Smith somehowintuitedthat
primitivereligionarose from somethingelse entirely. As opposed to
modern religion,and especiallymodernProtestantism,primitivereligion to Smith was primarily a matter of things done, not things
believed,of rituals,not creeds.
Unlike rationalists like Tylor (and later Frazer), who offered
psychologicalexplanationsfor the genesisand perpetuationof religion,
Smith's was fundamentallya sociologicalapproach.What the ancient
religiouscommunityreally worshiped(Smith believed),and therefore
what the gods represented, was the social order-society itselfidealized and divinized.That is, ancient religion providedwhat we
shouldcall supernaturalsanctionsthat legitimizethe existingorder of
things, an order that seems to the primitiveman to be natural and
inevitableandthereforedivinelyordained.
Because"ancientreligionshad for the most part no creed;they consisted entirelyof institutionsand practices,"'8Smith's examinationof
Semitic religionconcentratedon ritual,whichwas largelytotemic and
sacrificialin character.In the most notable form of Semitic sacrifice,
the tribe consumedthe sacrificialanimalvictim whichwas their ordinarily tabu divinetotem-brother.In Frazer's words, "Smith was the
first to perceivethe true natureof whathe has called mysticalor sacramentalsacrifices,"the peculiarityof these beingthat in them the victim
slainis "an animalor a man whom the worshippersregardedas divine,
and of whose flesh and blood they sometimes partook, as a solemn
form of communionwith the deity."'9Smith's idea of a dyinggod was
enormouslyanddirectlyinfluential:as Frazeracknowledgesin the preface to the first edition of The GoldenBough, "the centralidea of my
ligions of the Semitic peoples, viewed in relation to other ancient religions, and to the
spiritual religion of the Old Testament and of Christianity." The second edition was reprintedphotographically(New York, 1956).
'7What A. R. Radcliffe-Brown called the "if-I-were-a-horse fallacy." E. E. EvansPritchard, Theories of PrimitiveReligion (Oxford, 1965), 24.
'8Religionof the Semites, 16. Cf. Voltaire (Essai sur les Moeurs, I, 50), who observed
a century earlier concerning the Romans and their religious tolerance, "Car il n'eft point
de dogmes, il n'y eut point de guerre de religion."
'9Frazer,"William Robertson Smith," op. cit., 281.

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ROBERT ACKERMAN

essay-the conceptionof the slain god-is deriveddirectly, I believe,


from my friend[RobertsonSmith]."20
Smith, then, placed the study of primitivereligious ritual in the
forefront of scholarly consciousnessby asserting that the rite in antiquity took the place of the creed. Rather than attempt to use the
myths to shed light on the rites, which seemed only "natural"to the
creed-centeredProtestant missionariesor scholars,Smith arguedthat
the true relationwouldbe foundto be the other way round.The myths
only offeredexplanationsof what the worshipingcommunitywas doing
in its ritualsbut were not bindingin a doctrinalsense on the worshiper,
and thereforehe was not disturbedby varyinginterpretationsof the
same rite (althoughhe was intenselydisturbedby varyingperformances
of it). In such a community,in whichreligionwas not understoodas a
seriesof propositionsto whichspecificassent had to be givenbut rather
as an all-penetratingoutlook on life, belief was not obligatory:"what
was obligatoryor meritoriouswas the performanceof certain sacred
acts prescribedby religioustradition."21
And here is the key sentence:
"So far as myths consist of explanations of ritual, their value is
altogethersecondary,andit may be affirmedwith confidencethat in almost everycase the mythwas derivedfrom the ritual,andnot the ritual
from the myth;for the ritualwas fixed and the myth was variable,the
ritualwas obligatoryand faith in the myth was at the discretionof the
worshipper."22

Basically,Smith asserts, myths havegrownup as elaborationsupon


rituals, and only when the original sense of these rituals has been
misunderstoodor forgotten. It follows, then, that the only way to
understanda myth is to examinethe ritualit attempts to explain,or if
the ritualis no longerextant, then to readbackwardthroughthe myth
and thus to reconstructthe ritual. This is the basic tenet of ritualism
which the Cambridgegroup-and at times Frazer as well-were to
adoptas theirmethod.
II.-James George Frazer was an obscure classicist when he
publishedthe first edition,in two volumes,of TheGoldenBough(1890).
A fellow of TrinityCollege, he had writtenhis fellowshipessay on Platonic epistemologyin 1879 and seemed about to embarkon a routine
Cambridgescholarlycareer,editingclassicaltexts. But thenhe met and
becamefriendlywith RobertsonSmith, who hadjust arrivedat Trinity
as the new professorof Arabic, havingbeen driveninto "exile" from
Scotland as a resultof his heresytrial. Smith's books and conversation
apparentlycaused the young Frazer to see that the study of primitive
20Frazer,"Preface to the First Edition," The Golden Bough, 3rd ed. (London, 1935),
I, xiv.
2'Religion of the Semites, 17-18.
22Jbid.,18.

