Claude Levi-Strauss' article "The Structural Study of Myth" is long and complicated,
and contains a lot more information than we need to know for the purposes of
this class. What I want to do today is go over some of Levi-Strauss' most important
ideas, some of which are explained in his article, and others of which are better
covered in the chapter on Levi-Strauss in Structuralism and Poststructuralism
for Beginners (abbreviated here as SPSB).
Let's start with some ideas from Saussure that are basic to any structural
analysis. Saussure examined language as a structure, as langue, and
his ideas about the basic structures of language apply to any kind of system
of making meaning, whether it's an official "language," like English or Spanish
or Arabic, or just a set of signals or codes, like football referee signals.
Such a system is called a signifying system, and can include any structure
or system of organization that creates meaning out of cultural signs. For example,
a work of literature, such as a poem, constitutes a signifying system; so does
any tribal or community ritual (a wedding, a rain dance, a graduation ceremony),
so does any kind of "fashion" (in clothes, food, cars, etc.) and any kind of
advertisement. In fact, just about any part of a culture constitutes a signifying
system, as long as that system contains signs that can be "read" and interpreted,
along the lines Saussure laid out: by determining signification (seeing how
signifiers are connected to signifieds) and by determining value (seeing how
a sign differs from all the other signs in the system).
This idea is at the heart of any kind of structuralist analysis. Saussure
applies it to language; Levi-Strauss applies it as an anthropologist, to kinship
systems, cultural organizations, and to myth; Roland Barthes (who is discussed
in SPSB) applies this system to a wide variety of contemporary Western (mostly
French) cultural "signs," including food, advertising, and clothing.
For Levi Strauss and for Saussure, structuralist analysis offers a chance
to discover the "timeless universal human truths" so beloved of the humanist
perspective, but using a methodology that seems much more "objective" and "scientific."
For Levi-Strauss in particular, such universal human truths--what all humans
share by virtue of being human--exists at the level of structure. All signifying
systems, all systems of cultural organization, share the same fundamental structures,
regardless of their particular content. So the motive for using structuralist
analysis is, in this sense, the same as the motive for using a humanist perspective:
to find out what we all have in common, or what is (as many of you have asked)
"the human condition." Poststructuralists, by contrast, reject the whole idea
of anything being universal or timeless or essentially "human"--but we'll talk
about that more next week.
One of the basic structures that all human societies share, according to Levi-Strauss,
is kinship: every society that has ever existed anywhere has had some system
for deciding who can marry whom, who inherits what from whom, and how all of
these relationships are named. Such a kinship system is a structure that operates
like Saussure's langue, containing units (in this case, men and women,
who are labelled as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, uncles and aunts,
etc.) and rules for connecting those units. Levi-Strauss' analysis of kinship
systems (in his book The Elementary Structures of Kinship) points out
two important things. The first, which we'll come back to in later lectures,
is that kinship systems structure how goods, ideas, and people are "exchanged"
within a culture. He specifically notes that kinship systems explain what he
calls "the exchange of women," wherein family groups "give" women to another
family to be a wife, and receive in exchange something of value (a dowry, for
More important to us right now is Levi-Strauss' insistence that the relations
among units within the structure occur in binary pairs, which
are either similar to each other or different from each other; this corresponds
to Saussure's idea of paradigms, where one thing can be exchanged for something
similar, and syntagms, where one thing is exchanged for something different.
This also corresponds to the idea of metaphor and metonomy: metaphor is establishing
a relationship of similarity between two things (A is like B, or A is B), while
metonomy is substituting one thing for something close to it, related to it,
but not it (saying "crown" instead of "king," e.g.). The main point here is
that relations between units of a system can only be analyzed in pairs: you
know A is A because it's not B, and A is not Q, and A is not %, but you can
only examine what A is in a binary pair: A:B, A:Q, A:%. In other words, what's
important to Levi-Strauss is not the identity of any individual unit--he doesn't
care what "A" is--but the relation between any two units compared
in a binary pair.
Levi-Strauss' analyses, in his writings on kinship, culture, and myth, often
start to look like algebraic equations because his focus is on relations. SPSB
gives the example of clans and totems, which Levi-Strauss says are only understandable
in structural relations to each other within a signifying system. A tribe may
distinguish between an eagle clan and a bear clan, but the practices of each
clan are not related to the animal they're named after, but rather to the structural
relationship between all the possible clan animals. In SPSB, the example is
eagle and bear: what's important is not how eagle people are like real eagles,
but how the difference between real eagles and real bears is reproduced in the
differences between eagle people and bear people. In algebraic terms, Levi-Strauss
says, you look not at why A is A, but how A is to B as C is to D-- units within
the system only have meaning in relation to other units, and can only be analyzed
in binary pairs.
In his book The Raw and the Cooked, Levi-Strauss goes further to
discuss how binary pairs, particularly binary opposites, form the basic structure
of all human cultures, all human ways of thought, and all human signifying systems.
