Claude Levi-Strauss

The Structural Study of Myth

 

Definitions:

* LANGUE: is a language system, a set of options or possibilities.

* PAROLE: is a particular utterance or statement.

* DIACHRONIC: a diachronic relationship is temporal; it's the

relationship a word or phrase or event might have with words or phrases or events that come before or after it.

* SYNCHRONIC:  a synchronic relationship has nothing to do with time or

sequence; it's the relationship that a word or phrase or event might have with all other words, phrases, or events in a language or a narrative.

* CHTHOMIAN: something is "chthonian" if it lives in the ground.

*AUTOCHTHONIAN: it’s "autochthonian" if it springs up out of the

ground or is somehow born from the ground.

 

The Structural Study of Myth in brief:

Levi-Strauss was a French anthropologist that started studying the “the rules by which the a vast number of cultures regulated marriage and kinship ties.” (Richter 813) This study led Levi-Strauss to realize that in order to study a culture in depth he must study their language.  The study of language for Levi-Strauss is to get into the study of the myth.  “Myth gives an idea of deep belief of the community.” (Richter 813)

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.(Klages)

            “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.”(Klages)

 

Levi-Strauss was a French anthropologist that started studying the “the rules by which the a vast number of cultures regulated marriage and kinship ties.” (Richter 813) This study led Levi-Strauss to realize that in order to study a culture in depth he must study their language.  The study of language for Levi-Strauss is to get into the study of the myth.  “Myth gives an idea of deep belief of the community.” (Richter 813)

 

Lei-Strauss started by using studies of language to see “how structure developed in society.” (Richter 813)  The richest source of that structure lied in the study of language and mythology.  He wanted to know what makes mythology all over the world similar.  “given that the myth could contain anything—they aren’t bound to rules of accuracy, or possibility—“ (Klages) 

 

The structure of myth, and not the content, is what makes it so similar worldwide.  The content of myth can be of any possible or impossible event, but the “sameness” of the myth lies in the structure which is almost the same world wide.

 

Before going deeper into the topic few terms should be defined.  Langue: is a language system, a set of options or possibilities.  Parole: is a particular utterance or statement.  Diachronic relationship: it is temporal relationship that a word, or a phrase, might have with words , or phrases, that come before and after it.  Diachronic relations move horizontally.  Synchronic relationship: is the relationship a word, or a phrase, might have with all other words, and phrases, in a language.  Synchronic relations goes vertically. (Guerin 811, 812)

 

Levi-Strauss insists that myth is a language because it has to be told in order to exist.  He adds that langue belongs to what he calls “revisable time,” and parole belongs to what he calls “non-revisable time.”  Langue can exist in the past, present, and future since it is the structure itself.  Parole exists in linear time, that is that you cannot turn the clock back.

 

According to Levi-Strauss: “a myth is both ‘historically specific,’ that is it‘s always set sometime long ago, and ‘ahistorical’ which is that it’s story is timeless.  As history, myth is parole; as timeless, it’s langue.”  Levi-Strauss also says that in addition to langue and parole, myth exists in a third level.  This level proves that myth is a language of it’s own “and not just a subset of language.”  He says that myth “can be translated,


 

reduced, paraphrased, expanded, and manipulated without losing its basic shape or structure.”(Klages)

   

“He thus argues that (myth), [….] is actually something different from language.“  It looks like language in it’s structure.  “It operates on a higher, 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.”(Klages)

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 of relations."(Klages)

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.(Klages)

Coming to the point where the Oedipus myth will be introduced as an example, another set of definitions should be introduced.  That is the definitions of chthonic and autochthonic.  “These terms are crucial to Levi-Strauss's analysis of the Oedipus myth. Something is ‘chthonian’ if it lives in the ground; it's ‘autochthonian’ if it springs up out of the ground or is somehow born from the ground.”(Guerin 814)

 