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peoples might possibly shed some light on classical literature,at least


insofar as Greek and Roman ritual practices bore amazing resemblances to certain ceremonies observed among "savages." Between
1885and 1888Smith, who was also the editorof the nintheditionof the
EncyclopaediaBritannica,nurturedFrazer's anthropologicalinterest
by assigning him several articles to write, on topics ranging from
"Penates"to "Totemism."
The first editionof The GoldenBough,as its authoracknowledges,
bears the impressof two men:Smith and the eminentGermanscholar
WilhelmMannhardt(1831-80). As Frazerplainlysays in the preface,
"I have madegreat use of the worksof the late W. Mannhardt,without
which,indeed,my book could scarcelyhave beenwritten."Mannhardt
had begunhis studyof primitivefolkloreas a Miilleriansolaristbut became disillusionedby the sharpdisagreementshe foundamong practitioners of an allegedlyscientificmethod. He turnedfrom philologyto
field work, collectingthousandsof "popularsuperstitionsand customs
of the peasantry,"as Frazer puts it, becausehe understoodthat these
wouldfurnish"the fullest and most trustworthyevidencewe possess as
to the primitivereligionof the Aryans."23
These words on Mannhardt show that for Frazer in 1890 the
problemis still the same as it was for Max Mullerin 1856:the natureof
"the primitive religion of the Aryans." But Frazer explains why
MUller'sessentiallyliterarymethodof examiningandanalyzingancient
texts is defective:"the primitiveAryan, in all that regardshis mental
fibreand texture,is not extinct. He is amongstus today."24The reason
is that the descendants of the Aryans, the illiterate peasantry of
Frazer'stime, had been untouchedby the modernworld and thus still
essentiallyparticipatein a mentaluniversethat is unchangedfrom that
of the earliestmen.Thereforescrutinyof literaturemustgive way to inspection of what these contemporaryprimitivesactually do. Mannhardt had taken it upon himself to collect and classify as many as he
could of the countless rites and customs of the central European
peasant, particularlythe farmer and the woodsman.Briefly,he found
that most of these modernpeasant rituals were of magical character,
primarilyintendedto assurefertilityof man, beast, andfield.To Mannhardt, Frazerowes the key conceptionof "vegetationspirit"or "corn
demon," i.e., the divinitybelievedto be indwellingin growing things
whomthe riteis supposedto placateor gratify.
He also took from Mannhardtone of his cardinalmethodological
tenets, whichhe calls "the law of similarity":whencustoms are similar
in differentsocieties, we may then infer that the motives of the people
performing them are also similar. This follows from the Tylorian
23"Prefaceto the First Edition," The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., I, xii.

24Ibid.

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assumption of uniformityof mental functioningand well illustrates


Frazer'spenchantfor psychologicalexplanations:the mainvalueof any
rite or ceremony is that it exemplifies some otherwise inaccessible
mental state. With this complex and somewhat contradictory
inheritancein mind let us now turn directly to the work of James
GeorgeFrazer,the most famous"ritualist"of all.
III.-The leadingideas of (the third editionof) The GoldenBough
have been so generally diffused through academic, literary, and
journalistic channels that most educated persons today have some
sense of them, even when they have never read the work or any of its
abridgements,and are unable consciously to connect the ideas with
Frazer. For those desiringit, however,a synopsisof these ideas, which
are not especiallycomplex in themselves,may be foundin any history
of anthropology.25
No epitomeof The GoldenBough,however,gives any sense of what
one encountersin actually readingthe work. For Frazer'sargumentis
extraordinarilyattenuated.Customarilyhe beginseach section with a
briefintroductionsketchingwhat is to be provedor demonstrated,and
then he proceeds, slowly, painstakingly,by making an assertion and
then backingit up with mountainsof "evidence."I write"evidence"because its relationto the point at issue is only dimly "evident."This evidenceis typicallya mass of customs, taken from all over the worldand
throughouthistory, that Frazerthinksare analogueswhich,by the law
of similarity(i.e., like acts bespeak like motivations),can be said to
illustrate his contention.These data have little or no intrinsicinterest
and are impressive mainly through their quantity. And all too frequently some feature of a rite or myth that has been cited will lead
Frazer into a digression or elaboration that is gratuitous (like a
Homeric simile)and unconnectedwith his immediate-not to mention
his ultimate-object. If the reader decides to read for the argument
alone, it is thereforepossible to go through the many thick volumes
with surprisingrapidity.
The distinctiveshape and qualityof Frazer'sargumentis in a sense
a functionof his epistemology.For he was perhapsthe last great exemplar in Englishof the trend,widespreadaroundthe turnof the century,
to apply purportedly "scientific" standards to social studies and
therebyto raise them to the standardsalreadyachievedin the natural
sciences. This tendency, perhaps best observed in historiography,is
25A one-volume version was prepared by Frazer himself in 1922, and Prof. T. H.
Gaster has brought out another, modernized, abridgement, The New Golden Bough
(1959), to my mind mistakenly based on the idea that all the original Bough needed
besides severe pruning was an "updating" of its facts. The introduction to The New
Golden Bough contains an excellent synopsis.

