From Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology. NewYork: Basic Books, 1963, pp. 202- 212.


The Structural Study of Myth

Claude Levi-Strauss


Despite some recent attempts to renew them, it seems that during,the past twenty years anthropology has increasingly turned fromstudies in the field of religion. At the same time, and preciselybecause the interest of professional anthropologists has withdrawnfrom primitive religion, all kinds of amateurs who claim to belong toother disciplines have seized this opportunity to move in, therebyturning into their private playground what we had left as awasteland. The prospects for the scientific study of religion havethus been undermined in two ways. . . .

Of all the chapters of religious anthropology probably none hastarried to the same extent as studies in the field of mythology. Froma theoretical point of view the situation remains very much the sameas it was fifty years ago, namely, chaotic. Myths are still widelyinterpreted in conflicting ways: as collective dreams, as the outcomeof a kind of esthetic play, or as the basis of ritual. Mythologicalfigures are considered as personified abstractions, divinized heroes,or fallen gods. Whatever the hypothesis, the choice amounts toreducing mythology either to idle play or to a crude kind ofphilosophic speculation.

In order to understand what a myth really is, must we choosebetween platitude and sophism? Some claim that human societies merelyexpress, through their mythology, fundamental feelings common to thewhole of mankind, such as love, hate, or revenge or that they try toprovide some kind of explanations for phenomena which they cannototherwise understand--astronomical, meteorological, and the like. Butwhy should these societies do it in such elaborate and devious ways,when all of them are also acquainted with empirical explanations? Onthe other hand, psychoanalysts and many anthropologists have shiftedthe problems away from the natural or cosmological toward thesociological and psychological fields. But then the interpretationbecomes too easy: If a given mythology confers prominence on acertain figure, let us say an evil grandmother, it will be claimedthat in such a society grandmothers are actually evil and thatmythology reflects the social structure and the social relations; butshould the actual data be conflicting, it would be as readily claimedthat the purpose of mythology is to provide an outlet for repressedfeelings. Whatever the situation, a clever dialectic will always finda way to pretend that a meaning has been found.

Mythology confronts the student with a situation which at firstsight appears contradictory. On the one hand it would seem that inthe course of a myth anything is likely to happen. There is no logic,no continuity. Any characteristic can be attributed to any subject;every conceivable relation can be found. With myth, everythingbecomes possible. But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrarinessis belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected inwidely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of amyth is contingent, how are we going to explain the fact that mythsthroughout the world are so similar?

It is precisely this awareness of a basic antinomy pertaining tothe nature of myth that may lead us toward its solution. For thecontradiction which we face is very similar to that which in earliertimes brought considerable worry to the first philosophers concernedwith linguistic problems; linguistics could only begin to evolve as ascience after this contradiction had been overcome. Ancientphilosophers reasoned about language the way we do about mythology.On the one hand, they did notice that in a given language certainsequences of sounds were associated with definite meanings, and theyearnestly aimed at discovering a reason for the linkage between thosesounds and that meaning. Their attempt, however, was thwarted fromthe very beginning by the fact that the same sounds were equallypresent in other languages although the meaning they conveyed wasentirely different. The contradiction was surmounted only by thediscovery that it is the combination of sounds, not the soundsthemselves, which provides the significant data. . . .

To invite the mythologist to compare his precarious situation withthat of the linguist in the prescientific stage is not enough. As amatter of fact we may thus be led only from one difficulty toanother. There is a very good reason why myth cannot simply betreated as language if its specific problems are to be solved; mythis language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is a part ofhuman speech. In order to preserve its specificity we must be able toshow that it is both the same things as language, and also somethingdifferent from it. Here, too, the past experience of linguists mayhelp us. For language itself can be analyzed into things which are atthe same time similar and yet different. This is precisely what isexpressed in Saussure's distinction between langue andparole, one being the structural side of language, the otherthe statistical aspect of it, langue belonging to a reversibletime, parole being nonreversible. If those two levels alreadyexist in language, then a third one can conceivably be isolated.

We have distinguished langue and parole by thedifferent time referents which they use. Keeping this in mind, we maynotice that myth uses a third referent which combines the propertiesof the first two. On the one hand, a myth always refers to eventsalleged have taken place long ago. But what gives the myth anoperational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless;it explains the present and the past as well as the future. This canbe made clear through a comparison between myth and what appears tohave largely replaced it in modern societies, namely, politics. Whenthe historian refers to the French Revolution, it is always as asequence of past happenings, a non-reversible series of events theremote consequences of which may still be felt at present. But to theFrench politician, as well as to his followers, the French Revolutionis both a sequence belonging to the past as--to the historian--and atimeless pattern which can be detected in the contemporary Frenchsocial structure and which provides a clue for its interpretation, alead from which to infer future developments. Michelet, for instance,was a politically minded historian. He describes the FrenchRevolution thus: "That day . . . everything was possible. . . .Future became present . . . that is, no more time, a glimpse ofeternity." It is that double structure, altogether historical andahistorical, which explains how myth, while pertaining to the realmof parole and calling for an explanation as such, as well asto that of langue in which it is expressed, can also be anabsolute entity on a third level which, though it remains linguisticby nature, is nevertheless distinct from the other two. . . .

 

Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of thepeople where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by anyreader anywhere in the world. Its substance does not lie in itsstyle, its original music, or its syntax, but in the storywhich it tells. Myth is language, functioning on an especially highlevel where meaning succeeds practically at "taking off" from thelinguistic ground on which it keeps on rolling. . . .

