Friday, October 12, 2007

James George Frazer

James George Frazer (1854 – 1941), was a Scottish social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion. Except for Italy and Greece, Frazer was not widely traveled. 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. Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871) and encouraged by his friend, the biblical scholar William Robertson Smith, who was linking the Old Testament with early Hebrew folklore.

He was the first to detail the relations between myth and rituals. His theories of totemism were superseded by Claude Levi-Strauss. 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.

While James Frazer is best known for his tripartite division of all culture into the stages of magic, religion, and science, the bulk of his tome is devoted to an intermediate stage between religion and science – a stage of magic and religion combined. In this in between stage is to be found myth-ritualism, for only here do myths and rituals work together. In the stage of sheer magic there are rituals – the routines involved in carrying out the directions – but no myths, for there are no gods. In the stage of religion there are both myths and rituals, but they are barely connected. Myths describe the character and behavior of gods. Rituals seek to curry divine favor. Rituals may presuppose myths, which suggest what activities would most please the gods, but they are otherwise independent of myths. (R.A. Segal. 1998, 3)
“Frazer presents two distinct versions of myth-ritualism.
In the first version myth describes the life of the god of vegetation, and ritual enacts the myth, or at least that portion of the myth describing the death and rebirth of the god. The ritual operates on the basis of the Law of Similarity, according to which the imitation of an action causes it to happen. … The assumption that vegetation is under the control of a god is the legacy of religion. The assumption that vegetation can be controlled, even if only through the king, is the legacy of magic. … In the ritual a human being plays the role of the god and acts out what he magically causes the god to do.” (R.A. Segal. 1998, 4)
“In Frazer’s second version of myth-ritualism the king is central. …King is himself divine, by which Frazer means that the god resides him. Just as the health of vegetation depends on the health of its god, so now the health of the god depends on the health of the king… To ensure a steady supply of food, the community kills its king while he is still in his prime and thereby safely transfers the soul of the god to his successor. … The king is killed either at the end of a fixed term or at the first sign of infirmity.” (R.A. Segal. 1998, 4) In this second version of myth-ritualism instead of enacting the myth of the god of vegetation, the ritual simply changes the residence of the god. “The king dies not in imitation of the death of the god but as a sacrifice to preserve the health of the god. … Instead of reviving the god by magical imitation, the ritual revives the god by a transplant. It would therefore be better to restrict the term myth-ritualism to Frazer’s first version of the theory.” (R.A. Segal. 1998, 5)
Myth for Frazer, as for Tylor, serves to explain the world… For Tylor myth is the ancient and primitive counterpart to modern science and primarily to scientific theory, but for Frazer it is the counterpart to applied science.

The Myth and Ritual Theory. An Anthology. Edited by Robert A. Segal. 1998. Blackwell Publishers Inc. Malden, Massachusetts, USA.

Samuel Henry Hooke

Samuel Henry Hooke (1874 – 1968) was an English scholar writing on comparative religion. He is known for his translation of the Bible into Basic English. He was Professor of Old Testament Studies in the University of London, edited three collections of essays that sought to establish the existence of a myth-ritualist pattern in the ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Egypt).
Hooke carries myth-ritualism further than Frazer in conferring on myth the same magical power contained in the ritual. “The spoken word,” says Hooke, “had the efficacy of an act…” (“The Myth and Ritual Pattern of the Ancient East,” p. 3).

Jane Ellen Harrison

Jane Ellen Harrison (1850 – 1928) was a ground-breaking British classical scholar, linguist and feminist. Harrison is one of the founders of modern studies in Greek mythology. She applied 19th century archaeological discoveries to the interpretation of Greek religion in ways that have become standard. Harrison learned: initially German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, later expanded to about sixteen languages, including Russian.
Harrison carries myth-ritualism further than Frazer in conferring on myth the same magical power contained in the ritual. “A myth,” says Harrison, “becomes practically a story of magical intent and potency” (Themis, p. 330).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

William Robertson Smith

William Robertson Smith (1846 – 1894) was a Scottish orientalist, Old Testament scholar, professor of divinity, and minister of the Free Church of Scotland. He is also known for his book Religion of the Semites, which is considered a foundational text in the comparative study of religion. Religion of the Semites is an account of ancient Jewish religious life which pioneered the use of sociology in the analysis of religious phenomenon.
“In a few introductory pages of his Lectures on the Religion of the Semits the Victorian biblicist and Arabist William Robertson Smith pioneered the myth-ritualist theory. … Smith’s approach to ancient religion is behaviorist.” (R.A. Segal. 1998, 1)
“According to Smith, “in almost every case the myth was derived from the ritual and not the ritual from the myth (Smith 1889, 19) … myth is merely the explanation of a religious usage.” (R.A. Segal. 1998, 2)
“The antique religions had for the most part no creed; they consisted entirely of institutions and practices” (Smith 1889, 18). Smith grants that ancients, whom he compares with primitives, doubtless performed rituals for some reason: “No doubt men will not habitually follow certain practices without attaching a meaning to them” (Smith 1889, 18). (R.A. Segal. 1998, 2)
For Smith, ritual is conspicuously more important than myth, which he calls “secondary”. (R.A. Segal. 1998, 3)

1. The Myth and Ritual Theory. An Anthology. Edited by Robert A. Segal. 1998. Blackwell Publishers Inc. Malden, Massachusetts, USA.
2. William Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semits, First Series, 1st edn (Edinburgh: Black, 1889).

Edward Tylor

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, an English Anthropologist (1832 - 1917). In 1883, Tylor became the head of the University Museum at Oxford and was a Professor of Anthropology from 1896 until 1909. Published in 1881, Tylor’s first book, Anthropology, is still considered to be modern in its cultural concepts and theories.

Tylor was not particularly interested in fieldwork. He derived most of the material for his comparative studies through extensive readings of Classical materials (literature and history of Greece and Rome), the work of the early European folklorists, and reports from missionaries, travelers, and contemporaneous ethnologists.
Tylor is considered representative of cultural evolutionism, based on the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. Tylor generally seemed to assume a Victorian idea of progress rather than the idea of non-directional, multilineal cultural development proposed by later anthropologists. He believed that there was a functional basis for the development of society and religion, which he determined was universal. He reintroduced the term animism (the faith in the individual soul or anima of all things) into common use. He considered animism as the first phase of development of religions.

Tylor formulated one of the early and influential anthropological conceptions of culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."

He formulated also the classical conception of myth as an explanation of the world.
“For Tylor, myth is an account of events in the physical world. Myth is more important than ritual, which is the application, not the subject, of myth. Myth constitutes creed, which is merely expressed in the form of a story. For Tylor, myth serves the same function as science. Indeed, myth is the ancient and primitive counterpart to modern science.” (Robert A. Segal. 1998. Introduction to the The Myth and Ritual Theory, an anthology, edited by Robert A. Segal.)