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123

associated with the several well-known late-nineteenth-centuryattempts to write "objectivehistory."26In Frazerthis takes the form of
frequentassertionslike the following:"Hypothesesare necessarybut
often temporary bridges built to connect isolated facts. If my light
bridgesshould sooner or later break down or be supersededby more
solid structures,I hope that my book may still haveits utilityandits interest as a repertoryof facts."27That is, the facts stand by and for
themselves.
This is not to say that Frazer lacks theories.On the contrary,his
work is a tissue of conjecture(as extendedargumentsby analogyare
doomed to be), which doubtlessis why he felt compelledto supportit
as stronglyas he could by such copioususe of analogies.The confusion
arises from the frequency with which Frazer changed his mind in
print,28for when he did so, he usually neglected to delete theoretical
statements in which he no longer believed, but simply buried them
underhis new speculations.The result, in its curiouslayeredeffect, is
somethinglike the medievalpalimpsestthat is one of Frazer'sfavorite
figures for the human mind. Indeed,it is fair to say that The Golden
Bough is a history of the developmentof Frazer's own mind over a
quarterof a century-a historyin the best nineteenth-centurymanner:
filled with fossils embodyingstages in the growth of an organically
evolvingconsciousness.
On no matter did he changehis mindmore often thanon the nature
and origin of myth and its relation to ritual. One can find, strewn
throughthe severaleditionsand many volumes of The GoldenBough,
statements by Frazer supportingat least three differentand incompatible theories concerningmyth: euhemerism,cognitionism,and ritualism.29The first is a hardyperennialdatingback to ancienttimes and
26Fora good discussion of this "scientism" in literary and social studies, and in particular of the influence of Frazer on E. K. Chambers' The Mediaeval Stage, see 0. B.
Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages (Baltimore, 1965),
Ch. 1.
27"Prefaceto the Second Edition," The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., I, xix-xx.
28Itmust be admitted that his modesty and candor are disarming as he cheerfully reprints his facts with a new theory by which to interpret them.
290ne example of each will have to suffice;note that they are all drawn from the same
third edition. Euhemerism: this quotation, coming as it does in the last volume of the
third edition, may be said to represent Frazer's final view in The Golden Bough: "The acceptance of this hypothesis [that Balder was in fact a real man] would not necessarily
break the analogy which I have traced between Balder in his sacred grove on the Sogne
fiord of Norway and the priests of Diana in the sacred grove at Nemi; indeed, it might
even be thought rather to strengthen the resemblance between the two, since there is no
doubt at all that the priests of Diana at Nemi were men who lived real lives and died real
deaths" (The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., XI, 315).
Cognitionism: "But we still have to ask, how did the conception of such a composite

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much embracedby Enlightenmentphilosophes:that myths are based


(howeverloosely) on real events in the lives of real heroes and kings,
who are the originalsof the gods. Frazerinclinedtowardeuhemerism,
especially in his frequent and heavy-handedanti-clericalmoods, because this approachnaturallyfalls in with any attempt to show up religion as an error foundedin imposition and fraud. The second, cognitionism,is Tylor's doctrinethat myths arise from the attempt made
by primitiveman to ratiocinate.The resultsare etiologicaltales that explainhow the world came to be the way it is; myths are thus mistaken
effortsat scientificexplanation.
The third, ritualism, begins with two assumptions. The first is
Frazer'snotion,alreadymentioned,that religionoriginatedin man'sattempts to controlthe worldby coercingthe gods to do his biddingmagically (that is, by means of ritual).The second, derivedfrom Frazer's
two early mentorsRobertsonSmith and Mannhardt,asserts that man
worshipingis first (and foremost)an actor. He does somethingto cause
his gods to shine their countenancesupon him; he may sing or chant
and he will certainlydance.30Whenhe moveshe acts out whathe wants
the gods to do for him: assure him a plentifulcatch or a good hunt,
cause his enemiesto fall beforehim, makehis womenor his fieldsor his
cattle bear. Myth arises when,for some reason-a religiousreform,or
the passage of time that brings with it simple forgetfulnessand/or
misunderstanding-theritual falls into disuse, with the result that the
words,whichhad beenonly (or mainly)accompanimentto the essential
ceremonialactions, now take on an independentlife of theirown. What
do these words say?They originallycame into beingas a descriptionof
what the performersor dancers were doing as they imitated the gods
enactingsomethingdesirable;they now become the stories of the gods'
actionsthemselves-myths. Thus behindthe mythis the archaic,superdeity originate? ... Was it the attempt of a rude philosophy to lift the veil and explore the
hidden springs that set the vast machine in motion? That man at a very early stage of his
long history meditated on these things and evolved certain crude theories which partially
satisfied his craving after knowledge is certain; from such meditations of Babylonian and
Phrygian sages appear to have sprung the pathetic figures of Adonis and Attis; and from
such meditations of Egyptian sages may have sprung the tragic figure of Osiris" (ibid.,
VI, 158).
Ritualism: "We shall probably not err in assuming that many myths, which we now
know only as myths, had once their counterpart in magic; in other words, that they used
to be acted as a means of producing in fact the events which they describe in figurative
language. Ceremonies often die out while myths survive, and thus we are left to infer the
dead ceremony from the living myth" (ibid., IX, 374).
30". .. song is a later invention than the dance, to which it is in its
beginnings secondary and certainly not indispensable." C. M. Bowra, Primitive Song (New York, 1963),
243.