Levi-Strauss “simply wish to illustrate (the Oedipus myth in) a certain technique.”  He is “trying out several arrangements of the mythemes (in a chart) until we find one which is in harmony with the principles enumerated […].  Let us suppose, […] that the best arrangement is as shown in Table 1 (p840).”  The result is four vertical columns, “each of which includes several relations belonging to the same bundle.  Were we to tell the myth, we would disregard the columns and read the rows from left t right and from top to bottom.  But if we want to understand the myth, then we have to disregard one half of the diachronic dimension (top to bottom) and read from left to right, column after column, each one being considered a unit.”(Richter 840)

 

            “All the relations belonging to the same column exhibit one common feature which it is our task to discover.  For instance, all the events grouped in the first column on the left have something to do with blood relations which are over emphasized […].  Let us say that …(it features) the overrating of blood relations.  The second column expresses […] underrating of blood relations.  The third column refers to monsters being slain.  As to he fourth, […] the remarkable connection of the surnames in Oedipus’ father-line has often been noticed.”(Richter 841)

 

“The significance is no longer to be sought in the eventual meaning of each name, but in the fact that all the names have a common feature: all hypothetical meanings refer to difficulties in walking straight and standing upright.”(Richter840)

         

In his example of […] the Oedipus myth, 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 and autochthonic creation. […]  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.

 

“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.”(Klages)

 

“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 because the details he discusses aren't as relevant to the analysis of literature as they are to anthropology.”(Klages)

“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.”(Klages)”

“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.”(Klages) 

 

 

Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908)

 

LEVI-STRAUSS, Claude), structuralism anthropologist. Levi-Strauss was born in Brussels and studied at the University of Paris. From 1935-9 he was professor at the University of Sao Paulo making several expeditions to central Brazil - from where much of the material for his classic Tristes Tropiques was garnered. Tristes Tropiques is a classical journey of discovery, a quest for the past and for the realization of self... It is a work of anthropology, grandly speculative and imaginative... a work of science, history, and a rational prose poetry, springing out of the multifariousness of the landscape. From 1942-5 he was professor at the New School for Social Research. In 1950 he became Director of Studies at the Ecole Practicum des Hautes Etudes. In 1959 Levi-Strauss assumed the Chair of Social Anthropology at the College de France. His books include The Raw and the Cooked, The Savage Mind, Structural Anthropology and Totemism.

 

 Kinship relations are the basic structure of the society

Strauss argued that kinship relations which are fundamental aspects of any cultural organizations represent a specific kind of structure.

 

Levi-Strauss:

 Rejected history and humanism.

 His refusal to see Western civilization, as privileged and unique.

His emphasis on form over content, and in his insistence, that the savage mind is EQUAL to the CIVILIZED mind.

E.g.. Daniels Defoe's novel "Robinson Crusoe"

Robinson Crusoe   =   Friday

 (Civilized)              =  (Savage)            

 

The Structural study of Myth

Strauss' theories about myth had considerable influence in the development of the theory of narratology which is a further aspect of structuralism. He is also known for his analysis of mythology. He was interested in explaining Why myths from different cultures from around the globe seem so similar? He answers this question not by the content of myths, but by their structure.

 

Strauss insisted that myth is a language because myth has to be told in order to exist. Moreover, a myth is almost always set some time long ago, with a timeless story.

 

   He says that myth is actually on a more complex level than language.

 

Myth as language, consists of both “Langue” & “Parole”.

Levi-Strauss adds a new element to Saussure`s langue and parol, pointing out that langue belongs to what he calls “reversible time” and parol to “non-reversible time”.

Myth shares with language the following characteristics:

It is made of units that are put together according to certain rules.

These unites form relationships with each other, based on opposition which provide the basis of the structure. 

 

Saussure >>>   Myth differs from language because the basic units of myth are NOT Phonemes, Morphemes, seems, or even signifiers and signified but Rather are what Levi-Strauss calls “Mythemes”.

 

Structural analysis can account for any version of a particular myth.

To prove this point, Strauss goes into rather lengthy analysis of Oedipus myth, Zuni myth and analyzes a Pueblo myth with a similar structure.

He concludes that the structural method of myth analysis brings order out if chaos.

He wanted to make the study of myth logical and “scientific”, and not to have to rely on any subjective interpretive factors.

 

J  Presented To You By :

 Maram Jassem   

          &   

 Norah