If there is a common "human nature" or "human condition," from this perspective,
it's that everyone everywhere thinks--and structures their worlds--in terms
of binary pairs of opposites, like "raw and cooked." Even more importantly,
in every binary pair, one term is favored and the other disfavored: cooked is
better than raw, good is better than evil, light is better than dark, etc. Remember
this idea for next week when we start talking about Derrida and deconstruction.
And now for today's reading. In "The Structural Study of Myth," Levi-Strauss
is interested in explaining why myths from different cultures from all over
the world seem so similar. Given that myths could contain anything--they aren't
bound by rules of accuracy, or probability--why is there an astounding similarity
among so many myths from so many widely separated cultures?
He answers this question by looking at the structure of myths, rather than
at their content. While the content, the specific characters and events of myths
may differ widely, Levi-Strauss argues that their similarities are based on
their structural sameness. To make this argument about the structure of myth,
Levi-Strauss insists that myth is language, because myth has to be told in order
to exist. It is also a language, with the same structures that Saussure described
belonging to any language.
Myth, as language, consists of both "langue" and "parole," both the synchronic,
ahistorical structure and the specific diachronic details within the structure.
Levi-Strauss adds a new element to Saussure's langue and parole, pointing out
that langue belongs to what he calls "reversible time," and parole to "non-reversible
time." He means that parole, as a specific instance or example or event, can
only exist in linear time, which is unidirectional--you can't turn the clock
back; langue, on the other hand, since it is simply the structure itself, can
exist in the past, present, or future. Think of this sentence again: "The adjectival
noun verbed the direct object adverbially." If you read the sentence, you read
from left to right, one word at a time, and it takes time to read the whole
sentence--that's non-reversible time. If you don't' read the sentence, but rather
think of it as being the structure of English, it exists in a single moment,
every moment--yesterday as well as today as well as tomorrow. That's reversible
A myth, according to Levi-Strauss, is both historically specific--it's almost
always set in some time long ago--and ahistorical, meaning that its story is
timeless. As history, myth is parole; as timeless, it's langue.
Levi-Strauss says that myth also exists on a third level, in addition to langue
and parole, which also proves that myth is a language of its own, and not just
a subset of language. He explains that level in terms of the story that myth
tells. That story is special, because it survives any and all translations.
While poetry is that which can't be translated, or paraphrased, Levi-Strauss
says that myth can be translated, paraphrased, reduced, expanded, and otherwise
manipulated--without losing its basic shape or structure. He doesn't use this
term, but we might call that third aspect "malleability."
He thus argues that, while myth as structure looks like language as structure, it's actually something different from language per se--he says it operates on a higher, or more complex level. Myth shares with language the following characteristics:
1. It's made of units that are put together according to certain rules.
2. These units form relations with each other, based on binary pairs or opposites,
which provide the basis of the structure.
Myth differs from language (as Saussure describes it) because the basic units
of myth are not phonemes (the smallest unit of speech that distinguishes one
utterance from another, like a letter), morphemes (the smallest unit of relatively
stable meaning that can't be subdivided, like a non-compound word), or sememes
(the meaning expressed by a morpheme), or even signifiers and signifieds, but
rather are what Levi-Strauss calls "mythemes." His process of analysis differs
from Saussure's because Saussure was interested in studying the relations between
signs (or signifiers) in the structure of language, whereas Levi-Strauss concentrates
on sets of relations, rather than individual relations--or what he calls "bundles
His example for this is a musical score, consisting of both treble and bass
clefs. You can read the music diachronically, left to right, page by page, and
you can read it synchronically, looking at the notes in the treble clef and
their relation to the bass clef. The connection between the treble and bass
clef notes--the "harmony" produced--is what Levi-Strauss calls a "bundle of
Basically, Levi-Strauss' method is this. Take a myth. Reduce it to its smallest component parts--its "mythemes." (Each mytheme is usually one event or position in the story, the narrative, of the myth). Then lay these mythemes out so that they can be read both diachronically and synchronically. The story, or narrative, of the myth exists on the diachronic (left-to-right) axis, in non-reversible time; the structure of the myth exists on the synchronic (up-and-down) axis, in reversible time.
Here's an example of how mythemes work. Let's take a standard structure of
a myth: there's a hero faces an obstacle, overcomes the obstacle, and has some
(positive) result. Now everybody write down your own details for this myth.
We then list on the board all the variations we've made of this myth: who's
the hero, what's the obstacle, how is it overcome, and what's the result. The
structure of each version is identical, but each variant is unique.
Levi-Strauss would then look at the vertical columns of variants, and try to
find some logic that connects all of the variations. In class, for example,
we came up with obstacles like wanting to make chicken soup but having no chickens,
being hungry, being in love with someone unavailable, and having a class of
ignorant students. In each case, there's something incomplete, some part that's
missing that has to be supplied when/as the hero overcomes the obstacle. The
contradiction between "incomplete" and "complete," according to Levi-Strauss,
is the cultural dilemma each version of our myth is trying to solve.