FRAZER ON MYTH AND RITUAL

125

seded ritual, and it is the ritual that permits us to examine how


primitive man truly thought of himself in relation to the universe.
Myths, then, are secondary elaborations of the basic rituals, and are in
that sense less important than those rituals. And of course rituals are
more reliable (for the study of the history of religion) than myths because they are more conservative, whereas myths, made of words, have
all the possibilities for textual corruption that these classically trained
scholars knew so well.
We have already noted the primacy of ritual over myth in
Robertson Smith, and Mannhardt likewise cites hundreds and hundreds of rites, from which, by patient induction, he elucidates and explores his basic ideas. It is not surprising, therefore, that Frazer seems
in general to have inclined more to the ritual theory of mythogenesis in
the earlier part of his career (i.e., the first edition of The Golden
Bough), when the influence of Smith and Mannhardt was strongest.
And it is noteworthy that Frazer was at pains to disavow Smith's
influence especially in later years, explicitly rejecting any central place
for ritualism. This is clearly implied as early as 1900 in the striking
passage in the preface to the second edition in which he states that the
eminent French sociologists Hubert and Mauss
have representedmy theory of the slain god as intendedto supplementand
complete RobertsonSmith's theory of the derivationof animal sacrificein
generalfrom a totem sacrament.On this I haveto say that the two theoriesare
quiteindependentof each other. I neverassentedto my friend'stheory,and,so
far as I can remember,he nevergaveme a hintthat he assentedto mine.(xxii)
A much more thoroughgoing instance of Frazer's desire to
dissociate himself from Robertson Smith on the matter of the origin of
myth is found in the following heretofore unpublished exchange of letters between Frazer and his younger contemporary (and even then
among his critics), the already eminent Oxford anthropologist, R. R.
Marett (1866-1943).31 (It should be noted that the letters date from
1911, when the third edition of The Golden Bough was beginning to appear.)
31Frazer-Marett letters in Trinity College Library Add. MS c.56b, 198-200. Permission to quote from the letters of Frazer has been given by the Master and Fellows of
Trinity College and by Messrs. A. P. Watt, literary agents of the Frazer estate; permission to quote from the Marett letter given by Sir Robert Marett. Portions of all three
letters irrelevant to the matter at hand have been deleted. I wish to thank Mrs. P. Bradford and Mr. T. Kaye of the staff of the Trinity College Library for their exceptionally
courteous assistance. For Marett's criticism of Frazer, see his The Thresholdof Religion
(London, 1914), and Franz Steiner, Taboo (London, 1956), Ch. 8.

126

ROBERT ACKERMAN

11May 1911.
To R. R. Marett
St. Keyne's,Cambridge.
... Allow me to correctwhatI believeto be a mistakeon yourpart.32So far as
I know RobertsonSmith'sviews from intimatepersonalacquaintanceas well
as from a studyof his writings,he neverproclaimedthat "ritualis historically
prior to dogma," as you say he did. On the contraryI believethat he would
have rejectedsuch a view (as I do) as a manifestabsurdity.What he did say,
with perfectjustice (and I entirelyagree with him), is that many dogmas or
mythsare historicallyposteriorto the ritualswhichthey professto explainand
are thereforeworthlessas explanationsof them, beingmere deductionsfrom
them. But to generaliseand affirmthat mythor dogmais universallyposterior
to ritualis, I believe,an ideathat neveroccurredto him. On the contraryhe always assumedthat dogmawas priorto ritual,and the wholeaim of his investigationswas to discoverthe idea (dogma,mythor whateveryou pleaseto call it,
in short the thought)on whichthe ritualis founded.That, for exampleis his
procedurein regardto sacrifice.He assumed,or rathertriedto prove,that men
sacrificedbecausethey had the idea of communionwith a deity and wishedto
put it in practice. He did not, as I understandyou to do, supposethat men
sacrificedfirst and inventeda theory or dogma for it afterwards.That is, I
believe,in his opinion(as it is in mine)to invertthe true relationof cause and
effect. But of course he held and proclaimedthat the originalidea on whicha
ritual is foundedhas often been forgotten,and that men have then often inventedfalse andworthlessexplanations,whichthe studentof the historyof religion can and ought to set aside. If you readhis remarkson the subjectagain
carefully(in his Religionof the Semites), I thinkyou will see that I have interpretedhis viewscorrectly.I entirelyagreewithhis views,as I interpretthem,
andhavealwaysactedon themin my writings,layingmorestresson ritualthan
on myth (dogma)in the study of the historyof religion,not becauseI believe
ritual to be always historicallyprior to dogma or myth (that I regard as
absolutelyfalse),but becauseritualis muchmoreconservativethandogmaand
far less apt to be falsifiedconsciouslyor unconsciously,andthereforefurnishes
a far surer standing-ground
for research.That and nothingelse was, I firmly
believe,my friendRobertsonSmith'sview.
You are not the first who has fallen into this error. A German, R. M.
Meyer, in ArchivfiJr Religionswissenschaft,33ascribed precisely the same views

that you do not only to RobertsonSmithbut to me! to me, who repudiatethem


as an absurdity.Thus I am apt to thinkthat the viewof the universalpriorityof
ritualto myth (whichseems to be cominginto fashion)is primarilybasedon a
of RobertsonSmith'sviews,and has since been supsimplemisunderstanding
32Marett's"mistake" occurs in the lecture he delivered27 October 1910 upon his installation as Reader in Social Anthropology. Entitled "The Birth of Humility," it was
issued as a pamphlet by the Clarendon Press in 1910 but is more easily consulted as part
of The Threshold of Religion (2nd ed., London, 1914), 169-202. In the lecture (p. 181),
Marett had said, "That ritual, or in other words a routine of external forms, is historically prior to dogma was proclaimed years ago by Robertson Smith and others."
33RichardM. Meyer, "Mythologische Studien aus der neuesten Zeit," Archivfiir Religionswissenschaft, 12 (1910), 270-90.

