House of Frazer

J.W. Burrow

  • J.G. Frazer: His Life and Work by Robert Ackerman
    Cambridge, 348 pp, £35.00, December 1987, ISBN 0 521 34093 4

‘Among the Bechuanas it is a rule ... The Borero Indians of Brazil think ... The Huichol Indians admire ... In some parts of Melanesia ...’ And in Bangkok at 12 o’clock? It needs an effort of imagination to think of Noel Coward reading The Golden Bough (popular abridged edition, 1922), but he catches perfectly the scatter-effect of Late Victorian and Edwardian anthopology practised according to the comparative method, above all by Frazer, from whose legendary notebooks the examples rattled in promiscuous handfuls onto the page: Melanesians and Eskimos, Breton peasants, Astarte and Cybele, corn dollies and Balder the Beautiful, the absurd beliefs of the Wawamba, the atrocious behaviour of the Mura-muras. With a sense of recognition we find that in Amboyna and Uliase, ‘two islands near the equator, where necessarily there is little or no shadow cast at noon, the people make it a rule not to go out of the house at mid-day, because they fancy that by doing so a man may lose the shadow of his soul.’ That at least we might have guessed, and how did the Master miss it? (Gassy? Chassis? Ecstacy? Or racy?)

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