Sunday, July 19, 2015

“Animism and Magic: E.B. Tylor and J.G. Frazier”

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) is was a self-educated Englishman who never attended university yet an extended trip in his youth for health reasons (tuberculosis) allowed him to experience other cultures and to write one of the most influential books in his century “Primitive Cultures” (1871) that earned him a professor chair at Oxford University to teach “Mr. Tylor’s science”: anthropology. It is interesting to note that this was also the century where Charles Darwin wrote “Origin of Species” (1859). Tylor was born into the Quaker faith but refused to explain any human reaction or give answers through religion as was the custom at his time. Rather he analyzed everything in a very scientific approach as if other cultures were simply less evolved and gave an insight into the evolution of religion and sciences. He classified cultures as savages, barbarians (it is for me interesting to note that Greeks are included in the barbarians, yet this is the word that Ancient Greeks invented for less evolved civilizations at that time), and modern. Tylor presents a very interesting critique of how religion was truly a societal invention to explain the world around us, and that “animism” (from the Latin word anima, soul) is at the basis of religion as a way to explain the world through a living personal power behind all things animate or inanimate. I wonder of course today what Tylor would be saying about the return through the new age movement to what he would consider savage cultures.

James George Frazier (1854-1941) was a scholarly Scotsman who spent almost all his life around Cambridge University, is a disciple of Tylor and is often associated with the “magic” theory of religion. His upbringing through daily readings of the Bible by his parents left him immersed in myths and from what I have read from his most famous book “The Golden Bough” (1890-1915), despite its content somehow reads like a myth itself. I am actually really enjoying his writing and contrary to Tylor I do not get this English superiority feeling and attitude about Frazier. According to Pals Frazier finds “in magic something more systematic and scientific that his mentor [Tylor] did… Whenever there is belief in the supernatural beings and wherever there are human efforts to win their help by prayers or rituals, human thought has moved out of the realm of magic into that of religion.” So for me the question of course arises whether belief in magic is a more natural childish belief and it is the effort of humans to control their world that has created the concept of religion. Then it is only natural to ask whether a more gentle approach to religion would be to stop wanting to control the world and the outcome of life rather to accept and love.  

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