FRAZER ON MYTH AND RITUAL

127

ported by what I regard as a misapplication of psychology. Because it is or may


be true (I am not able to pronounce an opinion on the question) that in the
lowest forms of animal life-protozoa, infusoria, or whatever they are-movement precedes thought or whatever corresponds to thought in these lowly beings, it has been inferred that religious ritual must universally have been
performed first and a theory or dogma of it invented afterwards. I do not think
that we have any right to make this prodigious intellectual leap from protozoa
to men. Religious ritual even of the lowest savages is a highly, enormously complex phenomenon of thought, sensation, and action, and to compare it to, and
to treat it as on the same level with, the instinctive twitchings and motions of
protozoa, infusoria, or molluscs or the like, is, in my opinion, quite illegitimate.
Savage ritual, so far as I have studied it, seems to me to bear the imprint of
reflexion and purpose stamped on it just as plainly as any actions of civilised
men. Whether that is so or not, you should not claim the support of Robertson
Smith for views which I feel sure he would have unhesitatingly rejected. I have
some idea of publishing this correction in Man in order to prevent others from
falling into the same mistake again.
May 13, 1911.
... Now to discuss my alleged mistake in stating that Robertson Smith proclaimed that 'ritual is historically prior to dogma.' I think you have altogether
missed my meaning, owing doubtless to the obscure way, and the (necessarily)
cursory way, in which I have expressed it. As the general context was intended
to make clear, I meant by dogma precisely what Robertson Smith meant by it.
See, for instance, Relig. of the Semites, 18: "in all the antique religions
mythology takes the place of dogma." What he means by dogma is, I think,
manifest from many passages, as, for instance, the following (p. 21):34 "In
ancient religion the reason was not first formulated as a doctrine and then expressed in practice, but conversely, practice preceded doctrinal theory. Men
form general rules of conduct before they begin to express general principles in
words; political institutions are older than political theories, and in like manner
religious institutions are older than religious theories." Dogma in short means,
for him, theory or reasoned belief. In the absence of any proof that at the back
of ancient religion there were "great religious innovators"-men who thought
conceptually and didn't merely get along with the help of perceptual processes
such as imitation-he even goes so far as to speak of "unconscious forces" as
having caused the ancient religions to have grown up, and terms the religious
tradition itself "unconscious" (see p. 1)-a use of the term in which I could
hardly follow him. Well, that is what he meant, and what I meant too-that and
nothing more. I certainly wasn't thinking about protozoa; and would go further
than you apparently would, in doubting whether the protozoon is entirely destitute of the rudiments of 'thought' in the wide sense that covers perception (as
opposed to mere sensation, if there be such a thing) no less than conception.
As to your statement "savage ritual, so far as I have studied it, seems to me
From R. R. Marett.

34In fact, p. 20.

Exeter College, Oxford.

128

ROBERT ACKERMAN

to bear the imprint of reflexion and purpose stamped on it just as plainly as any
actions of civilised men" (if 'reflexion' here means what it ordinarily means in
psychology or indeed in plain English), I entirely disagree with it. If you print
your view in that form, using the word reflexion thus unqualified, I believe that
every psychologist in Europe, including Ward, will be down upon you. No one
would be such a fool as to say that there was no reflexion at work in savage religion; these things that we distinguish as higher and lower, conceptual and perceptual, processes shade off into each other, so that the difference is always one
of degree rather than of kind. But to say that the stamp of reflexion is "just as"
plain seems on the face of it to say that both types of religion-the savage and
the civilised-are equally reflexive, or each in its way as reflexive as the other.
If, however, you mean that plainly there is a very little reflexion at work in
savage religion, and, equally plainly, there is a great deal of it at work in civilised religion, then no one will deny that; but they will claim the right, when
drawing a broad contrast, to call the former "unreflective" as compared with
the latter. And Robertson Smith went further; he called it "unconscious."
Dear me! I seem to myself almost over-vigorous in my style of counterargument, but, when one is up against a giant like you, one has to lay on hard,
or he crushes one with a tap of his finger!
All that some of us-McDougall, for instance, and L6vy-Bruhl, etc., in
France-have been trying to do is to emphasize the mobbish character of
primitive religion and primitive life.35Perhaps we have overemphasised it, but it
doesn't much matter; there's always a tendency to oscillate before reaching
equilibrium.
You, on the other hand, have Howitt and Spencer behind you when you insist that in Australia a primitive legislator was capable of organising the marriage system, etc.36 Well, such a question must be decided on its merits.
Nothing that any psychologist may say about the general 'mobbishness' of
savages can weigh against the evidence of facts in such a case, supposing the
facts to be forthcoming. In your Totemism and Exogamy37 you made out a
very good case for an Australian Lycurgus. Well, all the same my saying that
they "dance out their religion rather than reason it out" applies, I believe,
broadly and on the whole.
Thus I don't believe we greatly disagree about the facts after all.
To R. R. Marett.
17 May, 1911.
From [J. G. Frazer.] St. Keyne's, Cambridge.
... Many thanks for your explanations. I am very glad to find that I had
misunderstood you, and that our ways of looking at these matters are not opposed to each other so sharply as I had feared they were, judging from your
inaugural lecture. The passages of Robertson Smith to which you call my attention certainly support your interpretation of his view more fully than I had sup35William McDougall (1871-1938), British social psychologist; Lucien Levy-Bruhl
(1857-1939), French ethnographerand epistemologist.
36AlfredW. Howitt (1830-1908) and Sir Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), British ethnographers.
37Totemismand Exogamy, 4 vols. (London, 1910).

