Friday, 31 August 2012

The Structural Study of Myth – Claude Levi-Strauss – An Overview

Myths are unpredictable and contingent due to the uncertain circumstances surrounding their origin but yet they seem to share some commonalities. The interpretation of myths is still widely contested for some feel myths merely base themselves on common human traits or shared experience while others feel myths are a way of explaining phenomena that the ancients had no explanation for. 

What Strauss feels is that anthropologist and psychoanalysts have missed the point by focusing so much on the sociological and psychological field of study for you can’t simplify the existence of an evil grandmother by merely stating that the society had many such evil grandmothers and that mythology thus, reflects the social structure and social relations.
The contradictory aspects of myths:

·         In a myth anything can happen, you cannot predict the outcome or sequence of events logically
·         There also is a lack of continuity as any given number of characteristics can be attributed to a character
·         Relations between characters can spring up at short notice and so there is nothing impossible in a myth

Despite this arbitrariness in a myth when we study the myths around the world we find there exists some similarity.
The archetype
When we were looking at Structural Linguistics we learnt about how people at first believed that the sound and concept had some link. The name existed due to some suggestions it gave regarding the nature of the thing it named was their premise. However, the same sounds were attributed to completely different meanings in other languages and so this falls flat making the relationship between signifier and signified arbitrary.

In the same way, Jung held a belief that a given mythical pattern or archetype had a certain meaning. This would be making a myth a language when actually it is a kind of language and the arbitrary nature of sign can best explain it.
Myth as a language

When we look at the study of language you can analyse it on the basis of things that share a similarity and yet are different. For example, langue is the structural and timeless aspect of language. This can be linked to the basic outline of a myth (like all creation myths deal with how the world was born). And parole is the statistical aspect that deals with now reversible time and so can be the various instances or shapes of the same myth (creation myths are all different though they explain the same thing).
Thus, myth is a kind of language that can be distinguished from other linguistic signs on the basis of its ability to hold both reversible and non-reversible time. The basic meaning resides in the structure of the myth and not in its expression (speech).

This is why the myth is said to have a third referent as it explains the past, present and future. And the originality of myth over other linguistic phenomena is seen in its triumph over translation, the formula traduttore, tradittore (The translator is traitor) does not apply.
A summation of the characteristics of a myth

Despite our ignorance of the language or the culture from where the myth stems we will yet perceive it to be a myth and so its substance is not in its style or syntax but in the story that it tells. Thus, myth is a language that functions above linguistic grounds as the meaning of a myth does not diminish even with style or syntactical changes.

·         If mythology really has some meaning you cannot find it in an isolated element in the myth. It exists in the combination of all those elements

·         Though one can say myth is a language in truth it is only a part of it as the language of a myth has specific properties like dealing with both reversible and non-reversible time

·         These language based properties of myth are above ordinary linguistic levels as they are more complex

·         Therefore, myth like language, is made up of constituent units

·         These constituent units are much like those present in language like phonemes, morphemes and sememes but they differ to each other just like those in language do.

·         Since these mythemes are more complex than those prevalent in language we can distinguish them as gross constituent units


Myth is different from normal types of speech and so a myth cannot be confused with other types of speech. So, in order to find the mythemes of myths one has to look at them on the sentence level. To do so, one should analyse each myth individually and break down the story into the shortest possible sentences (quite akin to Todorov’s grammatical diagram of plot) and write each down on an index card numbering them in chronological order as per the story.
Each card thus, has a certain function in the story at a given point of time and is linked to a particular subject in the story. Each gross constituent unit has a relation. There are two problems however, the mythemes looked at it this way possess relations just like grammatical units do and furthermore, since we are dealing with the narrative element of the myth we are treading in the area of nonreversible time. Mythological time is both reversible as well as nonreversible and so one must elaborate these relations by stating:

“The true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations, and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce meaning.”
The relations of each bundle can be diachronic placed i.e. much like Todorov’s method we can place them in the : X Violates the law – Y will Punish X – X wants to escape; sequence where we see the axis of simultaneities as in Saussure. This will be the horizontal axis of study. But then once we have such a grouping of relations we see the two-dimensional time referent emerging. If we were to place them in a chronological sequence:

(1)    X violates the law

(2)    Y will punish X

(3)    X wants to escape

We find a vertical successive sequence that is synchronic in nature and so there is an interplay of both the diachronic and synchronic which means a mingling of the langue and parole elements. It is as if a phoneme is made up of all the variants it consists of.
The Oedipus Myth in this context

Overrating Blood Relations

Underrating Blood Relations

Denying Autochthonous Origins

Accepting Autochthonous Origins

Cadmos seeks his sister Europa, ravished by Zeus






Cadmos kills the dragon



The Spartoi kill one another






Labdacos (Laois’ Father) = Lame (?)


