Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger (1966) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Chapter 1: Robertson Smith and his legacy

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Douglas's first chapter is mainly about Robertson Smith and his legacy.

The Ambivalence of the Sacred

However, the anthropologist begins by pointing out that we find it difficult to understand how people in primitive cultures [1] fail to distinguish between sacredness and uncleanness. She takes up a reference by Eliade in Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958) to the ambivalence of the sacred. Eliade had claimed that the sacred was at once both sacred and defiled. [2]

One possible way of making sense of this ambivalence is to take the term sacred to mean subject to restriction, whether to protect the divine from the human or the human from the divine. Douglas remarks that in the modern Old Testament translation of the Catholic, Ronald Knox, set apart had been used instead of the traditional holy.

However, this idea of sacred as meaning subject to restriction cannot be applied to, say, Hinduism, where the sacredness of something may be relative: a thing may be pure or impure not absolutely, but in relation to something else. Thus, in a particular part of India contact with cow dung will pollute a god, but remove pollution from a human.

Robertson Smith

Turning to James Frazer [3], the author points out he had regarded failure to distinguish between sacred and polluted as characteristic of primitive thought. She offers supporting quotations from Frazer which she sees as echoing Robertson Smith's The Religion of the Semites (1889).

The rest of Douglas's initial chapter is about the ideas on primitive religion of the late c19th Scottish Protestant academic, William Robertson Smith, and the impact of these ideas on social anthropology, of which, according to Douglas, Robertson Smith was the founder. [3A]

The Background to Robertson Smith

Chronologically, though Douglas does not proceed altogether chronologically herself, the historical account opens with a c19th situation in which there were two basic attitudes towards primitive peoples. They were viewed either as degenerate savages or as capable of progress towards civilisation.

The disagreement between the two camps was resolved in Tylor's Primitive Culture (1873) [3B], which applied Darwinian ideas on biological evolution to culture. According to Tylor's Doctrine of Survivals, the survival of the culturally primitive in the modern world could be understood as comparable to the phenomenon in biological evolution of the survival of unfit vestiges from earlier periods into later ones.

Robertson Smith comes into the story when he applied Tylor's idea in The Religion of the Semites. Robertson Smith used the idea to understand the survival of rules re uncleanness. However, the survival of the culturally unfit was not a central concern of Robertson Smith. Rather he was interested with the culturally fit, with those aspects of earlier religion that had gone on to produce later religion.

The Ethical and the Magical

Robertson Smith found a fundamental distinction in early religion generally between the ethical and the magical. On the one hand, there was a core ethical cult pertaining to community gods, who were considered to be an integral part of each early society and bound up in its welfare. On the other hand, there was the more peripheral magic element, involving rituals and associated with terrible demons.

For Robertson Smith, the religion of the Old Testament Hebrews was vastly superior to that of their Semitic neighbours. For it had greatly developed the ethical component in the direction of interiority, of personal relationship with the divine, and at the same time shed the demonic, magic ritual component.

Douglas notes that Robertson Smith drew a parallel between Old Testament Hebrews and modern Protestants. Just as the Hebrews had rejected magic, so too Protestants rejected the mumbo-jumbo of Catholicism in favour of interiority.

Douglas also suggests that Robertson Smith did not himself go as far as some British Protestant intellectuals of his time as far as his own religion was concerned. Although he espoused historical criticism, the examination of the Old Testament as if it was an ordinary book, he still accepted the Bible as divinely revealed, rather than base his religion exclusively on interior, ethical considerations.

The Impact of Robertson Smith

Assessing Robertson Smith's impact on religious anthropology generally, Douglas finds his Protestant sectarianism to have been damaging, having brought about an unwarranted obsession with the way ritual works. She rejects on the one hand his notion that ritual is indicative of more primitive religion and on the other hand his notion that a large ethical component is exclusive to advanced religion.

Douglas looks in particular at the influence of Robertson Smith on Durkheim and on Frazer.


When Robertson Smith had insisted that primitive religion was not about the salvation of individual souls, but about the well-being of society, that gods and men alike were considered to be part of the social order, Douglas feels that the Scot's actual words could almost have been written by Durkheim, so powerful had been his influence on the Frenchman.

When Durkheim applied the term magic to that component of primitive religion which did not relate to community gods, associated that component with primitive notions of hygiene and largely ignored it, this too had been derived from Robertson Smith, according to Douglas.

The Sacred in Durkheim

However, in his distinction between sacred and profane, Durkheim did not follow Robertson Smith, who had denied that religion and ordinary life were separated. Douglas sees Durkheim's distinction as part of his radical opposition between the social and the individual, the former sacred and the latter profane.

From Durkheim's idea of the sacred as being generated by society sprang his notion of the contagion of the sacred. A sacred created and sustained by society was necessarily nebulous and under constant threat of dissipation. So there had to be rules to ensure that the sacred maintained its shape: rules formulated in terms of contagion.

Douglas objects that Durkheim had been in error to distinguish between the religious and the magical. For magic as well as the sacred was generated by society. That meant the separate set of hygiene rules the Frenchman associated with the practice of magic was really of the same kind as the contagion rules he associated with the sacred.


Douglas now moves on to examine the influence of Robertson Smith on Frazer. Whereas Durkheim had focussed on the social core of Robertson Smith's primitive religion, Frazer had latched on to its magical periphery. He had recognised contagion as one of the principles operating in the practice of magic and had added a second principle, that of sympathy, whereby magic was able to transfer properties of one thing to another.