FRAZER ON MYTH AND RITUAL

129

posed. But I still inclineto thinkthat he was emphasisinga novelview(the importanceof the study of ritualas comparedwith myth or dogma)and that in
doing so he omitted to state (what he probablyassumed)that every ritualis
precededin the minds of the men who instituteit by a definitetrain of reasoning,even thoughthat trainof reasoningmay not be definitelyformulatedin
wordsandpromulgatedas a dogma.That at least is my view,and I believethat
RobertsonSmith would have assented to it. I do not say that savage ritual
bearsthe impressof as muchthoughtas some actionsof civilisedmen;but I do
thinkthat it bearsthe impressof some thoughtandpurposequiteas plainlyas
many actions of civilised men. That is not, I think, a matter which
psychologistsare morecompetentto decidethan menwhohavemadea special
study of savage ritual.CertainlyI do not thinkthat my friendJames Ward38
(withwhomI havewalkedand talkedon all subjectsin earthandheavenon an
averageonce a week for many years) wouldclaim superiorcompetenceas a
psychologistin suchmatters.
These repudiations of Smith sort strangely with Frazer's statement
from the first edition acknowledging the inestimable debt owed Smith.
They plainly bespeak a vast change in convictions, but Frazer, until
Marett faced him squarely with the question in the letters quoted
above, seems not to have been aware of the distance he had come since
1890. Marett returned to this remarkable disparity in Frazer's views of
Smith in his review in 1914 of the third edition of The Golden Bough.39
There he suggested that the reason for Frazer's disavowal lay in the fact
that between 1890 and 1900 Frazer had developed his celebrated and
oversimplified schema stating (1) that magic was everywhere the first
stage of human mental (or spiritual) evolution, to be followed
necessarily by religion and then by science; (2) that each stage was arrived at by leading intellects of the time apprehending that the
"philosophy" of the preceding phase was intellectually ineffective; and
(3) that each stage was clearly distinguishable, both historically as well
as analytically, from the others.40 Now in the first edition Frazer had
been willing to see magic as simply one form among the many taken by
religion. With his new viewpoint, which insisted upon evolutionary discontinuities, however, the "magical" totemism and sacramentalism of
the earliest men had to be strictly opposed to anything that might be
construed as "religious" behavior. Marett concludes that Frazer had
therefore jettisoned Robertson Smith as a matter of intellectual
necessity because his investigations into totemism had caused him to
change his mind. If Marett is right, then on the evidence of the fore38JamesWard (1843-1925), British philosopher and psychologist.
39R. R. Marett, "Magic or Religion?" Psychology and Folk-Lore (London, 1920),
169-95, esp. 190-91; this revieworiginally in EdinburghReview, 219 (1914), 389-408.
40Thistripartite division seems to be an anthropological version of Comte's famous
triad of theology, metaphysics, and positive science.

130

ROBERT ACKERMAN

going letters, the rejection of Smith had been performed so thoroughly


that Frazer-a man of the utmost integrity, of whom intellectual opportunism is unthinkable-must be seen as having undergone a classic
instance of that "selective amnesia" that so often accompanies rationalization.41
Stanley Edgar Hyman, on the other hand, offering a psychological
explanation, suggests that such changes in attitude betray a continual,
never-ending dialogue within Frazer's mind about religion:
Thereis a sense in whichno one andno evidenceever convincedFrazer,but in
whichhis ambivalentand shiftingmind each time found statementsand evidenceto reinforcepositionsit hadalreadyreached.ThusMannhardtandSmith
appearwhen Frazeris movingaway from the TrinitarianChristianityof his
Presbyterianupbringing,Roscoe and Budgewhenhe is movingback to a UnitarianChristianityof his owndevising.42
It is of course possible that both Marett and Hyman are correct.
Whichever (if either) of these interpretations is right, one is driven to
conclude that although Frazer never wavered on rationalism or evolution or the value of the comparative method, he seems to have been
willing to change his mind (in print) about nearly everything else, and
often did exactly that.
To speak decisively, therefore, about Frazer's ideas on the origin
and meaning of myth and ritual at any one moment during the more
than twenty years represented by the writing of The Golden Bough is
impossible because of the theoretical confusion that obtains within the
work. Only if one were prepared to cull what must be hundreds of utterances on the subject scattered through the work (not to mention his
voluminous correspondence, both published and unpublished), and then
to collate and compare them chronologically, could one be sure exactly
how and when Frazer's views changed (and whether he knew they did).
And even then one's result would be problematic because of Frazer's
seeming indifference to self-contradiction. To put it kindly, the strength
of Frazer's mind lay in its power to synthesize vast amounts of data into
manageable categories; to put it less generously, Frazer seems nearly
completely to have lacked the analytic rigor required for such a
sweeping investigation into the deepest springs of human behavior.
Not having compiled a variorum Golden Bough, I can only chart
Frazer's movements approximately; from ritualism through cognitionism to euhemerism, to which he gives the palm, as already noted, in the
41SeeR. Angus Downie, Frazer and The Golden Bough (London, 1970), 22, for anecdotes illustrating Frazer's Scots Puritan standards of personal rectitude.
42The Tangled Bank, op. cit., 267. John Roscoe (1861-1932) and Sir Ernest Budge
(1857-1934) offered euhemerist interpretations of East African and ancient Egyptian
mythologies.

