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Levi-Strauss--The Structural Study of Myth

What constitutes a myth is not the individual versions, but all the versions together. In studying myth, what one does is study as many versions of the myth as can be found, then abstract from those versions a general pattern or sequence.

"Myth, like the rest of language, is made up of constituent units." These constituent units, or mythemes, is a relation, and the meaning of a myth is to be found in "bundles of such relations."

Levi-Strauss uses two terms to characterize mythological time--synchronic and diachronic--which he relates to the Saussurian distinction of langue and parole. The synchronic is "reversible" while the diachronic is "non-reversible."

Mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution.


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        Levi-Strauss is the Structuralist anthropologist in the study of myth. In his structuaralist analysis, what constitutes a myth is not the individual versions, but all the versions together. In studying myth, what one does is study as many versions of the myth as can be found, then abstract from those versions a general pattern or sequence. Levi-Strauss derives at least some of his principles from the linguistics of Saussure: "it is the combination of sounds, not the sounds themselves, which provides the significant data." It is the combination of the versions of a myth, and not the individual versions themselves, which provides significant data.
        Levi-Strauss insists that "myth cannot simply be treated as language if its specific problems are to be solved; myth is language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is a part of human speech." From this, he derives the principle that "Myth, like the rest of language, is made up of constituent units." These constituent units, or mythemes, are relations, and the meaning of a myth is to be found in "bundles of such relations."
        Levi-Strauss uses two terms to characterize mythological time--synchronic and diachronic--which he relates to the Saussurian distinction of langue and parole. The synchronic is "reversible" while the diachronic is "non-reversible." To study language synchronically would be to study it as an entire system at a given point in time; to study language diachronically would be to study it and its development over a period of time.
        Levi-Strauss' method is roughly as follows: He classifies mythemes and then assigns them numbers. He then arranges those mythemes on a chart arranging vertical columns of the same number from left to right on the page.


1 2 3 4
A Cadmos seeks his sister Europa, ravished by Zeus      
B     Cadmos kills the dragon  
C   The Spartoi kill one another    
D       Labdacos (Laois' father) =lame?
D   Oedipus kills his father, Laios   Laois (Oedipus' father)=left-sided?
E     Oedipus kills the Sphynx  
F       Oedipus=swollen-foot?
G Oedipus marries his mother, Jocasta      
H   Eteocles kills his brother Polynices    
I Antigone buries her brother, Polynices, despite prohibition      

"Were we to tell the myth, we would disregard the columns and read the rows from left to right and from top to bottom. But if we want to understand the myth, then we will 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 as a unit." Levi-Strauss interprets the first vertical column as having something to do with "blood relations which are overemphasized, that is, are more intimate than they should be." The second column he interprets in the opposite way--it has as its "common feature the overrating of blood relations." The third column "refers to monsters being slain," while the fourth refers to difficulties in walking straight and standing upright." The realtionship between columns three and four is as follows: the killing of monsters in column three is a "denial of the authochthonous origin of man," while the difficulty in walking straight, which Levi-Strauss identifies as a characteristic of "men born from the Earth," in the fourth column reflects the "persistence of the authocthonous origin of man."
        Levi-Strauss' most famous principle is probably the principle of opposition: "mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution." This opposition tends to move from "two opposite terms with no intermediary," to "two equivalent terms which admit of a third one as a mediator." He speaks of this arising and resolution of opposites in myth as a dialectic, "a series of mediating devices, each of which generates the next one by a process of opposition and correlation."