In his example of laying out the Oedipus myth this way, he begins to see,
in the synchronic bundles of relations, certain patterns developing, which we
might call "themes." One such theme is the idea of having some problem walking
upright. Levi-Strauss then takes that theme and runs with it, seeing it as an
expression of a tension between the idea of chthonic (literally, from the underground
gods, but here meaning an origin from something else) and autochthonic (meaning
indigenous or native; here, meaning self-generated) creation. He then sees that
tension--or structural binary opposition--as present in myths from other cultures.
This, to Levi-Strauss, is the significance of the myth: it presents certain
structural relations, in the form of binary oppositions, that are universal
concerns in all cultures.
This is the subjective part of Levi-Strauss' analysis. We might come up with different interpretations for what he sees in the bundles of relations. For example, we might notice that, in one column are different ideas about walking upright; we might interpret that as an anxiety about physical ability and disability, which is an expression about fitness for survival versus needing charity and kindness, and then read that tension (between selfishness and altruism) as the fundamental structure the myth is articulating.
And here's where you can start to see how this structuralist reading might
actually apply to literary interpretation as we know it. Once you've found the
mythemes, the constituent units, of a myth or story, and laid them out in Levi-Strauss'
pattern, you can interpret them in an almost infinite number of ways. (And that,
of course, raises the idea that what you choose as mythemes, or units, and how
you lay them out might well vary from person to person, depending on how you
read a story. And this raises the idea that structuralism maybe isn't so "objective"
and "scientific" as it hopes to be, since its basic units aren't self-evident.
But Levi-Strauss, like Saussure, doesn't admit that).
After laying out this basic method, Levi-Strauss goes on to talk about perfecting
his system to make it useful to anthropologists. We don't have to worry too
much about this section (pp.815b-818b) because the details he discusses aren't
as relevant to the analysis of literature as they are to anthropology. In these
pages he talks about doing a structural analysis of all possible variations
of a myth. This would be desirable because it would prove that all variants
really do have the same structure, which goes back to Levi-Strauss' initial
point that myth is a language, and that structural analysis can account for
any version of a particular myth. To prove his point, he goes into a rather
lengthy analysis of a Zuni myth; this uses the same methods as his analysis
of the Oedipus myth; he also analyzes a Pueblo myth with a similar structure.
He concludes that the structural method of myth analysis brings order out
of chaos, as it provides a means to account for widespread variations on a basic
myth structure, and it "enables us to perceive some basic logical processes
which are at the root of mythical thought." This is important to Levi-Strauss
because he wants to make the study of myth logical and "scientific" in all its
aspects, and not to have to rely on any subjective interpretive factors.
On pages 819-820 Levi-Strauss does a structural reading of a Native American myth and compares it to the story of Cinderella. You might want to think of other myths, or stories, which would lend themselves to similar structural analyses.
So here, in sum, is what you need to remember from Levi-Strauss:
Do pay attention also to his three final comments on p. 821b. He says that
repetition, in myth as in oral literature, is necessary to reveal the structure
of the myth. Because of this need for repetition, the myth is "slated," meaning
it tells its story in layer after layer (see the diagram on p. 815).
However, the layers, or "slates," aren't identical, even though they repeat
key elements in the structure. Because of this, the myth "grows spiralwise,"
meaning the story it tells unfolds as the myth goes on. In other words, the
myth "grows" as it is told; Levi-Strauss points out that this growth is continuous,
while the structure of the myth, which doesn't grow, is discontinuous. This
is a version of the synchronic-diachronic split mentioned earlier, and of the
langue-parole distinction. Levi-Strauss compares this aspect of myth, that it
both grows and remains static, to molecules (again enhancing the "scientific"
nature of his method).
He also says that myths function in cultures to "provide a logical model capable
of overcoming a contradiction." Such a contradiction might consist of believing
in two precisely opposite things, such as chthonous and autochthonous origins,
or selfishness and altruism. The important thing for Levi-Strauss is that every
culture has these contradictions, because every culture organizes knowledge
into binary opposite pairs of things, and that these contradictions have to
be reconciled logically (and again, he wants everything to be explainable through
logic and "science).
This is echoed in his third point, on p. 822, that the "logic" of myth is
just as rigorous and "logical" as the logic of science. It's not that science
is somehow smarter or more evolved than myth, but rather that the two modes
of understanding and interpreting the world share the same basic structure (that
of logic) applied to different things.
And yes, one might critique this view of Levi-Strauss' by pointing out that his own explanations favor science over "myth," as he insists that his method of myth analysis is scientific, and therefore better than other methods. But that's a deconstructive reading, and we'll get to that with Derrida.
All material on this web site are written by, and remain the property of, Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor of English, University of Colorado at Boulder. You are welcome to quote from this essay, or to link this page to your own site, with proper citation and attribution: http://www.colorado.edu/English/engl2010mk/levistrauss.2001.htm