FRAZER ON MYTH AND RITUAL

131

last volume of the third edition, written in late 1913. But there is more.
Here is Frazer's last public statement on the question, in his first work
to appear after the War-a translation of Apollodorus' The Library
(1921):
By myths I understandmistaken explanationsof phenomena,whether of
humanlife or of externalnature.Suchexplanationsoriginatein that instinctive
curiosityconcerningthe causes of things which at a more advancedstage of
knowledgeseeks satisfactionin philosophyandscience,butbeingfoundedon ignoranceand misapprehensionthey are always false, for were they true, they
wouldcease to be myths.43
A better enunciation of cognitionism may not exist even in the
works of Tylor. But the point surely is that this passage marks no real
change in Frazer's views. He was always a rationalist, even in his ritualist moments. Even when he saw the primitives engaged in reenacting
the stages in the sacred life of the god, in which the ritual was primary
and the myth secondary, he still conceived of the myth as being "devised" later to explain the rite fallen into disuse. And of course
euhemerism is ultimately just as rationalistic as cognitionism in that
both explanations discern in myth some form of conscious mental
activity, either of a speculative-philosophical or of a historicalallegorical kind.
But Frazer was not content to rest with the ringing affirmation of intellectualism that has just been quoted. In a footnote appended to this
very passage he took pains to attack those in the next generation of
scholars-the Cambridge Ritualists-who had carried on the ritualist
view that he had championed, if uncertainly, at times during the early
part of his career:
By a curiouslimitationof view, some modernwriterswouldrestrictthe scope
of mythsto ritual,as if nothingbut ritualwerefittedto set menwonderingand
meditatingon the causesof things.No doubtsome mythshavebeendevisedto
explainrites of whichthe true originwas forgotten;but the numberof such
mythsis infinitesimallysmall, by comparisonwithmythswhichdeal withother
subjects and have had another origin.... The zealous student of myth and
ritual,moreintenton explainingthemthanon enjoyingthe lore of the people,is
too apt to invadethe gardenof romanceand with a sweepof his scythe to lay
the flowersof fancyin the dust. He needsto be remindedoccasionallythat we
must not look for a myth or a rite behindevery tale, like a bull behindevery
hedgeor a cankerin everyrose.44
43Apollodorus,The Library, trans. J. G. Frazer (London, 1921), I, xxvii.
44Ibid., I, xxviii; Frazer's metaphors give him away. Myths are "flowers of fancy"
growing in the never-never "garden of romance"; scholars "invade," cut down the
flowers, and make waste. A neater demonstration of the limits of Frazer's understanding
of the power and function of myth and the utility and techniques of mythography could
hardly be asked for.

132

ROBERT ACKERMAN

In short, Frazer's epistemologyhas led him up a blind alley, and he


seems to despairof makingany sense of the fantasticdiversityof myth
andritualhe has so successfullydisplayedto the reader.
IV.-Let us considernow the extentto whichthe ritualistFrazerdid
in fact exist, or at least might, througha certain amount of selective
reading,be established.For it is obviousthat he concernedhimselfwith
myth and ritual throughouthis long career, and we have seen that he
was quite preparedto see "the light bridges"of his theoriescrumbleif
only his "facts" might continueto be useful. It is thereforepossibleto
take him at his word,ignorethe vast changesin his theoreticalposition,
and thus extract a ritualistFrazerthat will not do excessiveviolenceto
the truth. This is not as opportunisticas it sounds if only because
Frazerhimself,in his devaluationof theory,seems to haveinvitedit.
First, he did comment, albeit en passant, on the central ritualist
literaryquestion-the originof Greekdrama-although the structural
analysisof tragedy and comedy carriedout by Murrayand Cornford
was beyondboth his methodologyandhis purviewof interest.But there
is somethingmore important,somethingthat will be employedby the
later literaryscholarsandcritics,eventhoughFrazerwas not especially
interestedin its literaryvalue. I referhere to what mightbe called"the
tragic rhythm." By this I mean the common pattern discernible(at
least by Frazer-many anthropologiststoday would disagree, especially about Osiris) in the myths and rituals of Attis, Adonis, Osiris,
and Dionysus,the gods Frazerexaminedmost closely. For these deities
are the mainexamplesof the type of the vegetationgod, or corn spirit,
that he found at the heart of primitivereligionin the EasternMediterraneanand Asia Minor, the cradleof Westernculture.Frazer,always
lookingfor similaritiesratherthandifferences,emphasizedthat all four
gods have the same "life story":their myths narrate(and their rituals
showed)how the god suffereda woundas the result of a combat with
eithera wildanimalor an adversary,died andwas buriedin the earthto
the accompanimentof universalmourning-only to revive and show
himselfagainin the rebirthof greenandgrowingthings.
These gods and the repetitive rhythmic pattern that constitutes
their myth lie at the heart of The GoldenBough. In the most literal
sense, the readerencountersthem rightin the middleof the work, for
Adonis, A ttis, Osirisis the title of volumesfive and six and Dionysusis
consideredat the beginningof volume seven,Spirits of the Cornand of
the Wild.This central placementis symbolic of their importance,for
their sufferingsand resurrectionsfurnishthe models for the rites to be
enacted by their surrogatein this world, the (divine)king. And their
rituals are, in turn, the central acts by which the primitiveworshiping
communityaffirmedits oneness with their god and the worldorder he