Beyond that, Frazer had traced three phases of cultural evolution, comparable to Hegel's dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. First, there had been magic, a sort of primitive science, then there had been religion, now there was science.

Frazer is obviously a bête noire for Douglas. She points to his undisguised contempt of primitive society. [p 24] and regrets his continuing influence in Britain in her own time. In Old Testament studies it is still frequently assumed that primitive rituals are about magic, about producing results automatically when a ritual is performed correctly. In classical studies, the dubious assumption still operates, that magical beliefs are earlier and ethical ones later. [4]

Two Assertions

Douglas rounds off her opening chapter with two assertions. One is that religion cannot be understood on the basis of the study of spiritual beings alone: we need to look equally at people's ideas on the destiny of humanity and on our place in the cosmos. The other assertion is that before we study contagion ideas in other cultures, we should look at them in our own. [5]


1 Primitive

No derogatory sense attaches to this term as used by Douglas. She acknowledged the problem that the word now poses at the end of the preface to the 2nd edition (1999) of her Implicit Meanings, pointing out that anthropologists were partly responsible for changing attitudes. It is abundantly clear that Douglas was herself part of the pressure for change: consider for instance her condemnation of Frazer towards the end of this first chapter.

This site simply reflects Douglas's original usage of the term.     [Back to Article]

2 Mircea Eliade

1966, the year in which Purity and Danger appeared, was also the year of the condemnation of Eliade by the leading British anthropologist of the day, Edmund Leach. In what I have read by her, this is Douglas's last reference to Eliade.     [Back to Article]

3 James Frazer

Douglas fails to list Frazer in her bibliography: a Freudian slip, perhaps, given her attitude to him as revealed towards the end of this chapter. I believe she quotes from works of his that were collected in The Golden Bough (15 volumes, 1890 - 1915). Frazer's own 1922 single volume abridgement is still in print and widely available.

See the note below on Primitive Culture.     [Back to Article]

3A William Robertson Smith

Dec 2006: It was extremely unhelpful for Douglas to make Robertson Smith the founder of social anthropology. To regard him thus helps to disguise the consideration that the social anthropology of religion as we know it is largely based on the Protestant understanding of religion first formulated during the Reformation. For all his importance, Robertson Smith was essentially a Free Presbyterian academic concerned to restate the Protestant view in terms of late c19th scholarship.     [Back to Article]

3B Primitive Culture

Dec 2006: Tylor's Primitive Culture was first published in 1871. It was the Second Edition that appeared in 1873. See my Chapter 5 note on Bibliography.     [Back to Article]

4 Peasant Practices

It seems a great pity that Douglas did not look further into the sorry legacy of Frazer. Even today, the assumption is made that pre-Christian religion survived in the non-Christian peasant practices reported by European folklorists and assembled in The Golden Bough.

When we abandon Frazer's model of cultural development, or the similar Protestant model from the same era, as in Rudolf Otto, we have to prove that our medieval and more recent peasant ancestors inherited their local non-Christian practices from the Celts etc, rather than elaborating them as they went along.

Who knows how recent in origin were particular practices that Frazer's European sources zealously noted. They may in many cases be no more datable than those being observed at the same time by the armchair anthropologist's African and other non-European sources.

The daily lives of many European peasants up to relatively recent times may not have been all that different from their pre-Christian predecessors. If they were going to construct their own rituals, they would certainly have involved the same raw materials.

It no doubt never occurred to Frazer that mere peasants might be capable of themselves coming up with rudimentary non-Christian religious forms, particularly under the nose of the official Church. The same attitude prevails today. It is automatically assumed that peasant practices were the fragmentary remains of a major religious tradition elaborated by a sophisticated pre-Christian professional druid class or whatever rather than the original and unaided efforts of later peasants themselves.

The spontaneous generation of ideas:

In the view of this site, new ideas are and always have been generated by human individuals everywhere. The overwhelming majority of these ideas do not survive: because the community in which they arise finds no value in them. Indeed, an individual proposing them will almost invariably be regarded as wrong-headed, eccentric, deranged or worse. However, in particular circumstances, new ideas will occasionally take root and flourish.

This process alone is sufficient to account for peasant practices. Any assertion of descent by folk memory from sophisticated cultures of the distant past needs to be proved.

Evidence of non-literate religious practices:

The British historian, Ronald Hutton, provides a very valuable insight into problems associated with interpreting the evidence of religious and associated practices in non-literate societies in his book Shamans [2001]. Although he is looking exclusively at the evidence on Siberian shamanism, his points have a general validity.

Note that the main target of Hutton's criticism is Eliade's Shamanism [1951/1964]. Hutton sees Eliade as having applied the Frazer approach of forcing disparate evidence drawn from all over the world into a pattern: long after this method had been discredited by British anthroplogists.

Hutton's book is summarised Hutton.     [Back to Article]

5 Our Own Culture

Douglas's critique of Frazer was ultimately trivial. She criticised how he looked at long ago and far away societies, not that he looked at them. In spite of her comments about looking at our own culture anthropologically, she has never really done so in any serious way. Crucially, she has never examined her own religion, Catholicism. The fact that her latest books have been about some earlier parts of the Bible says it all.     [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2004 - 2006

Links to Other Chapters:
Purity and Dangerch 1ch 2 |  3 |  ch 4ch 5 |  6 |  7 |  8 |  9 |  ch 10

Extended Comments Pages:
Ndembu Doctor (ch 4)Zande Poison Oracle (ch 5)