Oedipus kills his father, Laios


Laois (Oedipus’ father) = left-sided (limping) (?)



Oedipus kills the Sphinx





Oedipus = swollen foot (?)

Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta





Eteocles kills his brother, Polynices



Antigone buries her brother, Polynices, despite prohibition





·         A narrative of the myth would be possible if we read the myth diachronically, i.e. from left to right from the top to the bottom. But to understand the myth one must read it synchronically treating each being as a unit and going from one column to another from left to right

·         When studying it synchronically we begin to perceive a common feature in each column

·         In the first column we find an overration of blood relationships where they are celebrated over what is normal while in the second we have an inverse. Blood relations are underrated as kin kills kin

·         In the third apparently monsters and slain and in the fourth there is a commonality in the connation based on the names. All the names have a common feature viz. the hypothetical meaning of the names refers to difficulties in walking straight and standing upright

·         Thus, column three denies the autochthonous (originating where found) origin of mankind as we find it deals with the slaying of monsters like the Sphinx and dragon that are chthonian (relating to underworld or dwelling beneath the earth. These monsters are originating from the soil and in primitive times man was said to be born from the soil so the act of slaying is an unconscious denial of this belief and echoes what we see in column 2

·         The fourth column therefore, showcases the belief that when men emerge from the bowels of the earth they have a difficulty in walking. For example, a mummy on emerging from the underworld tends to at first walk clumsily but then improves on practice

What one learns from these connections of bundles of relations viewed synchronically is that:
The inability to connect two kinds of relationships is overcome (or rather replaced) by the assertion that contradictory relationships are identical inasmuch as they are both self-contradictory in a similar way.

Myth interpretation
From this we can conclude that a myth is not merely a simple story. When we begin our study of myth it is not morality or aestheticality or the mere literary interpretation of a text that is our goal. There are certain oppositions that are being resolved by the myth as we can see in this case. The myth shows us the existence of a culture where people believe that man is autochthonous but actual facts prove otherwise – man is born out of a union of man and woman.

So, in column 1 and 2 we see a relation of inversion. On one hand, blood relations are glorified while on the other they are underrated and in this dilemma we can see the echoes of column 3 and 4 which is based on denial acceptance of autochthony. Even though practical experience indicates such belief, it is validated by the society and cosmology and so it is held to be true.
A myth has many versions and each of these is of equal importance and consequence. Like in Homeric versions of the Oedipus myth we have Jocasta hanging herself and Oedipus crippling himself that leads to an aspect o self-destruction.

Fx(a):y(b)::Fx(b):Fa-1(y) (inversion of terms and relationships algorithm)

Fx  overvaluation

Fx overvaluation

Fy  undervaluation

Fy undervaluation

a    column 1

a-1 column 3

b    column 2

b column 4

 overvaluation(column1):undervaluation(column2)::overvaluation(column4):column 3(undervaluation) 
There are two conditions to be noted:

(1)    one term (a) be replaced by its opposite (a and a-1 , above)

(2)    inversion between function value and term value of two elements (y and a)
Indian mythology

In Indian myths the structure differs as there is a mediator present. The mediator stands between the two opposing forces. The mediator is central to a myth as myth is a method that man uses to make sense of the world. Functions of myths are to make sense of the absolute essentials of life and death. The mediator is an intervening element.









Herbivorous animals



Carrion-eating (raven, coyote)






Beasts of prey






“Myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted. Its growth is a continuous process whereas its structure remains discontinuous.”

A mediator is a method to reconcile opposing forces and shows the possibilities that exist. It is not easy to break a myth down to segments as there are cultural factors too residing within its narrative. Myths might be similar in nature but aren’t identical. Its main function is to provide a logical explanation to contradiction. Myths can keep growing but their basic structure stays along the same lines.










Family Status

Double family (father remarries)



Beautiful girl

Ugly boy


No one loves her

Unrequited love


Luxuriously clothed

Stripped of ugliness


Supernatural help

Supernatural help