FRAZER ON MYTH AND RITUAL

133

representedand, most importantly, magically assured themselves of


that best evidenceof divinefavor,fertilityof the earth.
Up to this point we have examinedFrazer'sritualismas expressed
in explicit statements, and also as impliedin the overall form of The
GoldenBough. But there is yet another sense in which Frazer'swork
had a ritualist cast-his massive and unexampleduse of the comparativemethod. Frazer really representsthe culminationof late Victorian rationalistcomparativeanthropology,which operated to such
salutary effect on classical studies by acting to countervailthe exaltation of the Greeksthat had so characterizedthe romanticsat the beginningof the century and the esthetes of the 1880s.The comparative
approachemphasizedhow much the great achievementof Greece had
beenoverlaidon the darknessof the old pre-Olympianreligion,andalso
how close the ancient Greeks were to Europeanpeasants of the nineteenth century. In retrospect there can be little doubt that this
deflationarymovementwas salutaryin permittingus to see betterwho
the Greeks truly were and what in fact they accomplished.But it was
also true that the comparativemethod, of which Frazeris the practitioner par excellence, tends to place greater emphasis on the lower
rather than on the higher, to focus on the potential rather than the
actual. And since the Frazerianschema held that the first stage of
mental evolution was characterizedby magic, there is a built-inbias
towardrituals(magical acts) that no amountof theoreticalvacillation
on Frazer'spart couldefface.
V.-Although in a biographicalsense it is impossibleto be sure,it is
probablethat the reason Frazerwas a ritualistfor only a very briefintervalis that ritualism,in its emphasison the primacyof act over word
and on the repetitiveand unthinkingelement in human behavior,was
fundamentallyinimical to his thoroughgoing,eighteenth-century-style
rationalism.For him ritualcould hardlyhave been more than a relicof
a now outwornand happilydiscardedprimitivestage in humanmental
evolution,and he was entirelyout of sympathywith that wave of irrationalism,whetherin its vitalist, collectivist, or psychoanalyticforms,
that was crescent at the turn of the century.45Whenone considersthat
among his contemporaries were Freud, Bergson, Durkheim, and
Einstein,all of whomhe rejected,it is plainenoughthat he was a backward-lookingwriter.46Indeed 1911, when the third edition of The
45For the general movement to irrationalism, see Lancelot L. Whyte, The Unconscious before Freud (New York, 1960); from Noel Annan, The Curious Strength of
Positivism in British Thought (London, 1959), it may be seen that Frazer in fact
exemplifiedthe mainstream of British thought, no matter how far out of step he was with
Continental developments.
46Forhis eighteenth-century character, and his rejection of modernism in general and
Freud in particular, see R. A. Downie, Frazer and The Golden Bough, op. cit., 21-22.

ROBERT ACKERMAN

134

GoldenBough began to appear,was one of the very last years such a


work could have been greeted with enthusiasmby Frazer'scolleagues
and the generalpublic.47For immediatelyafterWorldWar I his kindof
belletristic,philosophicalevolutionismbegan to be supersededby the
more pragmaticand functionalapproachassociatedwith the names of
BronislawMalinowskiand Franz Boas. And as 1911has receded,The
GoldenBoughlooms more and more like a beachedwhale, and Frazer
increasinglyshows his true affinitiesto be with the seventeenth-and
eighteenth-centurypoly-historians,each of whom summed up in his
turn what was then knownof the origins of religion,ratherthan with
modernanthropology.
In retrospect it is clear that his deepest inadequacieslay in two
areas:sociologyandpsychology.Frazer'ssociologywas completelyimplicit, for he seems to have had neitherinterestin, nor feelingfor, any
systematic analysis of society and its institutions.His politicalideas,
predictablyenough,are those of the social contract,whichcorresponds
to Tyloriancognitionism.That is, the social organizationof the primitives, like their mythology,was originatedby "primitivephilosophers,"
and thus one may appropriatelycriticize primitive institutions by
modernrationalcriteria.Frazerseems to havehad little sense so far as
alien cultures were concerned of the social matrix, the interconnectednessof things,that gives artifactsor customs or beliefswhatever
significancethey possess. It shouldbe saidin his defense,however,that
his rationalismand ethnocentrismwere not especially reactionaryor
indeedevenunusual.Frazerwas at one withthe rest of his generationof
Britishscholars,with the exceptionof RobertsonSmith, in lackingany
sense of the organicandunplannednatureof humansociety.(Note that
Emile Durkheimand the Annee Sociologiqueschool whom, along with
Max Weber, we now think of as the foundersof modernsociological
thought,did not begin to publishuntil the last three years of the nineteenthcentury.)And insofaras psychologywas concernedthe situation
was entirelyanalogous.For Frazer,in the mannerof Hartley,the mind
is conceivedas a machinethat acts by the mechanismof association.
Taking all this into account, it is clear enoughwhy Frazerwas only a
sometime ritualist,and why we have had to wait for other scholars to
explore the unconsciousprocesses of which myth and ritual are great
andenduringmanifestations.
ColumbiaUniversity.

470f course The Golden Bough was not received with unanimous acclaim: e.g., see
Andrew Lang's long, raking critique of the second edition in Magic and Religion (London,
1901), 46-223, and Marett's criticism in The Thresholdof Religion, already cited.