Now for a concrete example of the method we propose. We shall usethe Oedipus myth, which is well known to everyone. I am well awarethat the Oedipus myth has only reached us under late forms andthrough literary transmutations concerned more with esthetic andmoral preoccupations than with religious or ritual ones whateverthese may have been. But we shall not interpret the Oedipus myth inliteral terms, much less offer an explanation acceptable to thespecialist. We simply wish to illustrate--and without reaching anyconclusions with respect to it --a certain technique, whose use isprobably not legitimate in this particular instance, owing to theproblematic elements indicated above. The "demonstration" shouldtherefore be conceived, not in terms of what the scientist means bythis term, but at best in terms of what is meant by the streetpeddler, whose aim is not to achieve a concrete result, but toexplain, as succinctly as possible, the functioning of the mechanicaltoy which he is trying to sell to the onlookers.

The myth will be treated as an orchestra score would be if it wereunwittingly considered as a unilinear series; our task is toreestablish the correct arrangement. Say, for instance, we wereconfronted with a sequence of the type: 1,2,4,7,8,2,3,4,6,8,1,4,5,7,8,1,2,5,7,3,4,5,6,8 . . . , the assignment being to put allthe l's together, all the 2's, the 3's, etc.; the result is a chart:

1

2

4

7

8

2

3

4

6

8

1

4

5

7

8

1

2

5

7

3

4

5

6

8

We shall attempt to perform the same kind of operation on theOedipus myth trying out several arrangements of the mythemes until wefind one which is in harmony with the principles enumerated above.Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the best arrangementis the following (although it might certainly be improved with thehelp of a specialist in Greek mythology):

 

Cadmos seeks his sister Europa, ravished by Zeus

Cadmos kills the dragon

The Spartoi kill one another

Labdacos (Laios' father) = lame(?)

Oedipus kills his father, Laios

Laios (Oedipus' father) = left-sided (?)

Oedipus kills the Sphinx

Oedipus = swollen-foot (?)

Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta

Eteocles kills his brother, Polynices

Antigone buries her brother, Polynices, despite prohibition

We thus find ourselves confronted with four vertical columns, eachof which includes several relations belonging to the same bundle.Were we to tell the myth, we would disregard the columns andread the rows from left to right and from top to bottom. But if wewant to understand the myth, then we will have to disregardone half of the diachronic dimension (top to bottom) and read fromleft to right, column after column, each one being considered as aunit.

All the relations belonging to the same column exhibit one commonfeature which it is our task to discover. For instance, all theevents grouped in the first column on the left have something to dowith blood relations which are overemphasized, that is, are moreintimate than they should be. Let us say, then, that the first columnhas as its common feature the overrating of blood relations.It is obvious that the second column expressed the same thing, butinverted: underrating of blood relations. The third columnrefers to monsters being slain. As to the fourth, a few words ofclarification are needed. The remarkable connotation of the surnamesin Oedipus' father-line has often been noticed. However, linguistsusually disregard it, since to them the only way to define themeaning of a term is to investigate all the contexts in which itappears, and personal names, precisely because they are used as such,are not accompanied by any context. With the method we propose tofollow the objection disappears, since the myth itself provides itsown context. The significance is no longer to be sought in theeventual meaning of each name, but in the fact that all the nameshave a common feature: All the hypothetical meanings (which may wellremain hypothetical) refer to difficulties in walking straight andstanding upright.

What then is the relationship between the two columns on theright? Column three refers to monsters. The dragon is a chthonianbeing which has to be killed in order that mankind be born from theEarth; the Sphinx is a monster unwilling to permit men to live. Thelast unit reproduces the first one, which has to do with theautochthonous origin of mankind. Since the molesters areovercome by men, we may thus say that the common feature of the thirdcolumn is denial of the autochthonous origin of man.

This immediately helps us to understand the meaning of the fourthcolumn. In mythology it is a universal characteristic of men bornfrom the Earth that at the moment they emerge from the depth theyeither cannot walk or they walk clumsily. This is the case of thechthonian beings in the mythology of the Pueblo: Muyingwu, who leadsthe emergence, and the chthonian Shumaikoli are lame("bleeding-foot," "sore-foot"). The same happens to the Koskimo ofthe Kwakiutl after they have been swallowed by the chthonian monster,Tsiakish: When they returned to the surface of the earth "they limpedforward or tripped sideways." Thus the common feature of the fourthcolumn is the persistence of the autochthonous origin of man.It follows that column four is to column three as column one is tocolumn two. The inability to connect two kinds of relationships isovercome (or rather replaced) by the assertion that contradictoryrelationships are identical inasmuch as they are bothself-contradictory in a similar way. Although this is still aprovisional formulation of the structure of mythical thought, it issufficient at this stage.

Turning back to the Oedipus myth, we may now see what it means.The myth has to do with the inability, for a culture which holds thebelief that mankind is autochthonous (see, for instance, Pausanias,VIII, xxix, 4: plants provide a model for humans), to find asatisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge thathuman beings are actually born from the union of man and woman.Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus mythprovides a kind of logical tool which relates the originalproblem--born from one or born from two?-- to the derivative problem:born from different or born from same? By a correlation of this type,the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of bloodrelations as the attempt to escape autochthony is to theimpossibility to succeed in it. Although experience contradictstheory, social life validates cosmology by its similarity ofstructure. Hence cosmology is true.

 


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